Review by Fiona Duncan, published 6th August 2011.
So often my job brings unexpected treats, and none more so than here in Rye. What a pleasure it is to set off for dinner, trotting uphill on fat cobbles past the famous Mermaid Inn and half-timbered houses smothered in roses and full of velvet armchairs, antique clocks, flickering televisions and slumbering cats. The route continues past Lamb House, once home to Henry James and E F Benson, and St Mary's Church, with its tranquil churchyard and square lookout tower (which everyone should climb). Next comes the stately Town Hall and quaint Fletcher's tea shop. And then – what? A tiny, authentic, family run trattoria, truly a little slice of Tuscany in the middle of historic, literary, English Rye.
But back to my starting point, which represents much that's best about private hotel-keeping in this country. Like its owner, who trained as an operatic soprano, quirky, traditional, theatrical Jeake's House may no longer be in its first flush of youth, but is very much in its mature prime.
Opened in 1985, it appeared in the first edition of my Charming Small Hotel Guide to Britain and, 26 years later, it is still included, still run with absolute commitment by Jenny Hadfield and her partner Richard Martin.
To begin with, there were two bedrooms; now there are 11; Jenny first bought one dilapidated house, then two more, knocking them together and spending much of the early years up a ladder.
It has the sort of history I love. It was built by an astrologically fixated wool merchant, Samuel Jeake, and its plaque declares that the foundation was laid at midday on June 13, 1689, and shows the aspects of the heavens at the time.
In the Twenties, American novelist Conrad Aiken lived here and entertained a parade of notables, including T S Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, Paul Nash and, of course, E F Benson, chronicler of Rye in the guise of Tilling in his delightful Mapp and Lucia stories.
Each guest is greeted personally and shown to their room along a warren of steep stairs and corridors. "No one carries their own bags; it's the law." Bedsteads are either brass or mahogany, bedspreads quilted or lace, furniture antique. Downstairs, the galleried former chapel makes the grandest of breakfast rooms.
A fire greets guests on cold mornings and one of the close-knit team will serve you a fine breakfast (no dinners) from a menu that includes devilled kidneys, Rye Rarebit and boiled eggs and Marmite soldiers ("try explaining that to the Japanese").
There is also an honesty bar and a quiet parlour. Twenty-five years ago I wrote in my guide: "In all, a lovely place, and Jenny is bright, bonny and amusing." Nothing has changed, least of all her.
Except that now you can dine at the Tuscan Kitchen, recently opened by another Jenny and her Italian husband Franco, who speaks little English and cooks exactly as he did back home in San Gimignano, with exactly the same ingredients, including olive oil from his own groves. You will be transported there as soon as you tuck into his authentic antipasto toscana and his equally authentic tagliata or bistecca alla fiorentina, plus typical Tuscan puddings and wines. Jeake's House, the Tuscan Kitchen and Rye: a winning combination.