Lewes is a really pleasant place, nestled in the Sussex Downs and only 50 minutes from Croydon. The name Lewes has two possible derivations: either from a Celtic word meaning ‘slopes’; or from the Saxon word hlaew, which means an artificial mound. The local architecture features a fair amount of flint which fits in with the town’s air of gentility; there is an abundance of second-hand book stores including the warren-like and rickety Fifteenth Century Bookshop and a range of antique shops and flea markets, all of which are worth exploring.
There’s even a connection between Lewes and Crystal Palace. Gideon Algernon Mantell, surgeon and geologist, was born in Lewes in 1790. He discovered the bones of what he would later call an Iguanodon, famously misidentifying the thumb spike and assigning it to the nose of his dinosaur skeleton, so that it appeared like a rhinoceros. A model of Mantell’s Iguanodon was erected in Crystal Palace Park and, as a publicity event, the Crystal Palace Company organised a dinner inside the Iguanodon on 31 December 1853, some months before the Park opened. Special guests included the scientists William Buckland, Georges Cuvier, Richard Owen and Mantell.
There’s a small museum on the High Street that holds some interesting local archaeological artefacts, some from the Iron Age fort on Cliffe Hill that looms over Lewes and more from the Roman and Saxon periods when Lewes was an important settlement. This is the Barbican museum, nestled under the part-ruined Norman castle but there’s another museum, also run by the Sussex Archaeological Society, in Anne of Cleves House in Southover High Street, to the south of the main town. It’s unlikely that Anne ever used this property as she was granted a total of nine Sussex manors as part of her nullity settlement in 1541. The building retains some original timber mullions, crown-post and queen-post roofs and the stairs are incredibly worn and uneven. There are temporary exhibits in the East Room, a potted history of Lewes in the Lewes Room and the Wealden Iron Gallery in the medieval barrel-vaulted cellar. South of Anne of Cleves House are the remains of the Priory of St Pancras.
The C14 barbican, Lewes Castle
Thomas Paine arrived in Lewes as an exciseman in 1768 and lodged at Bull House. Politics was a favourite discussion point in the town around this time, with topics ranging from the French Revolution, reform of Parliament, the Corn Laws and Catholic emancipation to American independence but radicalism seems to be embedded in the DNA of the town; during the Civil War Lewes had sided with the Parliamentarians. Lewes Puritans became Nonconformists and some became Quaker pacifists; George Fox was attracted to the town and preached at a meeting of The Seekers in Southover. The town elected Whig MPs until 1874 and returned the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker from the general election in 1997 when he overturned a 12000 Conservative majority, until his defeat to the Conservatives by 1083 votes in 2015 coinciding with the national political near-annihilation of the Lib Dems following a backlash against the party for reneging on their pre-2010 election promises.
Paine came from a Quaker family and his ideas, set out in Rights of Man, form a coherent and compelling manifesto for social change and his writings (he was a great pamphleteer) were signed off with a rapier wit. Rights of Man was written in response to radical Parliamentarian Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France; Burke agreed with the revolution in the new colony but not the French Revolution. Paine saw that Burke was siding with the established ruling class and, with his understanding of the need for social justice, challenged Burke’s assertions, ridiculing the pomposity of the extant political class. Some people still regard Paine with suspicion and hostility. He had fought against Britain in the American war of Independence and advocated France going to war with Britain after the French Revolution but he is well regarded in Lewes, such that the local independent brewery, Harvey’s, produces the seasonal Tom Paine ale (in cask and bottle) in July and owns a pub called Rights of Man in the High Street. The range of Harvey’s ales is exceptional and I was fortunate to have one of their pubs, the entertainment-free Royal Oak close to Guy’s Hospital where I worked from 1988-2015.
The pubs, historical sites, museums, bookshops and antique shops aren’t the only places to visit in Lewes. In 2013, The Guardian ran an article on the 10 best independent record stores in Britain and at the top of the list was Union Music Store (1 Lansdown Place, Lewes), a haunt of Mumford and Sons. This wasn’t Lewes’ only dedicated record store, but austerity took its toll on Octave Recorded Music Specialist at the eastern end of the High Street and Si’s Sounds, which used to be halfway up Station Street fell victim to the lack of footfall during the Covid pandemic. The loss of two music shops was a blow because I considered all three stores worth visiting on any of my trips to the town.
Octave had a surprisingly wide range of music. My purchases there included a 30th Anniversary King Crimson CDs USA and Beat in cardboard sleeves, and a mini-box set of Vangelis’ three best known albums, Heaven and Hell, Albedo 0.39 and Spiral and the prices always seemed very competitive to me.
The premises in Station Street were occupied by Rik’s Disks when I first discovered the shop, dominated by second-hand vinyl but with very little in the way of prog or prog-related music, and I never actually bought anything there. Si’s Sounds must have appeared in 2013 or 2014 and though he had some vinyl, I only bought second-hand CDs, the 40th Anniversary CD/DVD of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick; a copy of Ian Anderson’s TAAB2 (CD/DVD) and a double CD of Soft Machine’s Six and Seven. It was always a pleasure visiting the store because Si had a wide musical knowledge.
When I first visited Union Music Store it sold instruments, effects pedals and clothes in addition to CDs and vinyl and despite its self-styled image as a home of Americana, folk and country with no mention of prog, I rather liked it, finding it a very friendly. The shop assistant put on S. Carey’s Range of Light, a multi-layered piece of chamber soft-rock that I thought was very fitting in that environment. Though I didn’t buy any music, I came away with a heavy gauge plectrum! Since Union has become the only dedicated record shop in the town it's become even better than before and is stuffed with both new and pre-loved vinyl, and there’s an interesting range of former Record Store Day releases that requires some serious consideration.
Lewes’ flea markets and antique stores are also good for anyone seeking out second-hand vinyl. Lewes Flea Market on Market Street has a number of stalls, and on my last visit I managed to get hold of the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe LP, in great condition, for £2.50 and had a choice of copies of Octoberon by Barclay James Harvest, settling for one for £4. On the same visit I bought Oxygene by Jean-Michel Jarre and The Book of Invasions – A Celtic Symphony by Horslips from Emporium Antiques Centre, 42 Cliffe High Street, where on previous visits I’ve procured a pristine copies of Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost and Flags by Moraz-Bruford. Almost directly across the street is the labyrinthine Lewes Antiques Centre where in the past I’ve bought the David Sylvian double LP Gone to Earth because it’s partly a collaboration with Robert Fripp.
So if you’re interested in records and music, books, history, critical thinking or just good beer, visit Lewes.