Live Lewes, Love Lewes
by Peter d’Aguilar
Full of fabulous independent retailers, arts and culture, history, characterful architecture and idyllic countryside, the town of Lewes in East Sussex is a delight to explore. Peter d’Aguilar pays it a visit
Visiting Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, feels a little like stepping back in time. Set in the heart of the South Downs and dissected by the River Ouse, Lewes has a long and colourful history reflected in the old-world charm and character of its architecture and meandering twittens – the local word for lanes or alleyways. Dominated by a picturesque eleventh century castle and the distinctive aroma of hops from the local brewery, the town’s Dickensian atmosphere merges synergistically with its modern-day chic and artistic flair.
Lewes is thought to be the original site of the Roman settlement Mutuantonis, and there is earlier evidence of Iron Age inhabitation in the vicinity. After occupation by the Saxons and Normans, King Stephen granted the town a charter in 1148. In 1264, Simon De Montfort defeated King Henry III at the Battle of Lewes. Thomas Paine, one of America’s Founding Fathers, lived and worked in Lewes during the late eighteenth century and founded his revolutionary Headstrong Club. The railway first chugged into town in 1848.
As well as the castle, local landmarks include the remains of Lewes Priory, Bull House (Thomas Paine’s former home), Southover Grange and Anne of Cleves House – a 16th century timber-framed Wealden hall house which, like the castle, is owned and maintained by the Lewes-based Sussex Archaeological Society. The Round House, a secluded former windmill in Pipe Passage, was once owned by Virginia Woolf. The Pells Pool, built in 1860, is the oldest freshwater lido in England.
The centre of Lewes is renowned for its high calibre regional vernacular architecture and diverse construction techniques and materials. The town has a Crown Court, a prison and a range of historic churches and places of worship. Tourism is an important contributor to Lewes’ local economy. In September 2008, Lewes launched its own currency, the Lewes Pound, to encourage trade within the town. The well-known local brewery has been producing beer since 1794 and today is recognised as one of the finest ale producers in England. Three Sites of Special Scientific Interest lie within the parish – Lewes Downs, Lewes Brooks and Southerham Works Pit. The Railway Land nature reserve on the east side of the town next to the Ouse contains an area of woodland and marshes. This now includes the Heart of Reeds, a sculpted reed bed designed by a local land artist.
The town’s best-known annual event is the Lewes Bonfire celebration on Guy Fawkes Night. As well as the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, it also commemorates the seventeen Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake in Lewes by Catholic Queen Mary I between 1555-57. This spectacular event, which controversially includes burning an effigy of Pope Paul V who was pontiff during the martyrdoms, is the largest and most famous bonfire night in the country.
Lewes has an unusually diverse range of specialist independent retailers – in particular its second-hand bookshops and antique dealers; bucking the national trend towards shopping precincts, chain stores and large corporate outlets. Lewes Farmers’ Market, originally one of the first in Britain, was resurrected in the 1990’s and takes place in pedestrianised Cliffe High Street on the first and third Saturdays of each month; with local food producers selling their wares under covered market stalls. There is also a weekly food market in the Market Tower, often featuring traders from Blois – Lewes’ twin town in France. Lewes is also twinned with Waldshut- Tiengen in Germany.
Lewes has a rich cultural life. An internationally-famous opera house is just four miles to the north east. Lewes Operatic Society and New Sussex Opera are based in the town, along with several classical music festivals, societies, choirs and orchestras. Many of the town’s pubs and clubs host regular live music and comedy and there is a yearly jazz festival nearby. As well as a new independent three-screen cinema, the town has two film clubs; plus dance schools, art galleries, museums, art and photographic events, a literary society and the resurrected Headstrong Club.
In 1900 local art collector Edward Perry Warren commissioned celebrated French sculptor Auguste Rodin to create a copy of his legendary statue The Kiss, which resided in Lewes from 1904 until 1953, when it moved to its current home in the Tate Modern.
Perhaps inspired by the revolutionary fervour of Thomas Paine, the people of Lewes like to do things a little differently. Apart from burning effigies of popes and prime ministers, they are keen to embrace environmental issues, alternative therapies, artistic endeavour and radical political ideas – all of which contributes to the town’s unique and vibrant atmosphere.
Lewes is also a hotbed of sport; with well-established and successful cricket, football, rugby, hockey, golf, athletics, cycling, tennis, bowls and swimming clubs. Lewes Football Club, founded in 1885, is a pioneer of equal pay for male and female players. The Moyleman is a new off-road marathon run across the surrounding hills that starts and finishes in Lewes. The Vanguard Way and the South Downs Way both pass close to the town. The popular Lewes Hike and Bike Festival began in 2012. The town also has a strong tradition for idiosyncratic local pub games – including Toad in the Hole, Dwyle Flunking and the World Pea Throwing Championships.