The journey by train to Rye from London is split into two tenses: the present, on the high-speed track from St Pancras; and the past, when you change to the rural line at Ashford. From here, a pleasantly slow train pauses in quaintly named villages such as Ham Street, passing the lambs on the salt marshes, the wind turbines in the fields, eventually arriving in the historic East Sussex town of Rye. By the time I am in a taxi for the three-mile drive to The Gallivant hotel in Camber, I am already entranced by the gentle early evening light, and contemplating whether a daily commute from Sussex would work full-time.
Nearby Hastings has attracted many exiles over the years but Rye itself and Camber Sands beach, a few miles away, remain somehow discreet, clearly not as pinned to the day-trippers’ map as places such as Margate or Whitstable.
From the terrace of The Gallivant, a high sand dune eclipses the view of Camber Sands, the asset that gives the hotel its motto: “eat, sleep, beach”. Harry Cragoe, the owner, says that some puzzled guests even ask where the promised golden beach is – it’s right in front of them, 60m away behind the dune, and it is breathtaking. At low tide, the sand stretches far out (inconveniently for waders), with Dungeness power station just visible in the distance, and the estuary to Rye harbour to the west.
The Gallivant, converted with simple but luxurious good taste from an old motel, is homely and relaxing. Reclaimed wood shelves are painted in a beach-shack white, chairs are draped with soft sheepskins. My room has its own private deck, where you can sip your sundowner in peace.
Cragoe is a keen foodie in his London habitat (he lives in the capital and visits the hotel a couple of times a week) and his latest project is a series of guest chef nights at the hotel. Those taking part include Richard Neat, best known for winning two Michelin stars at London’s Pied à Tierre (September 16); Mitch Tonks, the food writer, chef and fishmonger (October 7); and Henry and Matthew Harris, of Racine and Bibendum (November 13).
On the night of my visit Tom Aikens is in charge – cooking alongside The Gallivant’s chef Ben Fisher, who spent two years working for Aikens at his eponymous London restaurant; each chef devised two courses, accompanied by some interesting wines. The meal unfolds as a model of elegant, bright ideas, succinctly edited: Aikens with white crab meat topped by creamy coconut shavings and peppery nasturtium flowers, and a sensational Rye bay turbot with cauliflower, minted squid and jasmine. Fisher’s courses of salt marsh lamb and buttermilk panna cotta are just as convincing.
In the morning, I get up early with the seagulls and walk along the sands: a rider is already galloping through the shallows. With a shoreline this glorious, no matter how good the bedrooms or exquisite the food, the beach is always going to be the real star.
New Lydd Road, Camber, Rye, East Sussex; 01797 225057; thegallivanthotel.com. Doubles from £115. Guest chef nights cost from £285 per couple. The writer was a guest of the hotel
Trains from London St Pancras to Rye take one hour 12 minutes
Hot holidays Zip-wire adventures
Zip wires – aka death slides – used to be seen only at playgrounds and Scout camps but a new generation have been scaled up and turned into tourist attractions in their own right. Opening on July 4, the Go Ape Zip Trekking Adventure in Cumbria’s Grizedale Forest bills itself as the UK’s longest series of zip wires – the seven sections together add up to 1.5km of sliding. £45 per person; goape.co.uk
In a former quarry close to Blaenau Ffestiniog, Zip World Titan promises the world’s largest “zip zone”. A coach takes participants to the start of the first of three sections of zip wire, which speed them over mineworkings and moorland and back to the car park. Each section features four side-by-side wires, so friends and families can slide in unison. £50; zipworld.co.uk
High above its famous plant-filled biomes, the Eden Project’s 660m zip wire opened in 2012 and offers views of St Austell Bay. It was adapted the following year so that participants could travel headfirst in a “Superman position”, rather than dangling vertically by their arms. This doubles the speed of travel to up to 60mph – it now claims to be England’s fastest zip wire. £15; edenproject.com
Edited by Tom Robbins