Lewes – lively and liveable

Lewes looks like a town that I could live in (yes, I’ve always said that I could only live in a university town, but Brighton is close enough – the University of Sussex is close to Falmer station, on the Lewes side of town). The town may look quintessentially Tory with its cute cottages housing secondhand bookshops and tearooms, but in fact it’s been a hotbed of anarchy, rebellion and general bolshiness for many centuries, and still is. The Battle of Lewes in 1264 led to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, effectively taking power from King Henry III for a year, during which he called England’s first two parliaments, and thus perhaps led to Magna Carta too. Tom Paine lived here for six years from 1768, developing his political ideas in talks to the Headstrong Club; in 1774 he left for America and went on to write The Rights of Man, which influenced the French revolution, Common Sense, which influenced the American, and The Age of Reason, which influenced the revolution against religion.

Lewes castle gates

Nowadays the town is perhaps best known for its riotous bonfire celebrations on November 5, when its Bonfire Societies compete to stage the best bonfire. In principle, the six main societies process separately through town and then repair to their own part of town for a bonfire and firework display; in practice it’s not that simple, as there’s a certain level of drunken anarchy about the whole thing (though people rarely seem to get hurt). The crowds are massive and the authorities try their level best to cordon the town off and keep the event for locals. In fact they never succeed, but you should definitely forget about coming by car – train is the best option, although you’ll have to stand. The main pubs admit people by ticket only and food options are limited. You’ll also need to buy a ticket in advance for the bonfire sites, but bring cash for a programme and other charitable donations.

Bonfire Night, for those of you not of the British persuasion, celebrates the failure of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament in 1605, but here it also commemorates the seventeen martyrs burnt at the stake in Lewes in the 1550s; the processions also stop at war memorials to remember those who died fighting tyranny – very much a Lewes thing. There is also satire and protest about contemporary events and politicians, of course.

There was also a minor insurrection in 2006-7 when Greene King, the expansionist regional brewer from East Anglia, took over some local pubs including the Lewes Arms, a very popular pub in the town centre, and actually prevented the landlord from selling Sussex Best Bitter, from the Harveys brewery just half a mile away, and rightly revered as a fine local ale. The Lewes Arms is the perfect community pub, with no TV, jukebox or gambling machines, a place where people go to meet friends old and new, and they supported their local brewery – Sussex Bitter outsold Greene King’s offerings by at least 4 to 1, which may be why GK wanted to oust it. In any event there were widespread protests, and the locals not only boycotted their pub but also assiduously picketed it for four months until GK backed down, with a large amount of egg on their face. The fact that there are so many Morris Minor cars here might also be seen as some kind of revolt against modernity.

And so it was that I found myself in a Harveys pub called The Rights of Man in the centre of Lewes, which serves good old Sussex Best Bitter, but also modern (craft beer/American-style) IPAs such as Olympia, Wharf IPA (‘citrus and British hops’) and the dry-hopped Armada Ale, as well as Wild Hop blonde and Castle Brown. It turns out that Harveys are aiming to expand the brand beyond the traditional 60-mile range, producing a seasonal ale every month and putting more beers into bottles and cans. There’s a modern visual branding for the pumpclips and labels, and they’ve adopted the Sussex county motto We Wunt Be Druv! (We Won’t Be Driven!), which has always seemed to fit Lewes far better than the rest of the county (which in theory no longer exists anyway, having been split into East and West Sussex). In 2016 they also finally added an apostrophe to their name, becoming Harvey’s and pleasing pedants everywhere, as the founder in 1796 was in fact John Harvey.

Incidentally, the Depot Cinema is a new three-screen community cinema and café-restaurant on the Harvey’s Depot site next to the railway station – it looks pretty good.

Property is certainly not cheap here – of my various Lewes-area friends, one commutes to work at the Houses of Parliament, so can afford local house prices, one is a travel writer so of course cannot (and lives in the relatively down-at-heel ferry port of Newhaven), and one is a folk-singer and jobbing museumologist and has long left the area. In fact it’s as much a suburb of Brighton as of London, with lots of retired folk but not a lot of work locally.

[ I was back in Lewes recently (mid-2019), and explored the east end of town for the first time, including the Cliffe area across the river – on the north side of the bridge is the Harvey’s brewery (built in 1838 and rebuilt in 1881), behind the Harvey’s shop, where you can buy their beers and wines as well. On the south side of the bridge is the original branch of Bill’s, a chain of popular affordable café-restaurants – it turned out that it really was founded by a greengrocer called Bill, who was persuaded by his wife to open a café after a flood wiped out the shop. From little acorns…

I was also interested to find out about the Lewes Speakers Festival, which seems like a very Lewes version of TED.There’s also Viva Lewes! magazine which just happened to have an interview with one of the better editors to have been let loose on my work. ]