Photo of The George in Rye

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 1st April 2007.

It's 30 years since I've been to Rye, but it's lodged in my consciousness, not as a Cinque Port or an 18th-century smuggling town, but as Tilling, the fictional gossip-ridden town of EF Benson's glorious creations, Mapp and Lucia.

Arriving on a blustery afternoon, I stroll up to the landmark church through silent Georgian cobbled streets, subconsciously looking for signs of Benson's inimitable ladies (deceit and one-upmanship, phoney Italian conversation and binoculars at every window).

Instead, I end up chatting to the town crier and the town sergeant, both resplendent in full costume, on the steps of the handsome town hall.

Rounding another corner or two I find myself outside the famous half-timbered Mermaid Inn.

It was here that I stayed all those years ago, on a romantic tryst during which high hopes and youthful passion wilted amid tinkling teacups in the lounge and hushed whispers in the dining room. Hotels were like that then; the Mermaid, I note, slipping inside, still is.

Not so the George. Like the Mermaid, it's another Rye institution, with a glorious first-floor ballroom, now elegantly redecorated.

Two years ago it was bought by Katie Clarke and her husband Alex (whose sisters are Sam Clarke of Moro restaurant and Rose Prince, the Daily Telegraph's Savvy Shopper).

They lived with the swirly carpets and partition walls for a year "to get the feel of the place" then attacked, closing for eight months and reopening with stunning results.

Katie, a set designer, is responsible for the 24 delicious bedrooms, designing much of the furniture herself.

Each room is different, demonstrating her confident eye for colour as well as comfort.

There's Frette linen on Vi-Spring beds, roll-top baths, velvet sofas, orchids and antiques: a curious washstand here, an ornate bed head there. Katie shows the rooms with infectious enthusiasm, and rightly so.

First impressions are immediately engaging. At one end of the entrance hall, panelled walls and a huge hearth create a cosy sitting area, while the other side shows the hotel's contemporary face, with psychedelic portraits of the Fab Four adding warm splashes of colour.

By contrast, we find the sprawling bar at the back somehow less inviting and gravitate to the panelled sitting room with our pre-dinner drinks.

The dining room, though elegant, doesn't have quite the allure of the bedrooms or lobby, feeling a touch static with its plain wooden tables and chairs all in a row. But we much enjoy ex-Moro chef Rod Grossman's dinner: pan-fried foie gras with caramelised apple followed by a succulent duck breast for my companion, squid salad and chargrilled Romney marsh lamb for myself.

The Clarkes are keen to promote local produce and the wine is a revelation. We are encouraged to try a 2003 Pinot Noir from Sandhurst Vineyard in Kent and are glad we took the plunge.

I wish the Clarkes' version of the George had been there when I needed it in my youth. But it's here now, an example of the huge strides that British hotels have made in the past few decades.

98 High Street, Rye (01797 222114; Doubles £125 to £195 per night, including breakfast.