There are many reasons to visit Lewes. Its brewery, flea market, Anne of Cleeves’ house, the ruins of the priory, its magnificent bonfire night, Southover Grange Gardens, the Barbican House Museum, the 15th century bookshop and even the Polish pottery shop are all worthy of a visit. But how often, as you whizz through Lewes, do you stop and enjoy its castle?
Like so many places in East Sussex, Lewes Castle (originally known as Bray Castle) is intrinsically linked to the Battle of Hastings and therefore to the heritage that runs through the very core of us Sussex folk. That moment in time when the county started its gradual transition from Saxon to Norman. And for that reason alone, a visit here really feels like getting back to your roots.
Lewes was a Saxon town, but Lewes Castle itself dates back to just after the Battle of Hastings (1087). William de Warenne is a name the crops up a lot in Sussex history. He was William the Conqueror’s brother-in-law and having fought by the future king’s side at the Battle of Hastings, de Warenne was gifted land at Lewes. He built Lewes Castle in what’s known as the motte and bailey style, the motte part being a keep that sits on top of a mound and the bailey part being an enclosed courtyard. Lewes is unusual in that it had two mottes.
The castle was both a show of strength and a safe family home. It held a strategic position between London and the coast and could keep a watchful eye on those travelling along the South Downs. Indeed, de Warenne was able to charge travellers a toll for crossing the River Ouse.
The De Warenne family owned Lewes Castle for the best part of 300 years and it played an important role in 1264 during the Battle of Lewes. However, by 1347 it had been inherited by the Earl of Arundel and its decline began. It was largely neglected until it was acquired by Thomas Friend in 1744 who turned it into Pleasure Gardens. It’s now owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society.
We are blessed with a number of castles in Sussex that can best be described as ‘simply majestic’ and Lewes is one of them, although from the street, it’s almost easy to miss. Wander around the back streets and you may approach it via The Needlemakers, the bowling green and Castle Gate or meander up the Hight Street. You enter through the small museum and then cross through into the castle grounds.
It’s hard to believe that the castle sits on a man-made mound that was made so many hundreds of years ago. Materials from the South Downs and the Weald were used in the castle’s construction, and the walls are limestone and flint with the occasional Caen stone.
As soon as you enter the gates, you’re met with a sense of calm but also an intense sense of the history and past that Lewes Castle represents. Possibly because there were so few people around when I visited, you can almost hear the footsteps and whispers of soldiers past. Certainly, the chap in the tower made me jump.
As you pass the 300-year-old anchor and a cannon from the Crimean War, you start to climb and even if you have no interest in history whatsoever, it’s worth the many stairs just for the views! On a quiet day, at the top, it’s mesmerizing as the South Downs and the county of Sussex are spread out before you and you suddenly understand what a strategic position this must have been.
From the top of the towers, I could just make out the route of a walk I did recently from Kingston to Rodmell and you can track your passage through the town via the tiny streets beneath you. With such a great vantage point, and with only the faint sound of the town below and the rustle of the wind for company, it’s easy to lose yourself in the past for a moment or two. Lewes Castle is one of our county’s great landmarks and marks a significant moment in time. It’s beautiful. It’s atmospheric. And it’s well worth a visit.
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And you can find out more about Lewes Castle at: https://sussexpast.co.uk/