Nestled beneath the rolling, chalky grasslands of the South Downs National Park lies Lewes, East Sussex’s enchanting county town. Home to some 14,000 inhabitants, despite its modest size this prosperous medieval market town is a local business hub.
London is just an hour away by train, making Lewes a popular choice for commuters. This, together with its excellent amenities and schools, has bumped up property prices in recent years.
The town is steeped in folklore, legend and myth - historic battles were fought here and pagan festivals were commonplace. As you wander through the town’s ancient alleys and streets the sense of rich tradition is palpable.
The Lewes of today has been carved from a history that dates back to the 6th century when it started life as a Saxon village. By the early 10th century Lewes was a ‘burh’ which was a fortified settlement. In the event of a Viking attack all the men in the area would gather in Lewes to fight. Saxon Lewes was more than a fortress. It was also a bustling small town with weekly markets and two mints, meaning it was a place of some importance. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, Lewes probably had less than 2,000 inhabitants. Though small by today’s standards, in medieval England this represented a fair sized town.
When the Normans arrived they built a castle to guard the town, first made of wood but later rebuilt as the stone citadel that remains the town’s dominant feature today. The Normans also founded the priory of St Pancras in which was later dissolved by King Henry VIII. In 1264 the Battle of Lewes was fought between King Henry III and some rebellious barons led by Simon de Montfort. The barons won a decisive victory and the king was captured.
Like all towns in the middle and early modern ages, Lewes suffered from outbreaks of plague which struck in 1538. Some 20 years later, during the reign of Mary, 17 Protestants from Sussex were martyred in Lewes and to this day they are remembered annually in the town’s bonfire celebrations, fondly referred to as ‘The Glorious 5th’.
Voted the second best free festival in the world by a popular men’s lifestyle magazine of the early noughties (behind Rio’s carnival), Lewes Bonfire Night is unlike any other Guy Fawkes celebration. On the night, thousands of members of the town’s six bonfire societies parade through the streets carrying flaming torches and wearing traditional costumes ranging from Zulu warriors to Viking warlords. The costumes are worn as a tribute, their struggles recognised by the Lewesian people, who seek to act in solidarity. Criticism from external bodies has been significant in enforcing changes in the necessity for certain ceremonial dress. Many bonfire boys and girls uphold a tradition dating back 200 years by dressing up as smugglers. This can be traced to the early 19th century, when bonfire boys wore smuggler costumes and blacked out their faces in an attempt to disguise their identities from the local authorities who took a dim view of the riotous proceedings and often made arrests.
Following the 'United Grand Procession' which is over a mile in length, each society heads to its fire site on the outskirts of Lewes for a magnificent bonfire and firework display. They then parade back into town for bonfire prayers outside the war memorial. The spectacle is not for the feint hearted and certainly not for young children. The town’s anarchic spirit comes alive for one night a year.
Lewes has long been associated with a history of radicalism and arguably its most famous radical was Tom Paine who lived in the town’s high street from 1768 to 1774. An English-born American political activist, philosopher and revolutionary, Paine inspired the patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. To commemorate this most famous son of Lewes, the local brewery, Harvey’s of Sussex, introduced a novelty ale in his name and it is still a popular choice among locals in the town’s many pubs today.
The name Lewes originally derives from the Old English word ‘Hlaew’, which means hill or mound. This can also be translated as a ‘sacred mound’. Mounds and hills can be found to the east and west of the town and there are reports that there were at one point seven within the town. Only three remain in Lewes today and while these may go unnoticed by the unsuspecting eye, they remain significant as places of great pagan, social and ritualistic importance. Lewes was long reputed to be a hotbed of witchcraft and it is said that witches' covens existed in the town until the 1960s. Perhaps Lewes’ most famous witch was Janet Steer who had a shop on Malling Hill in the 1880s selling traditional herbal medicine. She was reputed to have magical healing powers and local Victorians came to her in search of cures for various ailments.
Books have been written on the history of Lewes and they include detailed passages on its folklore, legend and myth. And while reading these will certainly inform the reader, they won’t give a full appreciation of Lewes’ unique character. This only comes on a visit to the town. Only then do you begin to understand what makes it so unique. To locals, Lewes is more than just a place to live – it’s a way of life where history and tradition meet art and culture.