All roads seem to lead to Lewes. Whether you’ve been east to explore Eastbourne, Hastings and Rye, or west to unearth Horsham and Haywards Heath, Lewes is a central point and there are many good reasons to find yourself here. So next time you wash up on Lewes’ shores, why not put down some roots for a day or two and explore?
Lewes Castle and the Barbican House Museum
Towering over the town, the most obvious place to start a visit to Lewes is the castle. This Norman castle dates back to 1087 when it was built by William de Warenne as his stronghold in Sussex. Now owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society, it’s one of a handful of truly impressive castles that we have here in Sussex.
A climb to the top of the two different towers should be compulsory not just for the magnificent views across Sussex but because it will also give you a sense of just how impressive this stronghold must have been as well as great views of the town today. The museum below has an assortment of exhibits and artifacts that date from prehistoric to Medieval Sussex, including flints, coins, medals and weapons! The museum may be small but it’s also delightfully quirky!
You can’t visit Lewes Castle and not also visit the impressive ruins of Lewes Priory. Founded in the 11th century by William de Warenne with monks from France, the Priory of St Pancras survived until 1537. Both de Warenne and his wife Gundrada were buried at the Priory and their remains were discovered in 1845. Much like the castle, the ruins are evocative and atmospheric and you can wander around the grounds of the infirmary, look down on the toilet block (yes really) and imagine the monks tending the original herb garden.
At its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Priory was incredibly important in the region and would have been home to some 100 monks with some 20,000 acres of land. It’s now a Scheduled Ancient Monument and also listed as a building of Historic Interest Grade I.
The house of Anne of Cleves
Another place which you really just have to visit is the house formerly owned by Anne of Cleves, although she never actually lived there. It’s a 16th century timber-framed house that formed part of her divorce settlement and it sits next to another very fine half-timbered house.
Also owned by The Sussex Archaeological Society, the house and gardens are open to the public and include a Tudor-style garden, authentic interior furniture, and a small museum. All of which makes this another interesting part of your journey back in time in Lewes.
Created in 1542 by William Newton (and briefly the home of John Evelyn the diarist), Southover is hidden in plain site in the middle of town. When I first stumbled into this little Lewes oasis, I thought I’d accidentally strayed into private gardens. Home to a mulberry tree rumoured to be 350 years old, there is also a walled garden, a stream, a well and a sculpture of Nicholas Yonge (an English singer and publisher).
Lewes is home to an abundance of markets, from its weekly Friday Food Market to its notorious and quite extraordinary flea market, craft market, farmers market and Christmas markets. If meandering around markets is your thing, head to Lewes.
15th century bookshop
Lewes’ 15th century bookshop is every book lover’s dream. Stacked to the beamed rafters with books, including a significant collection of second-hand and collectors’ books, this is the sort of place you dive into for a long, long time.
One for the shoppers! Since 1997 Lewes has been home to what is now the UK’s biggest Polish pottery shop, Baltica, where you can browse mountains of beautiful “eyespot” stoneware, dishes, pots and plates to your heart’s content.
Lewes is almost synonymous with Harvey’s. The brewery is an iconic Lewes landmark as well as being the oldest independent brewery in Sussex. It’s been a family business since 1790 and situated at its current premises at Bridge Wharf since 1838. Now in the hands of the 9th generation, it’s a brewery that has survived family tragedy, fire, floods, and decline but now seems to be going from strength to strength. They do some tours of the brewery and they also now have a shop in Cliffe High Street. And you simply cannot visit Lewes without trying some of their beer!
Star Brew Gallery
Once you’ve explored the sites, sampled the beer and filled your bags with nik-naks, head over to the Star Brew Gallery for a bit of culture (in Castle Ditch Lane, off Fisher Street). Set in a renovated 18th century building, the gallery hosts an ever-changing and diverse programme of exhibitions by local, regional, national and international artists including up-and-coming artists, photographers and other creatives.
Lewes Railway Nature Reserve
From Railway Lane just off Cliffe High Street you can make your way to a rather unusual nature reserve which is on the site of the old railway yard that closed down in the late 1980s. With the Winterbourne stream at its heart, chalky cliffs as a backdrop and an array of wildlife, flora and fauna, a walk around the reserve is a welcome escape from the town and a chance to reflect.
The Round House
Yes, I know, this is number 11 but I couldn’t help myself. For lovers of Virginia Woolf who want to follow in her footsteps around Sussex, it’s worth a quick deviation to Pipe Passage where you’ll find the Grade II listed Round House, originally built as a windmill in 1802. It was bought by Virginia and her husband on a bit of a whim in 1919 although they never actually lived there. A visit really doesn’t take long (it’s privately owned so you can’t go in) but it is one of Lewes’ many curios along with Pipe Passage itself which as the name would suggest used to be home to Lewes’s pipe-making industry.
These 10 (11!) places to visit are just your starting point for a visit to Lewes and there’s plenty more to see both in the town and in the surrounding area. If you’re visiting from outside of Sussex, Lewes makes a fantastic, central base from which to explore Sussex and the rich heritage that goes with it.
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