A Pocket Guide to Lewes, East Sussex

Fri, 26 June 2020
lewes-sussex

A sweet spot for a day trip or leisurely weekend break from London or Brighton, Lewes punches well above its weight when it comes to artistic and historic clout – and the bounty of local Sussex produce makes great fuel for exploring.

“You can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalky hills,” wrote William Morris of this pretty town that straddles the River Ouse as it carves its way through the South Downs to the sea.

Too often overlooked in favour of Brighton, its nearest and rowdiest neighbour, Lewes is a place that punches above its weight in the historic and artistic stakes. Royalist troops were famously defeated here in the Battle of Lewes in 1264. Anne of Cleves received a half-timbered house in her 1540 annulment from Henry VIII and, two centuries later, local lad Thomas Paine penned the Rights of Man, fuelling the Age of Enlightenment and inspiring the American Revolution. Fast forward to the 20th century and the Bloomsbury Group – Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and co. – made this their rural stomping ground.

Today, Lewes is a well-to-do place, but one that’s far more intriguing than it is trendy or snobby. Don’t expect much in the way of small-plate restaurants, millennial-pink cafés, graffiti murals and boutique hotels decked out with jewel-toned velvets; this is a town that wears its idiosyncratic character on its sleeve. Walk along Cliffe High Street on a sunny Saturday and you’ll pass Morris dancers, market stalls peddling Sussex produce and perhaps a few people chucking peas in a ditch – don’t call the food-waste police; it’ll be the local World Pea-Throwing Championship.

Aside from the town’s bacchanalian Bonfire Night celebrations, when the local population quadruples in size, there’s much to see and do along the narrow passageways that splinter off from medieval streets. Dip in and out of friendly watering holes and artisan cafés as you explore indie shops and historic points of interest. When you’re done, the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs National Park are within reach – just a mile outside Lewes the Iron Age hillfort of Mount Caburn is an easy hike and offers spectacular views, but venture a little farther and you’ll stumble upon the Cuckmere Valley and Seven Sisters.

Just over an hour’s train ride from London Victoria and less than 15 minutes from nearby Brighton, Lewes is a sweet spot for a day trip or weekend break, and an essential pit-stop on a winding excursion along the South Coast. Get planning…

To Stay

Trevor House

You can tell this Georgian B&B used to be a family home; the welcome here is really lovely – on arrival, guests receive a key to the front door. Each of the three airy, art-filled rooms enjoys an enormous bathroom, though we recommend booking the top-floor attic for its fireplace and the roll-top bath that gazes out across Lewes to the South Downs. Trevor House typically gets booked up by the Glyndebourne set during opera season. If you can’t snag a room here, try Dubois Bed and Breakfast instead. 

 

Airbnb

It’s unsurprising that a town as small and unspoiled as Lewes isn’t crawling with hotels – that’s part of its charm. Instead, try one of its many bed-and-breakfast options, homestays or rental properties. Within strolling distance of town and countryside, you’ll find this sunny south-facing studio while this whitewashed, double-height loft looks over Lewes to the Downs from the top of an 18th-century townhouse. The moss-roofed Apple Tree Cabin is a medley of raw, reclaimed woods, vintage ephemera and copper pipes, but for something more rustic still, opt for this solar-powered Shepherd Hut two miles out of town.

 

The Grain Store Lewes

A 10-minute drive outside Lewes (and within easy reach of Brighton and Glyndebourne) this eco-friendly, design-forward converted granary hugged by undulating hills sleeps eight, making it ideal for larger groups of friends or family in search of a self-catered crash pad. Beyond the cedar-clad exterior, an open-plan living room and kitchen – all sleek lines, natural textures and bucolic views – form the social hub of the property. Gather here over breakfast and discuss the day’s plans. Arriving by car? There are five parking spaces and two charging points for electric vehicles. Guests can also call ahead to book in-house facials, massages, wine tasting, private catering and bike hire.

 

Walk Wood Wagon

One of the great things about Lewes is that the countryside is within easy reach of the high street’s merry hubbub. A 20-minute drive north from Lewes, on the border between Ashdown Forest and the South Downs National Park, Sheffield Park Estate has a couple of brilliantly twee self-catering properties up for rental. We love the small 18th-century lodge – all eccentric florals and period furniture – but can’t resist stewing among the trees in this gypsy wagon’s Swedish hot tub.

Dower House

If you’re a creative type who’s been drawn to Lewes by its Bloomsbury Group pedigree, then checking in at the Dower House is a no-brainer. The former home of Quentin Bell (Virginia Woolf’s nephew) and his scholar wife Anne Olivier, this bohemian cottage is now run by textile designer and illustrator Cressida Bell – and it shows. Framed by soaring beeches and fruit trees, the interior of the house overflows with decorative art. To stay here is to immerse yourself in history.

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