Local’s View: a tremendous tour of Lewes, East Sussex
Fawkes, forks and walks all play a part in our whistlestop tour of this pretty town in the South Downs and its surrounding area. As does opera, a war over a brewery and some unusual local traditions. Lewes is nothing if not eccentric…
- George Upton
The traditional motto of Sussex is “We wunt be druv,” or “We will not be driven.” Nowhere embodies that stubbornly independent spirit more than Lewes, a settlement celebrated for its sheer eccentricity. The town even has its own currency, the Lewes Pound, ingeniously devised to encourage local spending.
And while the days are warming up, we couldn’t mention this somewhat unconventional place without bringing up Bonfire Night. Every year, on 5 November, the streets of this small East Sussex town become a riot of light, colour and people. The Lewes bonfire is by far the largest Guy Fawkes celebration in the country. More than four times the town’s population cram into its warren of Medieval streets, all agog at the procession of blazing crosses, effigies of politicians and celebrities, and barrels of tar that are paraded through the streets. Organised by local bonfire societies that date back to the middle of the 19th century, it’s just one part of the area’s rich history, seen reflected in its varied vernacular architecture – not least the castle that has overlooked its street since the 11th century – as well its long and healthy tradition as a loci for artists, writers and thinkers.
Fancy life as a local? Your first stop should be this handy guide to the town and its environs (starting with how to pronounce Lewes: it’s Loo-iss, of course, never Loos).
Colour Makes People Happy
Consisting of only three ingredients – pigment, binder and solvent – paint is surprisingly straightforward to make. The difference between manufacturers is all in the quality of the materials, the collection of colours and how you go about selling them – three areas in which the appropriately named Colour Makes People Happy excels. With all the paints made by hand by founder Simon March, the shop is fiercely independent. Since moving to Lewes from London in 2018, Simon has sourced many of his raw ingredients locally. Aside from the carefully curated spectrum on offer, it’s worth visiting the shop on Station Street for the names alone: ‘I thought I told you to wait in the car’, ‘Withering scorn’ and ‘Is this the train to Guilford yes Roger’. Perfection.
Fifteenth Century Bookshop
Fifteenth Century Bookshop is housed – no prizes – in a 15th-century building on Lewes’ high street. But since this Tudor building is so beautifully beamed and well-preserved, it seems sensible for the proprietors of this treasure trove of tomes to have celebrated it so brazenly. Tucked into the nooks and crannies of the idiosyncratic structure is an extensive collection of second-hand and collectable titles – there’s booty to be found for bibliophiles of any means.
Closet and Botts
It is all too easy to while away hours browsing the shelves of Closet and Botts. Inspired by the flea markets of Europe, friends Chloe MacArthur and Harriet Maxwell founded their homeware shop in 2014 and continue to stock an ever-changing range of vintage and newly handmade items. Their new store, across the road from their first space on High Street, has seen their children’s and gentleman’s section expand, while continuing to sell a marvellous mix of the colourful and the characterful.
Dining and drinking
The Lewes Arms
The Lewes Arms represents so much of what makes this town great. Like much of Lewes, the pub – at 200 years old – has a long history. Also like the town, it’s quirky and completely charming. Not only does it host the World Pea-Throwing Championships, but also something called dwyle flunking, an apparently ancient pub sport that involves throwing a beer-soaked rag at a group of people dancing in a circle. Naturally.
Perhaps its most famous moment, however, came in 2004 when the pub stopped serving Harvey’s, the brewery based only a few hundred metres away (on whom more later), as it was owned by a rival. Protests, petitions and boycotts ensued and – with the campaign receiving coverage in the national press – the owners were forced to capitulate, with it once again being served to the defiant townfolk. The lesson? Don’t deny a Lewesian their Harvey’s.
Caccia & Tails
Caccia & Tails was established in 2018, but its history in Lewes stretches back much further. The Italian restaurant and deli was founded by Elisa Furci. Furci’s father was an Italian jazz musician, her mother a New Yorker and the founder of Spaghetti Junction, a restaurant that from 1981 served Lewes residents the finest fresh pasta they’d ever eaten. Mother and daughter joined forces on the second iteration of Spaghetti Junction, in nearby Brighton, before Elisa, having gained some more experience in London restaurants, returned to her hometown to offer a menu of street pasta dishes and New York/Italian classics. Today, they can be eaten on-site or prepared at home. Either way, it’s an essential stop on any visit to Lewes – even just to pick up some phenomenal focaccia Genovese.
Flint Owl Bakery
And, speaking of bread… Flint Owl Bakery is obsessive about it. Its organic and long-fermented loaves are made using only specialist flours, water and sea salt. Free from additives or improvers, the extensive range of baked goods (its pastries are perfect too), include a special sourdough made using a 45-year-old ‘mother’ starter from the French Alps. Everything is produced in small batches, fresh every morning – just begging to be enjoyed with one of the bakery’s specialty coffees.
Glyndebourne House, just outside Lewes, has been the site of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera since 1934, when the aria-loving John Christie, who had inherited the estate from his grandfather, established a theatre to host what had until then been informal musical evenings. The space was expanded over the subsequent decades until, in 1994, a new elegant oval brick version was built. Now run by a third generation of Christies, Glyndebourne is known not only for its world-leading performances (particularly of Mozart), but also for its green initiatives (its own wind turbine was installed in 2012). The schedule is sensitive to travellers; come for a day and enjoy a picnic in the long interval.
Settled in the shadows of the South Downs just a few miles from Lewes, this charming 17th-century farm building is, on the surface, unassuming. One doesn’t necessarily expect it to be one of the most important centres of British modernism and yet, as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s home and the de facto country retreat of the Bloomsbury Set, it’s exactly that. The loose group of writers, artists and intellectuals that included Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes turned the house into a hive of creative activity, a place where ideas – and often lovers – were shared freely. As well as preserving the interiors as they would have been when the group and their visitors (who included TS Elliot and EM Forster) were there, there’s a contemporary exhibition centre designed Jamie Fobert Architects, with a rotating program of shows. And, if Charleston doesn’t scratch your Bloomsbury itch, Monk’s House, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, is just down the road.
Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft
Another modernist must-see in the vicinity – attesting to the creative seam that runs through the countryside around Lewes – is Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. Despite being a small village, Ditchling became a centre of British craft when sculptor and lettercutter Eric Gill arrived in the village with his apprentice Joseph Cribb in 1907; other craftsmen soon followed, including printer Hilary Pepler and designer and calligrapher Edward Johnson, who came up with the London Underground font and its distinctive roundel. In 1921, the foursome founded the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic, an ideological community of artisans inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. Reopened after extensive refurbishment in 2013, today the museum charts the history of what was once a remarkably creative enclave.
Standing on a man-made mound in the centre of Lewes, the town’s castle was built shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066 and was gradually expanded throughout the Medieval period. Open to the public, today it’s a great place to take in views of Lewes and its surrounding countryside, or to stop for a picnic on a tour of the town. And, if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the area, the castle’s barbican houses the collection of the Sussex Archaeological Society, which includes artefacts dating back to the Stone Age. Rock on.
Known as ‘the Cathedral of Lewes’, Harvey’s Brewery has stood on the same site on the River Ouse since it was founded in 1790. A local landmark (and the subject of fierce local pride, as you’ve already learned), part of its original Georgian building was rebuilt in rustic Neo-Gothic style and has become so recognisable that it features on the Harvey’s logo – a ubiquitous symbol in Lewes’s 17 pubs.
Anne of Cleves House
This 16th-century house was, as you might guess, given to the shunned queen as part of her annulment settlement from Henry VIII in 1541. She may not have actually lived here but, having been restored by the celebrated architect and architectural historian Walter Godfrey in the first half of the 20th century, it now paints a picture of Tudor England – as well as being a perfect example of the timber-framed Wealden hall-house vernacular seen in the south-east.
Fifteenth Century Bookshop is situated at the intersection of High Street and Keere Street, a picturesque cobbled thoroughfare that epitomises the charm and idiosyncrasies of Lewes. Also known as Scare Hill (on account of its sheer incline), most of the well-maintained Grade II-listed buildings are from the 18th and 19th centuries, but the street’s history goes back much further. Among the more quotidian stories surrounding the almshouses, butchers, bakers and bucket- (rather than candlestick-) makers that once set up shop here, there’s the (only slightly improbable) legend that the future King George IV hurtled his carriage down the road, a feat commemorated with a plaque at the bottom of the hill.
Photography credits: Paul Whitbread (except Closet and Botts; Glyndeborne; Ditchling)