Lewes

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Lewes (/ˈluːɨs/) is the county town of East Sussex, England and historically of all of Sussex. It is a civil parish and is the centre of the Lewes local government district. The settlement has a history as a bridging point and as a market town, and today as a communications hub and tourist-oriented town. At the 2001 census it had a population of 15,988.

The name Lewes comes from the plural form of Anglo-Saxon “Hlaew”, which means “hill”. This refers to the hills of the South Downs or ancient burial mounds within the area.

Archaeological evidence points to prehistoric dwellers in the area. Scholars think that the Roman settlement of Mutuantonis was here, as quantities of artefacts have been discovered in the area. The Saxons built a castle, having first constructed its motte as a defensive point over the river; they gave the town its name.

After the Norman invasion, William the Conqueror gave Lewes to William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey. He built Lewes Castle on the Saxon site; and he and his wife, Gundred also founded the Priory of St Pancras, a Cluniac priory, in about 1081. Lewes was the site of a mint during the Late Anglo-Saxon period and thereafter a mint during the early years after the Norman invasion. In 1148 the town was granted a charter by King Stephen. The town became a port with docks along the Ouse River.

The town was the site of the Battle of Lewes between the forces of Henry III and Simon de Montfort in the Second Barons’ War in 1264, at the end of which de Montfort’s forces were victorious. The battle took place in fields now just west of Landport.

At the time of the Marian Persecutions of 1555–1557, Lewes was the site of the execution of seventeen Protestant martyrs, who were burned at the stake in front of the Star Inn. This structure is now the Town Hall. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Lewes developed as the county town of East Sussex, expanding beyond the line of the town wall. It was an active port and developed related iron, brewing and ship building industries.

In 1846 the town became a railway junction, with lines constructed from the north, south and east to two railway stations. The development of Newhaven ended Lewes’s period as a major port. Lewes became a borough in 1881.

Lewes became one of the non-county boroughs within the then Sussex, East county under the Local Government Act 1933. In 1974 it became a civil parish with the title of town; there are three wards, Bridge, Castle and Priory, each being served by six councillors. Lewes is also the seat of the East Sussex County Council, whose offices are located at County Hall in St Anne’s Crescent. Lewes District Council, the second tier of local government, is administered from offices in the High Street. The head office of Sussex Police is in Lewes.

Since 2010 the South Downs National Park has been designated, and includes the town of Lewes within its boundaries.

You can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills … on the whole it is set down better than any town I have seen in England.
—William Morris (1834-1896)

Lewes is situated on the Greenwich Meridian, in a gap in the South Downs, cut through by the River Ouse, and near its confluence with the Winterbourne Stream. It is approximately seven miles north of Newhaven, and an equal distance north-east of Brighton. The Greenwich Meridian runs through the western part of Lewes, where a pub (now demolished) was named after it.

The South Downs rise above the river on both banks. The High Street, and earliest settlement, occupies the west bank, climbing steeply up from the bridge taking its ancient route along the ridge; the summit on that side, 2.5 miles (4 km) distant is known as Mount Harry. On the east bank there is a large chalk cliff Cliffe Hill that can be seen for many miles, part of the group of hills including Mount Caburn, Malling Down (where there are a few houses in a wooded area on the hillside, in a development known as Cuilfail) and Golf Hill (home to the Lewes Golf Club). The two banks of the river are joined by Willey’s Bridge (a footbridge), the Phoenix Causeway (a recent concrete road bridge, named after the old Phoenix Ironworks) and Cliffe Bridge (an eighteenth-century replacement of the mediaeval crossing, widened in the 1930s and now pedestrianised).

The High Street runs from Eastgate to West-Out, forming the spine of the ancient town. Cliffe Hill gives its name to the one-time village of Cliffe, now part of the town. The southern part of the town, Southover, came into being as a village adjacent to the Priory, south of the Winterbourne Stream. At the north of the town’s original wall boundary is the St. John’s or Pells area, home to several nineteenth-century streets and the Pells Pond. The Pells Pool, built in 1860, is the oldest freshwater lido in England. The Phoenix Industrial Estate lies along the west bank of the river. This area is home to the old fire station and subject of a potential regeneration project.

Malling lies to the east of the river and had eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses and two notable breweries. Road engineering and local planning policy in the 1970s cleared many older buildings here to allow the flow of traffic; it now goes along Little East Street, across the Phoenix Bridge and through the Cuilfail Tunnel to join the A27.

The town boundaries were enlarged twice (from the original town walls), in 1881 and 1934. They now include the more modern housing estates of Wallands, South Malling (the west part of which is a previously separate village with a church dedicated to St. Michael), Neville, Lansdown, and Cranedown on the Kingston Road.

Countryside walks can be taken starting from several points in Lewes. One can walk over Mount Caburn to the village of Glynde starting in Cliffe, traverse the Lewes Brooks (an RSPB reserve) from Southover, walk to Kingston near Lewes also from Southover, or wander up along the Ouse to Hamsey Place from the Pells. The South Downs Way rises just below Lewes and hikers often stop off at the town.

Three Sites of Special Scientific Interest lie within the parish: Lewes Downs, Lewes Brooks and Southerham Works Pit. Lewes Downs is a site of biological interest, an isolated area of the South Downs. Lewes Brooks, also of biological importance, is part of the floodplain of the River Ouse, providing a habitat for many invertebrates such as water beetles and snails. Southerham Works Pit is of geological interest, a disused chalk pit displaying a wide variety of fossilised fish remains. The Railway Land nature reserve is on the east side of the town next to the Ouse, and contains an area of woodland and marshes known as the Heart of Reeds. The Winterbourne stream, a tributary of the Ouse, flows through it. This stream flows most winters and dries up in the summer, hence its name. It continues through Lewes going through the Grange Gardens and often travelling underground. The Heart of Reeds is one of the sites in East Sussex and Kent home to the marsh frog, an introduced species. It is popular with pond-dippers and walkers. A centre for the study of environmental change is due to be built at the entrance to the nature reserve.

On 27 December 1836, an avalanche occurred in Lewes, the worst ever recorded in Britain. A large build-up of snow on the nearby cliff slipped down onto a row of cottages called Boulters Row (now part of South Street). About fifteen people were buried, and eight of these died. A pub in South Street is named The Snowdrop in memory of the event.

On 21 August 1864, Lewes suffered an earthquake shock measuring 3.1 on the Richter scale.

In October 2000 the town suffered major flooding during an intense period of severe weather throughout the United Kingdom. The commercial centre of the town and many residential areas were devastated. In a government report into the nationwide flooding, Lewes was officially noted the most severely affected location. As a result of the devastation, the Lewes Flood Action group formed, to press for better flood protection measures.

  • St. Michael’s is located at the top of the High Street and like St. Peter’s in nearby Southease it has a round tower (with a shingled spire). Its length runs along the street rather than away from it and the cemetery is separated from the High Street by stone walls with iron railings on top. Next to it is a building which is used upstairs as a Sunday School.
  • Further west is St. Anne’s, a quiet church surrounded by its graveyard, which gives its name to the street it is on.
  • St John sub Castro (Latin for St. John-under-the-Castle) is the northernmost church in the old town. The surrounding town quarter is called St. John’s. The church’s boundaries are actually protected on one side by the Town Walls, although originally St. John’s was a small Saxon building. It was destroyed in the 19th century but the main door was kept and used as an east door for the large new church, built in 1839 by George Cheeseman in flint and brick. In the graveyard there is a memorial to the Finnish prisoners kept in the old naval prison in the 19th century. St. John’s Church Hall is a couple of streets away in Talbot Terrace.
  • In Cliffe there is St. Thomas à Becket’s, where the Orthodox Community also worship.
  • In Southover, St John the Baptist’s is located on Southover High Street next to the local War Memorial. The nave incorporates the hospitium of the Priory of St Pancras. Neighbouring it is Church End and down the road at St. James Street cul-de-sac, the Church Hall.
  • St. Michael, South Malling dates from 1628 and was once in a village of its own. The development of the suburbs has connected South Malling to Lewes although the church mainatins its village setting by the River Ouse, with the neighbouring rectory.
  • All Saints’ is next to the site of a Priory of Grey Friars (Franciscan monks) the only relic of which is an archway at the end of the church boundary wall, which is on the line of the town wall. The mediæval tower survives, abutting a later brick nave by Amon Wilds (1806) and nineteenth century Gothic style chancel. This church is now deconsecrated and serves as a community arts space, home to the Film at All Saints. Lewes Film Club, the Oyster Project disability charity and many local organisations.
  • The Roman Catholic church is dedicated to St. Pancras in memory of the Priory and is a red-brick building over the street from St. Anne’s.
  • The Religious Society of Friends (finished 1784) is a Quaker meeting house next to the former All Saints Church (now an arts centre) on Friar’s Walk.
  • The Jireh Chapel, off Malling Street, is a Grade I listed building, being a rare survivor of its type dating from 1805. It now houses the Lewes Free Presbyterian Church.
  • Westgate Chapel is a sixteenth-century building located in a yard at the top of the High Street (Grade 2 listed). So called because of its position at the old West Gate of the town wall, the Chapel first officially opened for worship as Westgate Meeting in 1700 as English Presbyterian but soon joined by an Independent congregation. Its liberal stance allowed it to become a Unitarian church by 1820 (when the congregation of Southover General Baptist Chapel joined) and is still a Unitarian chapel today.
  • Eastgate Chapel is a very different building; a neo Norman design of 1843 in dark flint, it originally had a pepper pot dome but this was removed in favour of a traditional spire in case traffic vibrations below made it fall off. A modern extension was added to the church.
  • Christ Church Hall, a modern building, serves both the United Reformed Church and the Methodist worshippers.
  • Southover General Baptist Chapel was built in Eastport Lane in 1741. The congregation’s views moved towards Unitarianism, and in the 19th century they joined Westgate Chapel. The building has been a house since 1972, but had various religious and secular uses before that.

The town is a net daytime exporter of employees with a significant community working in London and Brighton whilst it draws in employees of the numerous local government and public service functions on which its local economy is strongly dependent. An important part of the town’s economy is based on tourism, because of the town’s many historic attractions and its location.

Arguably, the town’s most important annual event is the Lewes Bonfire celebrations on the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes Night. In Lewes this event not only marks the date of the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but also commemorates the memory of the seventeen Protestant martyrs burnt at the stake for their faith during the Marian Persecutions. The celebrations, which controversially involve burning an effigy of the Pope, are the largest and most famous bonfire night celebrations in the country.

The Lewes Chamber of Commerce represents the traders and businesses of the town. The town has been identified as unusually diversified with numerous specialist, independent retailers, counter to national trends toward ‘chain’ retailers and large corporate retail outlets.

Lewes Farmers’ Market, one of the first in the UK, was started in the 1990s by Common Cause Co-operative Ltd and is a very popular re-invention of Lewes as a market town. The Farmers’ Market takes place in pedestrianised Cliffe High Street on the first Saturday of every month, with local food producers coming to sell their wares under covered market stalls. A weekly food market in the Lewes Market Tower was established in July 2010 by Transition Town Lewes to allow traders to sell local produce. Occasionally French traders from the Twin Town of Blois attend, vending on Cliffe Bridge.

From 1794 beers, wines and spirits were distributed from Lewes under the Harveys name, and the town is today the site of Harvey & Son’s brewery celebrated as one the finest ale producers in England.

In September 2008, Lewes launched its own currency, the Lewes Pound, in an effort to increase trade within the town. One Lewes Pound is equal to £1. Like the similar local currency in Totnes, the initiative is part of the Transition Towns movement. The Lewes Pound and the Transition Towns movement have received criticism for a failure to address the needs of the wider Lewes population, especially lower socio-economic groups. Such local currency initiatives have been more widely criticized in light of limited success stimulating new spending in local economies and as an unrealistic strategy to reduce carbon emissions. The Lewes Pound can be exchanged for the same amount of pounds sterling in several shops in Lewes and can be spent in a wide range of local businesses. Many of the notes were sold on Ebay at a higher amount. Early numbers and sequenced notes fetched very high prices from foreign collectors.

The town is the location of several significant historic buildings, including Lewes Castle, the remains of Lewes Priory, Bull House (the former home of Tom Paine), Southover Grange and public gardens, and a sixteenth century timber-framed Wealden hall house known as Anne of Cleves House because it was given to her as part of her divorce settlement from Henry VIII, though she never lived there. Anne of Cleves House and the Castle are owned and maintained by the Sussex Archaeological Society (whose headquarters are in Lewes). The Round House, a secluded former windmill in Pipe Passage, was owned by the writer Virginia Woolf.

The steep and cobbled Keere Street is home to many historic buildings, including a timber framed antiquarian bookshop. The gardens of the buildings on the east side of the street border the old Town Walls. The Prince Regent once drove his carriage down the Street, and a sign at the bottom commemorates this event.

The ancient street pattern survives extensively as do a high proportion of the medieval building plots and oak framed houses, albeit often masked with later facades. The eighteenth century frontages are notable and include several, like Bartholomew House at the Castle Gate, that are clad in mathematical tiles which mimic fine brick construction. Numerous streets of eighteenth and nineteenth century cottages have survived cycles of ‘slum clearance’ as models of attractive town housing.

At the highest point of the old town the Portland stone and Coade stone facade of the Crown Court (1808–12, by John Johnson), the brick Market Tower and florid War Memorial mark the historic centre, although trade has tended to concentrate on the lower land in modern times. At the lowest part of the town, by the river, Harvey & Son’s Brewery, ‘The Cathedral of Lewes’ is an unspoilt nineteenth century tower brewery and is the only one of the town’s five original major breweries still in use. The railway station is the other important monument of the industrial era.

Southover Grange was built in the sixteenth century with Caen limestone taken from the ruins of Lewes Priory. The house and its gardens were bought by the borough council and opened to the public in 1945. It is used as a nursery school and as a venue for weddings and exhibitions. The north wing is home to Lewes Register Office, a craft shop and The Window café (open in spring and summer). The Grange gardens are divided by the Winterbourne stream and contain formal bedding displays, a wildflower area, a knot garden and some notable trees, including a large Magnolia grandiflora, a mulberry tree dating perhaps to the seventeenth century and a tulip tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II. The gardens are open to the public during daylight hours all year round.

Pelham House dates back to the sixteenth century and features architecture of all subsequent eras and a private landscaped garden facing the Downs. It now serves as an independent hotel. Shelleys Hotel is likewise of some antiquity with a private garden and family associations with Percy Shelley.

The centre of Lewes is notable for a consistently high calibre of regional vernacular architecture and variety of historic construction materials and techniques.

With Eric Gill’s move to Ditchling, the artistic community there gave rise to other sculptors in the Lewes district such as his nephew John Skelton and Joseph Cribb. Skelton’s studio in Streat has continued as an educational and artist’s workshop since his death in 1999. Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein conceived a great scheme for doing some collossal figures together around 1910 for a modern Stonehenge on 6 acres of land at Asheham House, Beddingham, south-east of Lewes. William Rothenstein agreed to buy the lease but the scheme failed.

Edward Perry Warren first saw Lewes House in 1889 and with his partner John Marshall they were prodigious collectors of fine antique sculpture there. Eric Gill was introduced to Warren by Roger Fry and the stone carving Ecstasy purchased, which is now in the Tate Gallery collection. William Rothenstein suggested that Warren might like to acquire Rodin’s new sculpture The Kiss and after several visits, in 1904 the Lewes Kiss arrived at Lewes House. In 1906 Rodin requested that Warren lend The Kiss to an important exhibition in Regent Street, London. This made it famous in Britain for the first time. The Kiss was returned to the stables at Lewes House, where it remained until 1914 until offered to Lewes Town Council. It was placed in the Town Hall, at the South End of the Assembly Room on 2 December 1914. Early in 1915, The Kiss was wrapped in canvas and marked off with a guard rail. The Town Council returned the statue, saying only that the room did ‘not lend itself to such a noble piece of statuary.’ On 26 February 1917, The Kiss was once more taken to the stable block where it was to remain until Warren’s death in 1928. After a short period on loan to Cheltenham, The Kiss was purchased in 1953 by public subscription and is now one of the Tate’s most popular attractions. It returned on loan to Lewes in 1999 for the exhibition Rodin in Lewes.

The Helmet (1964), by Enzo Plazzotta stands in the grounds of Lewes Priory. The Cuilfail Spiral (1983) by Peter Randall-Page sits on the roundabout at the north end of the Cuilfail Tunnel; made of 7 pieces of Portland limestone. The Magnus Inscription, (c.1200) sits in the East wall of St John Sub Castro on the Junction of Abinger Place and Lancaster Street.  The Janus Head (1997) by John Skelton sits in Grange Gardens.

Lewes, from its inception, has been an important transport hub. Its site as a bridging point was probably originally a ford: today the main routes avoid the town centre. The A27 trunk road taking traffic along the south coast between Eastbourne and Southampton passes to the south of the town. The A26 from Maidstone to Newhaven; and the A275 (the London road) both come in from the north. The Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company serve the town. The Bus Station was closed for a while but reopened in late 2008.

Lewes railway station was originally the junction for six routes. The town still enjoys hourly fast trains from London. The two erstwhile rural rail routes to the north, linking to East Grinstead and Uckfield respectively, are both now closed, but the East Coastway Line, connecting Brighton with Eastbourne and Hastings, and the branch to Seaford remain.

The Vanguard Way, a long-distance footpath from London to Newhaven, passes through countryside east of the town.

Located four miles (6 km) outside of Lewes is Glyndebourne opera house. Founded in 1934, the venue draws large audiences for its Summer Festival and has attracted a host of international talent throughout its history.

A number of local classical music series operate in the town, including the Nicolas Yonge Society; the Westgate Series  based at the Westgate Chapel; and the baroque and early classical Workshop Series. The Lewes Concert Orchestra was founded in 1993.

The principal town museum is Barbican House Museum at Lewes Castle, which hosts the Lewes Town Model as well as four galleries of Sussex archaeology. Anne of Cleves House has various collections relating to the history of Lewes.

There is also the Hop Gallery in the former Star Brewery in Market Street; St Anne’s Gallery in the High Street and occasional art exhibitions mounted at the Town Hall. The Foundry Gallery was converted by Artemis Arts from the former Market Lane Garage in 2006 for use for art events.

The Lewes Film Club, which also produces short movies (including the recent adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm), and Film at All Saints (the Film Club in collaboration with Lewes Town Council), show films based in the All Saints Centre, a former church. Lewes Cinema, previously based at All Saints, intend to resume film showing at a new venue in autumn 2012.

Local dance schools and clubs include Lewes Dance Club, East Sussex Dance and ballet groups. Starfish Youth Music  is based at Priory School and the young bands who take part regularly perform in local venues such as the Paddock and the All Saints’ Centre.

Popular music gigs take place at a number of venues and pubs across the town including the Lewes Con Club, the Snowdrop Inn, the Volunteer Pub, the Lewes Arms, The John Harvey Tavern, The Pelham Arms and The Lansdown. The Elephant and Castle hosts the Saturday Folk Club. The Royal Oak hosts a regular Thursday night folk sessions which attracts leading musicians.

The Sussex Express newspaper, based in Lewes, was established in 1837 and serves much of East Sussex. It has four editions and includes extensive coverage of the local sports scene. It is part of the Johnston Press network of newspapers. Viva Lewes was founded as a weekly web magazine in January 2006 and also as a monthly print handbook in October 2006 covering events and activities in and around the Lewes area.

Lewes Wanderers Cycling Club was reconstituted in 1950. The club organises regular time trials throughout the summer.

Lewes Racecourse, located immediately to the west of the town on the slopes of the Downs, operated for 200 years until closed in 1964. It is still used as a training course, and there are several stables nearby. Race days are held at nearby Plumpton Race Course.

Lewes Athletic Club caters for junior and senior athletes. The club trains at the all weather 400m track at the end of Mountfield Road, and other locations in the area.

Lewes Tennis/Hockey Club (Southdown Sports Club) has 16 tennis courts, 4 squash courts, 2 netball courts and a floodlit astro/hockey pitch.

The fact that Lewes has a Crown Court, and a prison, is reflected by the fact that many notorious people have been connected with the town. During the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland several prominent figures involved in it were in Lewes Prison, including Éamon de Valera (1882–1975); Thomas Ashe (1885–1917); Frank Lawless (1871–1922); and Harry Boland (1887–1922). Others have included George Witton (1874–1942) involved in shooting prisoners during the Boer War.

Lewes is twinned with Waldshut-Tiengen, Germany; and Blois, France, 1963.

 

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