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A Castle, cobbles and Queen's House: Why Lewes is An Historic treat

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Home to a medieval castle, a Tudor house that Henry VIII gave as part of their divorce settlement to Anne of Cleves, and a steep cobbled street known locally as Scare Hill, Lewes is so much more than the Bonfire capital of the world.

The historic town, which was named one of the best places to live in the country by The Sunday Times in 2021, is synonymous with Guy Fawkes’ annual celebrations, hosting an extravagant procession with elaborate costumes, fireworks and a spectacular bonfire every year that has been hailed the largest carnival of its kind in the country.

But once the embers of Lewes Bonfire have died down, there are plenty more attractions in this charming enclave with its picture-perfect mix of tile-hung cottages, Medieval, Georgian and Victorian houses, and views of the surrounding South Downs.

Even the pretty town’s answer to Rye’s famous Mermaid Street has distant views of the rolling Downs and comes complete with Grade II-listed properties, cobbles and a royal legend.

Scare Hill

Keere Street is narrow, steep, and drops sharply downhill from the High Street towards Southover. It is pedestrianised nowadays, but King George IV is said to have driven his coach and four horses down it when he was Prince Regent for a wager. It may explain why it is one of the most photographed and expensive streets in Lewes.

Not to be outdone by royal legends and landmarks – Anne of Cleves’ timber-framed house is now a museum where you can learn more about how Tudors and Elizabethans lived and visitors can climb to the top of the motte and bailey Norman castle – Lewes boasts artsy roots, too.

The work of the Bloomsbury Group – which included Duncan Grant, Virigina Wolf, Vanessa Bell, E M Forster, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey – is now on display at the new Charleston Lewes in Southover Road.

Featuring works created at nearby Charleston – the country home and studio of artists Bell and Grant – two exhibitions are on display until January 2024 with the support of the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A.

Glyndebourne Opera House, which stages world-class performances throughout the year and ups the cultural ante with its iconic summer season, is nearby, as is the contemporary Chalk Gallery, run by a co-op of artists in North Street.

If it’s something a little bit more offbeat that you’re after heading to the Lewes Arms pub in the summer for the World Pea Throwing Championship. Competitors have to throw their frozen pea the furthest down neighbouring Castle Ditch Lane – the current record is over 40m. An annual local music festival, Lewes Live, takes place every summer, too.

With a whiff of history, culture and charm – along with hops from Harvey’s Brewery in the air - Lewes is a town that seamlessly blends old and new to make it a gorgeous chocolate-box of a place to visit time and time again.

Famous Faces

Back in 1772, Lewes’ excise officer Thomas Paine published The Case of The Officers of Excise, asking Parliament for better salaries and working conditions. The author, who later wrote The Rights of Man, Common Sense and The Age of Reason, lived at Bull House from 1768 to 1774 and discussed his ideas with friends and colleagues at the Headstrong Club before leaving for America at the invitation of founding father Benjamin Franklin to inspire the American War of Independence and the French revolution. He was a key influencer in the writing of the American constitution and is considered a father of British Radicalism.

Another controversial figure who left Sussex for America is broadcaster and journalist Piers Morgan, 58, who grew up in nearby Newick. The TV host, who has grilled celebrities, presidents, and prime ministers, has returned to live in his home village and celebrated his 55th birthday at his favourite pub there, the Royal Oak.

Shopping

Packed with antique stores, boutiques and tea shops, Lewes has quaint and quirky in abundance. There are the usual High Street big-hitters but when it comes to fashion, there are plenty of independent stores in which to find the perfect outfit, including Freight and Nord. For Christmas gifts and inspiration Closet and Botts has a range of gorgeous homeware and vintage fashion, where Flint and Wickle will help you pick out the right present and toys for all ages. Music lovers can spend hours browsing Union Music Store – which locals say is run by people who love music – and there are plenty of fine wines and artisanal gins at Symposium.

There is a Flea Market open every day, where you’re guaranteed to find a bargain, and book lovers will find one of the most stylish Waterstones in the town, along with plenty or independent shops, including Bow Windows Bookshop which deals in rare editions and antique books.

Food and Drink 

From traditional tearooms serving a hot cuppa with a granny-style slice of cake to historic pubs, wine bars and bistros one thing is for sure – you won’t go hungry in Lewes.

There is plenty to drink, too. From surrounding vineyards and Harvey’s Brewery as an iconic landmark, as well as the supplier to the rest of the county and beyond, it is no surprise that Sussex is now firmly on the world wine map, and is famous for its local beer.

There are also farms and farm shops producing and selling top quality artisan fayre, along with pop-up street food stands and events.

Head to artisan bakery Flint Owl for the fluffiest of cinnamon buns and sourdough bread, while Ground Lewes has a selection of great coffee and the sweet-toothed will get their cravings satisfied at Patisserie Lewes.

Fork, voted the best restaurant in Lewes this year, serves modern, British cuisine, while Christmas lunch – from now until December 23 – has High Weald Feta Pastilla and Braised Glyndebourne Pheasant on its affordable but delicious-sounding 2 or 3-course menu (at £27 and £32 respectively).

If it’s a pint in front of a roaring fire you’re after The Swann Inn is famous for its roast and the 200-year-old The Lewes Arms has a fantastic atmosphere as well as a selection of fine food and drink. You can’t go wrong With The Snowdrop, Pelham Arms, Gardeners Arms or the John Harvey either, while it is a fill of culture you need, head to Depot, a community cinema, where you can also eat.

Must Do – Visit Anne of Cleves’ House

Immerse yourself in history at Anne of Cleves’ 15th century timber-framed property which was given to her at the end of her short-lived marriage to Henry VIII – though she never lived there.

Discover the well-preserved interiors including a Tudor parlour, kitchen and bedroom complete with four-poster bed. Bring history lessons to life browsing through a fascinating collection of historic Sussex artefacts before exploring the traditional Tudor-inspired garden which marriages the medieval planting schemes and shrubs, herbs and fruit trees of the period. Entry £6.60 https://sussexpast.co.uk/attraction/anne-of-cleves-house/

Must See – Lewes Castle

Looming large over the town, which lies on the Greenwich Meridian, on both banks of the river Ouse, is Lewes Castle, a Norman Castle built after the Battle of Hastings after William the Conqueror gave the town as a reward to the 1st Earl of Surrey. Climb the steps to the top of The Keep of the 950-year-old fortress to be rewarded yourself with stunning panoramic views across the town and surrounding Downs.

After clambering back down again, visit the adjoining Museum of Sussex Archaeology to see artefacts from prehistoric to medieval Sussex, along with exhibitions and local treasures. Entry £10, https://sussexpast.co.uk/attraction/lewes-castle/



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