Lewes is a town in Sussex that is probably most famous for its exuberant Bonfire Night celebrations (which I’ve never been to, as I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea behind Guy Fawkes Day at the best of times, and people who are really enthusiastic about burning things in effigy kind of freak me out. Also, fireworks scare me, and I’m terrified of being hit in the eye with a firecracker or something), but the rest of the year, it is a very middle class kind of place (typical of much of the South) with streets lined with antique shops, secondhand bookshops, and even an artisan bakery (which is, regardless of what this may say about me, exactly the sort of place I enjoy, especially the aforementioned bakery. It’s called Flint Owl Bakery, and the cheese straws and raspberry friands (or butter muffins, as I like to call them) are amazing). Whew, that was a long run-on sentence. At any rate, in addition to stuffing myself with pastries, and visiting the shop at Harvey’s Brewery with my boyfriend (since he accompanied me to all the history), I also had time to visit Lewes Castle.
The castle offers half priced entry for English Heritage members, which they sneakily don’t really mention, I had to ask as I saw it listed in the official English Heritage handbook, but it’s £7 without the discount (they do a combined ticket with Anne of Cleves House, which I’ll discuss in the next post). The castle itself was built in 1069 by William de Warenne, Norman nobleman and brother-in-law to William the Conqueror, and was the scene of the Battle of Lewes in 1264.
Seeing the castle pretty much consists of walking up a shit-ton of stairs, and not just any stairs, but really narrow and uneven winding staircases, so this is maybe not the place to go if you have mobility issues. Personally, I’m fit as a fiddle, but I’m slightly scared of heights, and in particular steep staircases and ladders and stuff where I feel like I might fall and die, so it wasn’t really my cup of tea either, but I persevered (it helped that it wasn’t super busy, so there weren’t people trying to climb up staircases whilst I was going down, or vice versa. I hate when that happens!).
On each level of the castle (which was in two separate parts, the Barbican and the Shell Keep), there were small displays about its history, including a really long comic strip about the Battle of Lewes (which was useful, as I’d never heard of it before; medieval history not really being my thing (aside from the Black Death of course). It was where Henry III fought a group of barons led by Simon de Montfort). I also learned that the castle was used as a folly in Georgian times, gotta love those Georgians!
The views from the top were of course pretty spectacular, since the castle is the highest point in Lewes, and looks out over the South Downs, for all that it was kind of a bitch to get up there.
I think I enjoyed the Barbican more than the Shell Keep because they had some games that were undoubtedly intended for children, but as there were none around, I took control of the medieval crane and built a kick-ass castle of my own. They also had a huge chest of dress-up stuff.
After finishing with the castle (which didn’t take that long to see, sans all the climbing, as there wasn’t really that much information inside), we headed over to the small museum next door, in the building where we bought tickets. This was mainly on archeological digs in Lewes and around Sussex – lots of prehistoric and Roman rusty things that I was not super interested in. They had a map of all the discoveries in the area on the wall, but the coolest stuff wasn’t in their collection, like a creepy stone face-thing. They did have a Roman milestone, which was neat.
The upstairs part was slightly better, as it had some cool Georgian jugs and other (relatively) more recent artefacts, in addition to an extensive display on medieval life in Lewes based on some of the things they’d dug up.
In keeping with the general ambiance of Lewes, there was a secondhand bookshop in the museum that specialised in local history books, and a gift shop that had an excellent magnet featuring the Lewes Martyrs being burnt at the stake, but that was all there was to the complex. I did like exploring the castle, especially as it felt mostly untouched, but the museum wasn’t the greatest, and I left feeling glad we got the discount, as I would have been slightly salty about paying full price for what was on offer, so I’ll give it a middling 3/5.
I can’t leave Lewes (even though I’m coming back to it next time) without mentioning that Thomas Paine, the writer and philosopher so beloved of the fathers of the American Revolution, lived here for about a decade. As an American who loves history, I was super excited to learn this, and made sure to grab a picture with his commemorative plaque. There’s also a pub called the Rights of Man after one of his most famous works (save Common Sense of course) across the street. I didn’t have a chance to stop in, but it’s a Harvey’s pub (naturally) with an excellent sign featuring his portrait and his giant out-of-proportion hand. This isn’t really relevant to the post, but I thought it was a point of interest, especially for American history buffs.