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11 Mar 2011


Rye's Mermaid Inn is haunted, at least by history 


The guests in Room 10 seemed perfectly normal.

"They were Mr. and Mrs. Boring," says Judith Blincow, owner of The Mermaid Inn in Rye, England. "They hadn't been drinking or smoking anything funny."

But when Blincow came on duty in the morning, the couple was fast asleep on the couch in the lobby.

"They woke up in the middle of the night and saw a figure walk through the wall," says Blincow. "They were too scared to go back upstairs. We had to bring all their clothes down and they got changed in the loo."

Such tales are commonplace at The Mermaid Inn, which ticks all the boxes in the "haunted hotel" department.

The moment I laid eyes upon its circa-1420 half-timbered facade, I was at once terrified and spellbound -- like an Egyptologist who has no choice but to descend into a horribly cursed tomb.

The Mermaid Inn is on Rye's most picturesque road. Carpeted with chunky cobblestones and lined with heritage homes that perspire ivy, Mermaid Street is a living postcard, its name a testament to the days when the port town was surrounded on three sides by the sea (the sea has since receded, and fortified Rye now resembles a dry-docked island).

The seduction doesn't stop at the threshold: The inn's interior oozes the kind of cosiness that only wood-burning fireplaces, gilded picture frames and leather furniture can evoke. All the furnishings are genuine relics from bygone eras, and some come complete with mysterious auras. A 16th-century chair featuring a goat's head and cloven feet is said to have come from a witches' coven, and should your derriere make contact with it, bad luck shall follow (to balance things out, a good luck dragon seat is also on site).

The Mermaid Inn is also home to the second largest fireplace in England, located in the bar. And up the chimney is a priest hole, a hiding place (in this case an alcove about a third of the way up) that hearkens back to the days of Catholic persecution, when priests still performed covert masses but needed places to hide should they be ratted out.

Before I met Blincow, I assumed that the owner of such an elegant hotel would be reserved -- stuck up, even. But she has a girlish glow, her manner infected with an attitude of amusement. This impression is solidified when she responds affirmatively when I toss out: "Have you ever tried out the priest hole?"

"I came out all black," she laughs.

The priest hole is easy to navigate compared to rest of the building, a warren of black-and-white Tudor hallways punctuated with portraits of regal personages. Everywhere you turn, a new set of stairs seems to materialize, a spooky corridor beckons. The floors creak unanimously.

An aspiring time-traveller could easily be convinced that one of these black doors is the gateway to the past they have been seeking. Mind you, a jaunt into the 18th century may not be so wise: during that period, The Mermaid Inn was a smugglers' hotspot. In fact, the notorious Hawkhurst gang made it their headquarters, and, according to Blincow, were so smug about their power that they made little effort to conceal their criminal activities.


"They would be in the bar with guns and such openly on the tables," she says.

Not all guests have been so unsavoury. Elizabeth I poked her head in during a royal visit to Rye in 1573. Other celebrity visitors have included Henry James, Charlie Chaplin, the Queen Mum and Johnny Depp.

The humblest rooms, which go for a reasonable 75 pounds, or about $150 Cdn, per night, are a Tudorphile's dream. But the jewels in the crown are Dr. Syn's Bedchamber, where a secret staircase lurks behind a bookcase, and the über-haunted Elizabethan Chamber.

I insist upon the latter. If one is going to tempt the paranormal into a performance, one must go directly to their favourite theatre.

The Chamber is drop-dead gorgeous, with a Caen stone fireplace, stained-glass windows and an 18th-century carved four-poster bed ("it must have been built in the room, it's too big to have been brought in," says Blincow).

One former guest said she awoke to find a duel raging around her. "The combatants were dressed in doublets and hose, fighting with rapiers," reads a leaflet supplied by the Inn. "The victor disposed of the body of his opponent by throwing it down the oubliette, or secret dungeon, situated in the corner of the room."

It sounds like the spirits were at least minding their own business, so I am not overly alarmed. When I extinguish the light, however, and settle into the shadowy room, my pulse quickens more than I care to admit. The panes rattle and I hear the muffled hubbub of the bar below.

And then it happens ... I fall asleep. And what a sleep it is! The bed and its luxurious linens make for slumber heaven. In the morning, I reluctantly extract myself from its antique embrace and migrate to the dining room for a proper "full English" breakfast, complete with black pudding and fried toast. I depart satisfied, but with a heaviness in my heart.

I realize that something is, indeed haunting me: my desire to return.

Reb Stevenson is a Toronto-based writer and photographer who is currently travelling in England. 

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