Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, has long been a place we both wanted to visit. Even though it is relatively close to where we raised our family in Kent it was one of those places we all have that we intend to get to but never do. We got a brief overview a few weeks earlier when we finished a long walk along the South Downs (South Downs to Lewes and JExit) so decided a whole day exploring was needed.
Armed with our fabulous town guide map, we arrived at the equally fabulous station.
To give you a very brief overview, the name Laewes, meaning hills, was first documented circa 961 AD and appears as it is now, Lewes, in the Domesday Book of 1086. William the Conqueror arrived just down the road in Hastings in 1066 beating Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. William rewarded William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey with a huge chunk of land from the coast towards what is now Surrey. He is the one we have to thank for the rebuilding of the Saxon Castle and founding the Priory of St Pancras in 1081. Because of it’s location near the coast on the River Ouse it became a thriving port.
In 1264 it was the site of the Battle of Lewes between Henry III and Simon de Montfort. Simon de Montfort was a baron and along with other barons felt the King had run the country poorly and wanted to force him into a system of government in which he was accountable to the barons. Henry initially had the upperhand in the battle but Henry’s men were left exposed and fled back to Lewes Castle and the Priory. It was here that Henry was forced to sign the Mise of Lewes. The contents of this document are not known but it was basically an agreement to negotiate. After a year, support for Montfort’s government had ebbed away and Henry’s eldest son, Edward (later to be Edward I) defeated and killed Montfort in 1265.
Lewes was also the place where 17 protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake in 1557. During the reign of Henry VIII and Mary I, many radical protestants were executed. There is a memorial to these martyrs and it is to these martyrs and to celebrate the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 that there is a huge annual Guy Fawkes Night event in Lewes on 5th November. To give you some idea of the scale, there are over 30 processions where a total of around 26,000 torches are carried. There are around 30,000 spectators but this jumps up to 60,000 if it is a weekend. In a town of roughly 17,000 inhabitants that’s a whole lot of people.
Highlights of our Lewes Walk
With so much history and so much to see, I will have to try and keep this as brief as possible or bore you silly so here is a snapshot of what we saw.
Cliffe Bridge, Cliffe High Street and Harveys’ Brewery – it feels like all a part of Lewes but when you walk east of the River Ouse over Cliffe Bridge you are in fact in Cliffe. This High Street was full of cafes and antique shops. Right on the river’s edge is Harvey’s Brewery which was founded in 1790. Restricted opening meant we were unable to explore both the brewery and their large shop but we did manage to buy some IPA in the local deli as a gift.
Riverside Walk and the Pells Lido – we took a walk along the river and then crossed back over Willey’s Bridge to the The Pells Lido. It is the oldest documented freshwater swimming pool (1860) in the United Kingdom and on the warm day we had we could hear the splashing of families having fun.
Lewes Castle – sitting perched up high from the High Street, it is in very good condition and you can buy a combined ticket for this and the Barbican House Museum which has a scale model of Lewes in the 1870s.Keere Street and The Grange – Keere Street also known as the street of locksmiths or Scare Hill is allegedly where future King George IV once drove a coach and four horses recklessly down the hill. At the bottom of this very steep street is The Grange. The Grange was built in 1572 for the Newton family (later of Sir Isaac Newton fame!). It is also the local registry office and we had a wander round the beautiful gardens. Unlike the doubtful legend of Keere St, King George IV did actually stay here.
Anne of Cleves House and Museum – unfortunately this was closed and although this tudor house and garden’s claim to fame is Anne of Cleves, she never actually lived here. It was a gift to her from Henry VIII.
Lewes Priory – I think this was the area that surprised us the most. We had not realised what a huge area these ruins covered. Mostly demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, there are still huge areas still standing which give you the scale of this monster of a building. There is a walkway through the Priory with lots of information boards (perfect!!)
The Lanes and Twittens – we zigzagged our way up and down these steep parallel lanes between the High Street and Southover Road, within the original town walls, admiring the cottages and flint walls. Stepping back in time doesn’t quite cover it.
Needlemakers and Candle Factory – this Victorian industrial building has been converted to house small units containing shops, offices and a cafe. The needlemakers and candlemakers have long gone and unfortunately the cafe is not yet open to the public but there was a fantastic antique and collectables shop on the lower floor where we spent far too many but thoroughly enjoyable minutes.
This post doesn’t seem to do the town any justice at all and, despite the spectacle that Bonfire Night must be, just being able to wander round and enjoy this historic charming town is probably our preference. If it is within reach definitely go, or combine it with a visit to the more popular seaside resorts maybe. I am sure this will not be our last visit – shame it took us so long to find this gem.
04/09 – 05/09/2020