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Published June 3rd 2018
A castle, bookshops, walks, a pub on every corner and more
10 Reasons to Visit Lewes
Lewes (pronounced LOO-Iss) is a quaint market town in East Sussex that is only an hour's express train journey from London Bridge Station.
This makes Lewes an ideal day excursion from either London or Brighton, but as there is so much to do in this charming town it helps if you can spend a few days and even then you are unlikely to exhaust all its fine offerings.
Top of the list and top of the hill. Lewes in fact developed from Lewes Castle, which was built on a hilltop by William the Conqueror's brother-in-law in 1069.
It is the first place, you should visit in Lewes to gain your bearings. While a semi-ruin, you can still go inside and climb the steps of the 13th-century towers and experience 360-degree views.
Streets lead down like wheel spokes from this round-shaped Norman castle. Crisscrossing these are a web of laneways lined with ancient flint stone buildings, higgledy-piggledy Georgian homes, Victorian red bricks, and Edwardian shop fronts.
You can visit half-timbered buildings such as the aptly named Fifteenth Century Bookshop and Ann of Cleeves House. This was part of Ann's divorce settlement from Henry VIII in 1541 and is now a museum devoted to Tudor life.
A number of townsfolk have turned the street frontage rooms of their homes into simple cafes with pastries stacked enticingly against windowpanes. Kitchens are also ensconced in these same rooms so customers are encircled by wafts of home baking.
After the Tower-of-London-like terrors of paying for London accommodation the $47 a night for an Airbnb in Lewes was a welcome relief. My stay was in a room in a narrow, three-storey house built into one of the original castle walls. Those wanting something more upmarket could stay at Pelham House a 16th-century townhouse hotel. The wood panelled dining room that serves fine meals resembles an exclusive gentlemen's club. (Dinner, bed and breakfast packages at around $126). The luxurious 19-room Shelleys Hotel has a private garden and family associations with Percy Shelley. (Packages with bed and breakfast and afternoon tea from $215).
Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was employed as an excise officer in Lewes from 1768 to 1774 before emigrating to the American colonies at the invitation of Benjamin Franklin.
He married his landlord's daughter in Lewes and you can still see his original home Bull House and the White Hart Hotel where Paine attended political meetings in an upstairs room.
Perhaps it was even Lewes radical fervour that helped form some of Paine's revolutionary thinking. Lewes has a history of being left of centre and continues to fight off insensitive modern development, preventing a major road from bisecting the town and supporting local traders above major supermarkets and retail chains.
The town even has its own currency to encourage people to shop locally with Paine's profile featuring on these pound notes. Souvenir packs are available at the Tourist Centre.
The Cliffe – the former working-class area of town
Just when I thought I had exhausted Lewes attractions, I walked across a humped bridge over the River Ouse and discovered a whole new world. Known as the Cliffe the inhabitants of this portion of town like to disassociate themselves from the nobs on 'castle hill' and proudly call themselves Cliffinians.
This was the working class area of town as inhabitants worked in the factories along the river. Streets spill over with quirky little cottages, festooned with hanging baskets of flowers and today there are numerous quirky antique shops. Harvey's Brewery still sits on the riverbank, a landmark building with gold-banded towers glistening in the sun.
Harveys is a family business spanning 200 years and eight generations. The brewery has its own shop and nearby it runs a popular pub.
On Tuesdays, Harveys deliver beer by horse and dray in a tradition dating back to 1790. You can follow along on the route that takes you to the White Hart (with its Thomas Paine connections), Rights of Man, Brewers Arms, John Harvey Tavern, Gardener's Arms, The Dorset and Snowdrop Inn.
The Snowdrop Inn is of particular interest as it was built on the site of England's worst natural disaster as on the 27 December 1836 an avalanche of snow wiped out a row of cottages killing eight people. The name of the pub is a reminder of this tragedy.
Virginia Woolf's Monk's House
Anyone who has seen the film 'The Hours' may presume as I did that Virginia Woolf's last home was on the outskirts of London. Not at all, rather Monk's House was in the small village of Rodmell a short country bus ride from Lewes.
The local bus drops you off outside the village pub and you walk down a country lane to Monk's House, a small 17th-century cottage with a massive English country garden. The harmonious interior has the gentlest of subdued colours and is filled with furnishings made at the Omega workshops (an interior design company started by Virginia's sister and other members of the Bloomsbury group).
Two seats are drawn up near the fireplace and this is where Virginia and her husband Leonard sat in a companionable silence reading surrounded by endless stacks of books.
A life of companionship - chairs before the fireside where the Woolfs read side by side.
What Virginia Woolf later described as 'a room of one's own' (a female writing retreat) was a converted garden shed where she would often stand and write looking out over Leonard's rose garden. National Trust volunteers will freely answer your questions and one could easily spend a few hours here taking photos and soaking up the literary atmosphere. There is even a garden studio if you would like to stay.
But Monk's House is also tinged with sadness as well as books and flowers. On March 28, 1941, Virginia wrote Leonard a note telling him of how she had always loved him and why what she was about to do was not his fault. She then walked from the house, filled her coat pockets with heavy stones and drowned herself in the nearby River Ouse.
The American wit Dorothy Parker once quipped that the Bloomsbury Group, 'lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles'. Vanessa Bell (Virginia's sister) lived at Charleston with her husband Clive Bell (although he was not a constant houseguest) and also her young lover the artist Duncan Grant who was bisexual and the father of her daughter. Regular houseguests included an extensive who's who such as Roger Fry, Maynard Keynes, Vita Sackville-West and Lytton Strachey.
Home of the Bloomsbury group
Unlike Monk's House, which is overseen by the National Trust, Charleston is run by a private enterprise. Visitors are greeted by a video requesting donations before they even set foot in the house, tours are carefully timed and indoor photography is strictly forbidden.
Despite all these strictures, Charleston is worth visiting. The house is a treasure trove of artworks by the famous group with many impressionistic scenes of the local countryside. The whole house is decorated, even the walls, doors and fireplace is surrounded by painted flowers and images of voluptuous impressionistic nudes. These artists wanted to break down the demarcation of everyday life from the world of art.
Walk a Country Mile or More
Vanessa Bell and her sister Vanessa loved this area of Sussex because of the country walks across the Southern Downs. They would often walk the seven or so miles between each other's houses. Walks on the Downes are still the chief attraction of the area as they supply views over the pretty patchwork of the countryside and the sea beyond. There are 2,000 miles of rights of way, and countless trails for walkers of all ages and fitness levels. Many take in charming country pubs where you can stop off for a meal or a pint.
The closest main town of Lewes is Brighton which is reached either by a local bus or by train. This coastal city is tacky beachside fun, and yet also one of those iconic places not to be missed. There is a vibrant youth culture and out along the famous Brighton Pier, a Coney Island of dubious delights with lots of families out enjoying all the kitsch and glitz.
There are also tours of the famous Brighton Pavilion a summer royal palace for the corpulent George, Prince of Wales who became Prince Regent in 1811. The rich decorations, towers and turrets are jaw-dropping as is the dining room and the talks of George's ability to consume food. Best described as England's Taj Mahal crossed with a Funhouse.
When to Visit
While Lewes has been always worth visiting the liveliest event of the year is Bonfire Night, which is on the weekend closest to November 5 each year. This is the biggest celebration of its kind in England with 25–30 visiting bonfire societies in attendance, marching bands, a procession of fiery crosses and the burning of effigies. As well as Guy Fawke, and the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, it also remembers seventeen martyrs burnt at the stake at Lewes. There are a number of bonfire sites in the town and some 10 000 visitors. Find a high point and you will see the ancient English township illuminated by flames.