The French connection between Lewes and Blois
At first glance, you might not think that Lewes in Sussex and Blois in the Loire Valley have much in common, but you’d be wrong. In fact, they are twins!
At the heart of rural Sussex, you’ll find the beautiful county town of Lewes, dominated by its castle. Authentic, intriguing and pretty, you can’t help but fall in love with its medieval streets, old English churches and tiny twittens (a Sussex word for alleyway).
And here is where the French connection begins. In the immediate aftermath of his conquest of England in 1066, the French Duke who became King William I, divided Sussex into five administrative zones. They were given to his most trusted companions to build castles to secure control of the area. Lewes went to William de Warenne, a Norman baron and veteran of the Battle of Hastings. He commenced work on Lewes Castle around 1067 and also founded Lewes Priory in 1077 as an outpost of Cluny Abbey in Burgundy.
The grand 1000-year-old castle towers above the town with fabulous views over the streets below, in which you’ll find the home of one time Queen, Anne of Cleeves. It was granted to her by Henry VIII in 1540 as part of their divorce settlement (she was his fourth wife). She also received Hever Castle in Kent, once the home of Henry’s former in-laws, the Boleyns.
Like Lewes, Blois at the heart of the Loire Valley, is dominated by its castle. A mishmash of architectural styles from the middle ages to the French Renaissance, it was home to several Kings and Queens including Francois 1 and Queen Claude who in 1515 took on a new English lady-in-waiting – Anne Boleyn. Anne had previously been lady-in-waiting to Mary Tudor in France, sister of Henry VIII. Returning to the English court in 1522, Anne became Henry VIII’s second wife in 1533.
Blois castle overlooks the mighty River Loire and the medieval streets of the town. Its pedestrianised alleys are lined with half-timbered houses, charming cafés and French Renaissance mansions. The oldest house dates back to the reign of Louis XI (1461-1483), known as the “acrobat’s house”, acknowledged as one of the most beautiful houses in France.
Lewes twinned with Blois
Lewes and Blois have been twinned for several decades “before we even joined the Common Market and in fact, school exchanges were started back in 1949” says Chairman of Lewes Twinning Association, Paul Mockford. It was all thanks to two schoolmasters, one from Lewes, one from Blois, who felt the children at their schools would benefit from exchange trips. It was just after WWII but proved such a success that the formal Treaty of Twinning was officially signed in 1963.
Since then the twin towns have worked to promote school exchanges, support language learning, attend events, and even organise work exchanges with students from Lewes being invited to do summer holiday work at the Chateau of Blois. Says Paul Mockford: “The strength of friendships forged between the twin towns of Blois; Lewes and Waldshut-Tiengen (with which Lewes is also twinned) are much stronger than any Brexit, once this pandemic is over a full programme of activities will resume.”
Find out more at: http://lewestwinning.weebly.com/
Top things to see and do in Lewes
Visit the castle and Anne of Cleeves House.
Don’t miss The Needlemakers, once a factory now full of unusual boutiques and specialist shops. Its ancient brickwork and massive beams are echoes of a fascinating industrial past.
Plumpton Racecourse is one of the smallest in the country and races take place between September and May.
Ditchling Beacon is the highest point in East Sussex and the perfect landmark to take in the South Downs area of Lewes.
Drusillas Park, widely known as the best small zoo in Europe, less than 10 miles from Lewes is a great day out for the whole family.
Lewes tourist office: https://www.visitlewes.co.uk/information/tourist-information-centres
Top things to see and do in Blois
Visit the royal Castle of Blois and follow in the footsteps of the Kings and Queens of France.
At the House of Magic, discover the world of magic with an exhibition of magicians objects, interactive events and a unique magic show.
Enjoy a truly unusual artfest at the Fondation du Doubt where a unique collection by 50 artists including Yoko Ono and the famous French artist known as Ben will certainly create an impression.
Explore the heritage of Blois and the Loire at the museum of Natural History.
Visit the Chateau de Chambord, 10 miles from Blois, an absolute jewel of the Loire Valley.
Blois Tourist office: https://www.bloischambord.com/
By Janine Marsh, editor of The Good Life France, author of My Good Life in France and My Four Seasons In France and Deputy Editor of Sussex Exclusive