Town rebuilt as visitors throng

The reassembled model of historic Rye, repaired and repainted earlier this year

Last Saturday, August 10, was going to be a quiet day in Rye’s Heritage Centre on the windswept Strand Quay until a party of Russian schoolchildren dropped in (unexpectedly) and surrounded the town – the model of historic Rye shown above.

But they were not the only visitors, as a female Belgian journalist had a stream of questions about Rye for Heritage Centre manager Louisa O’Shaughnessy, and another member of staff said they were often hoarse by the end of a working day because of the number of visitor inquiries they dealt with.

And, while the weather was forbidding, the wind blew in another visitor – Ukrainian-born Hollywood actress and supermodel Milla Jovovich with her young family, who also visited the wind-free town model and the penny arcade.

Before this year’s visitor season started, the Heritage Centre staff undertook a deep clean and major overhaul of the Sound and Light Show’s town model of historic Rye, and Louisa reports below on how they did it.

“The model is 41 years old this year, and despite regular cleaning sessions and repairs over the years, was beginning to look tired. Paintwork was faded and discoloured. Areas that had once been green had degraded to an almost luminous yellow. This damage was extensive, but particularly noticeable on the areas where the brightest of the overhead lights had shone onto the model.

Dismantling, repairing, repainting and rebuilding a massive model is not a simple task as Heritage Centre staff discovered.

A scaffold platform was hired from Rye Hire, which allowed access to the centre of the model and the whole model was carefully cleared of accumulated dust using dry paintbrushes. Beautiful details previously lost started to remerge – pathways in the churchyard, flowerbeds with bright coloured beads to represent blooms, washing lines with multi-coloured laundry and even a statue in Lamb House garden.

Cleaning and refreshing the model with a paintbrush.

After cleaning, the whole model – landscape, gardens, roads and water features – was repainted with at least two to three coats of artist grade, UV resistant acrylic paint, carefully colour matched to old photographs of the model to ensure the original colour scheme of Joy Harland was recreated.

Gloss gel was applied to all water areas to create a more striking water effect, and fresh UV paint applied to the landscapes and selected building roofs to maintain the stunning effects of Rye on a snowy winter’s night, and the old coastline that are featured in the show.

In addition to the thorough painting and cleaning, the following construction issues were fixed:

The dismantling begins.

The base of the model is comprised of 28 separate wooden plates, which were then covered with expandable foam, polystyrene and heavy-duty canvas to create an accurate topography of the town and surrounding countryside. These base plates were then fixed together using putty and the joins either painted over, or strategically covered with foliage.

Many of these base plates had warped and lifted at both the outer perimeter and the joins, resulting in flaked paint, cracked putty and visible joins.

Putty is used to cover over the joins between sections.

Damaged and degraded putty was removed and replaced with artist grade acrylic based moulding putty, warped areas were glued and weighted back down, and all joins were carefully painted over, or else covered with fresh foliage.

The original foliage was handmade from a mix of wire, horsehair, and lichen mosses of the type used in model railway construction. Over the years, much of the lichen, being a natural product, had faded and crumbled away, and the horsehair bases were beginning to disintegrate.

St Mary’s Norman church at the top of the hill dominates the model as much as it does the town.

All foliage was removed from the model (first taking care to ‘zone’ each area so that the town could be appropriately re forested) washed gently in warm soapy water, dried, reshaped, sprayed with artist grade fixative and sprinkled with fresh lichen.

Pre war Lamb House and garden room.

Fresh flowering bushes were added to St Mary’s churchyard, Lamb House gardens and the rear of the Mermaid Inn to replace those that had degraded over the years, but as much of the original foliage as retained as possible.

Originally, the model had featured many, many fences around the roads, alongside the steps in the cliffs, and around fields on the outskirts of the town. The majority of these had lost their original ‘rope’ links, and the fence posts were missing entirely, leaving a series of small holes behind.

Several hundred scale wooden fence posts were painstakingly handmade and painted, fitted into the empty holes and had over 15 metres of hand dyed natural string glued along the top to recreate the perimeters of the fields and roads.

The town model last year before repairs and repainting took place.

The houses had lost windows, had loose steps or wonky/damaged chimneys and faded paintwork on the roofs. Replacement windows were constructed and fitted, roofs repainted and chimneys fixed. This season, we concentrated on repairs to prominent buildings featured in the show, and the visible buildings on the perimeter of the model. There is more work to do on the remaining houses, which we hope to undertake next winter.

St Mary’s church and houses removed from the model await repair and redecoration

We are incredibly proud of what we have achieved in such a short space of time. All four permanent members of the Heritage Centre staff worked tirelessly for a fortnight to give the model a new lease of life, and we hope that Joy Harland would be proud at what we have achieved.”

Image Credits: Rye Town Council .


  1. I was extremely happy to see that my late Aunts model has been refurbished with such loving care. She spent 4 years researching and building the model and I can remember when if first opened at the Boys club in Mermaid Street in the 70s. Sadly she passed away 19 years ago now but she and my uncle who designed the electrical side of the model left us all with a great legacy for the town. She would of been very pleased to see that you are oreserving it for future generations. Joy was also a member of the Rye Art Society and a good painter and potter. Her memory also lives on at the crab & lobster art gallery in mermaid street Rye.

  2. An excellent job, carried out by dedicated staff. Very well done. This model is a valuable asset to the town’s important tourist industry – long may it remain


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