Sussex

Ditchling, East Sussex: Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

I was apprehensive about visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft after learning about Eric Gill, who was an incestuous paedophile, at the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place last year.  Gill was part of the Ditchling group of artists, so I knew there was a good chance this museum would have some of his work, but I was hoping that because the Ditchling Museum hosts a number of temporary exhibitions, Gill’s work wouldn’t make up a significant part of what was on display.  I eventually just reckoned that because National Art Pass holders get free admission (normally £6.50), at least I wouldn’t be contributing any money to it if it was Gill-centric (other than what they get from the National Art Fund I guess), so on a recent trip to Brighton, we stopped off there on the way.

  
Despite my apprehensions about what its collection might contain, I have to admit that the Ditchling Museum itself could not have been in a more bucolic setting if it’d tried. You can certainly see why artists were drawn to this part of England (including the non-molester ones who were presumably less driven by being in a secluded environment to hide their goings-on). We parked out front next to a large pond that was home to ducks and no fewer than three terrapins (I was completely charmed by the terrapins, but much like the Ditchling artists’ group itself, all was not as it seemed on the surface, because apparently locals hate the terrapins (a non-native invasive species) because they eat the ducklings (they’re still cute though, but ducklings are cute too. Can’t they all just get along?)), and the museum was set into a hillside in front of a churchyard and pretty old church, with some tables out front for consuming things from the museum’s cafe (the cakes didn’t look half bad, but I had ice cream in Brighton in my sights).
  
So my first impressions of the museum were overall quite positive, especially when I got inside and saw “Belonging with Morag Myerscough,” which was essentially a big colourful swing set decorated with lots of images and signs (the wall you were meant to be staring at had images relating to different musical movements of the last few decades – I loved the pink skeleton). Not being one to turn down a swing, I had a good long sit on here (the scariest part was first sitting down in it, as the swings did tend to get away from you, but it was OK once you were ensconced). I also liked that the public toilet had a blackboard on the back of the door for doodling, even though touching the chalk was a bit gross (I did wash my hands after, and the toilet was far enough from the door that you couldn’t actually use it whilst you were on the toilet, but it was still kind of unsanitary, albeit fun if you didn’t think about it too much).
  
But then I went into the main gallery, and was met with lots of Gill’s artwork, accompanied by virtually no explanation of who Gill was, nor, most importantly, of the terrible things he had done. This seemed quite disingenuous to me, because context is everything in art history – even if Gill hadn’t been a horrible person, I still would have liked to have seen some biographical information so I could understand what inspired him – this felt like they were trying to keep your view on the art from being altered by the kind of man Gill was. This isn’t to say that I hated everything in this section – I liked some of the pieces by other Ditchling artists, especially the little wooden bear made for a man who had broken his leg, but they really needed to have some kind of background explanation on the community as well. After seeing two exhibitions on them, I still don’t fully understand their connection to Catholicism, but clearly there was some Catholic thread running through the artists’ group here, because much of their work was produced for churches, and the other displays here also had Catholic connections.
  
The temporary exhibition when I visited (which runs until 14 October) featured art by Corita Kent, who was an American printmaker active in the mid-20th century. The most interesting thing about Corita is that she was actually a nun for most of her career (she eventually left the convent in the 1970s, and died from cancer only about ten years later), but still managed to produce bold, fairly controversial work, especially her pieces protesting the Vietnam War (she wasn’t the only member of the clergy doing so (I don’t think nuns are technically clergy, but I forget what heading they do fall under and you know what I mean. They’re not laypeople anyway) – a number of priests were also arrested for their role in anti-war protests). There were actually a series of letters here between her archbishop and mother superior discussing how controversial her work was – basically, the church wanted her to knock it off, but her mother superior defended her, saying that although she didn’t agree with many of Corita’s pieces, she thought she had a real talent. It’s interesting that though we think of nuns as being quite conservative, historically, they have been a refuge for some very progressive women – even as late as the 1960s (or the 1990s, if you count Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. I’m going to choose to, because that’s seriously one of my favourite movies. I’m such a dork).
  
Her work ranged from the expected religion-inspired pieces to ones more secular in nature, especially on politics and consumerism. I loved “Enriched Bread” (which was a take on Holy Communion), and her circus letter pieces (which I’ve only just realised they cleverly used to spell out Ditchling) – her style in general was pretty cool, even in the pieces where I was less keen on the content. Her life story was also really interesting – in addition to the whole nun thing, she was responsible for the largest and smallest pieces of commissioned art in the US; the largest being a water tower in Boston (which no longer exists, but they saved the paint chips when they took it down, which are now considered their own works of art), and the smallest the Love stamp she designed for USPS. I was glad her pieces were here, because her bright and cheerful style really offset the creepiness of Gill.  There were also a couple of short films she made playing in a small movie room, but I didn’t watch them in their entirety.
  
The other room of the museum contained more Catholic-themed pieces: some cartoons by a priest (the snake in particular cracked me up, biblical reference and all), a delightful photograph of nuns riding camels, and some religious figurines worked in gold. There was also a small display on how printing presses worked, which made me wish there was one you could actually try out. I’d love to learn how to use a printing press – they look so cool, and there’s something magical about seeing your words come to life on a page.
  
This was quite a small museum, effectively being only two exhibition rooms (three if you count the one with the swing); in fact, Marcus looked through their brochure before we left because he was sure we must have missed something, but nope, that was all there was (it looked like there should have been more from the outside as well, as the museum was split between two buildings, but one of them was just the shop and cafe). It was fine because we got in for free, but had I paid £6.50, I think I would have been rather annoyed at the size and the fact that the museum only took about half an hour to see. I also found the lack of information on Gill’s very chequered past troubling, though I can obviously see why they chose to omit it. They should really have had more information on the Sussex modernists in general, because I still haven’t figured out what their ethos was (as I said in the Sussex modernism post). It’d be a lovely place to have a picnic (if you like eating outside – personally I hate it, and when a seagull stole my long-awaited ice cream in Brighton right out of my hand as I was eating it, I felt justified in my hatred of al fresco dining), and it made a perfectly fine pit stop on the way to Brighton, but I feel that such a new museum really has no excuse for shying away from controversy, and the admission fee is also a bit much (I also didn’t like how they essentially ignored us when we were looking around the shop, but fawned all over the older ladies who came in after us, asking them to do a visitors’ survey and everything. What, our opinion didn’t matter?). 2.5/5.
  
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Chichester, West Sussex: The Novium

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“Oh boy, Roman crap!” I thought sarcastically to myself as I entered Chichester’s Novium.  But really, it turned out to be ok in the end.  I can’t pretend that it’s worth making a special trip to Chichester for any reason, but if you are stupid enough to do it, like me, you’ll probably find yourself inside the Novium at some point, since aside from the cathedral, it’s really the only tourist attraction to speak of there.  Fortunately, it is free and offers clean toilets with no daddy-long-legs in them, which is more than can be said for Chichester’s public toilets (ugh, I can still picture their horrible thin legs crawling around.  When I say daddy-long-legs, I mean it in the American sense of a spidery thing.  I think Brits call them harvestmen, but I’m not looking it up because I don’t want to have to look at pictures of the damn things).

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It is perhaps apt that the Novium offers nice bathroom facilities, since a Roman bathhouse used to stand on this very spot, and the museum has been cleverly built around the ruins so you can admire them without having to exert yourself too much.  Unless of course you want to look at them from the special viewing area on the first floor, which you will want to do because that’s where all the galleries are.  Then you have to walk up a bunch of steps (though a lift is available).

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There’s a kind of foyer area outside the first floor gallery that is currently dedicated to Sir George Murray, a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy from Chichester who was chummy with Nelson, and his wife, Ann, who outlived him by nearly half a century.  The main gallery features a huge glass “cube case” holding objects relating to Chichester’s past, from the Roman era through the present day.  I was partial to the former possessions of Joe “Pie Man” Faro, including his baker’s hat, gravy warmer, and a few ads for his pies.

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The second floor’s distinguishing characteristic was a huge window overlooking the cathedral (you might be “blinded by the light” shining in if it’s a sunny day), with a little map describing everything you can see from this vantage point, including some unique Chichester-made chimney pots (they have a couple examples you can touch sitting out).  The gallery up here, by far the largest in the museum, has objects currently grouped by the type of human emotion they represent: Joy, Sorrow, Bravery, and Creativity.

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I was digging it, because there was some pretty rad stuff in this gallery.  My absolute favourite thing was a sling produced by St. John’s Ambulance during the First World War, showing all the different ways it could be used to wrap various injuries (with a mustachioed man as model.  Something about the moustache really takes it up a notch.  I’ve always kind of wanted a phrenology head, and I found one the other day with an amusing moustache.  If I had 3700 euros laying around, you’d better believe that’d be the one I’d buy).  There was also a drinking mug with a fake frog moulded into the cup, to give whoever was drinking out of it a fright.  Excellent. UPDATE: My boyfriend noticed how much I liked that sling (probably because I kept talking about it) and bought me one for my birthday, so now I have my own WWI instructional sling.  Kick-ass.

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With the centenary and all, there was a fair bit of WWI stuff, including a little trench hut set up in the corner (you weren’t allowed inside though, boo) and a wounded soldier mannequin lying on a cot, but I gravitated towards the display of hats for trying on.  I think I probably look better in a standard British Army cap than a German one, though I have to say the pickelhaube really kind of suited my boyfriend (every time I see a pickelhaube, I just think of that 3 Stooges short where they’re doughboys who accidentally set off a canister of laughing gas, and get captured and taken to the German headquarters where they all laugh their asses off when one of the Germans falls on his spiky helmet.  Classic).

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They also had a mobile stocks cart (built in the 1820s, yikes! That’s more recent than I would have thought) for wheeling offenders around the town so they could be pelted with rotting vegetables, or worse, if they were really unpopular.  And a small display of skulls explaining what each one could tell us about the person it came from (the one with a hole in it from a person with a persistent ear infection made me cringe a little.  I only had a couple ear infections when I was a kid, but I still remember how agonising they were, and I can only imagine letting it progress to the point where the pus punched a hole in your head.  Jeez).

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I should also mention that there is a small temporary exhibit on the ground floor about the history of collecting, which has as its prize object an old Japanese Shogi game on loan from the Horniman in London, as well as some information about explorers and their collections, including Cook and Livingstone.  Although I read a couple negative reviews of the Novium on Trip Advisor before going, I frankly don’t see what their problem was.  It was a free museum, and I was actually pretty impressed with many of the objects on display, as well as the labelling, which, despite a few spelling and grammatical errors, tended to be comprehensive, educational, and often amusing.  It has clearly been renovated in recent years, as all the facilities seemed pretty up-to-date, but hadn’t lost the old-fashioned charm of a local museum.  3.5/5.

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Oh, and because the cathedral was also free, we popped in there too, so I’ll just show you a few highlights.

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The 3-dimensional man on the wall is to commemorate a local man, John Cawley, who was one of the MPs who signed the death warrant of Charles I.  He managed to survive the Restoration (just) by going into hiding in Belgium, but died in the 1660s.

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They had a small treasury room containing a lot of boring silver and pewter (basically a bunch of “you have chosen…poorly” Holy Grail replicas like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Damn I love that film), but also a weathercock with dents on his tail where he was clipped by bullets during the Battle of Britain, so that was pretty cool.

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And they had a bunch of large wooden paintings depicting kings of England, and I guess some popes?  Or maybe something more Anglican, like Archbishops, I dunno.

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There are also some pretty cool gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral, and apparently a pair of peregrine falcons roost in the tower, so those are things to look out for.  As I said at the start, I really don’t think Chichester’s the kind of place that merits a special trip (in retrospect; at the time, it seemed like something reasonable to do of a Saturday, at least until we got stuck in traffic for a couple hours) but if you find yourself in the area, there’s a couple of free things you can do to kill some time.  And clearly there are people out there that really like Roman stuff, as judged by the unexpected popularity of my old post on the Verulamium, so you may also enjoy the bathhouse ruins in the Novium if this is so.

 

Lewes, Sussex: Anne of Cleves House and Lewes Priory

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Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife of the famously oft-married Henry VIII, and, in many ways, she was probably his luckiest wife.  For one reason or another, although Henry was enchanted with this German princess’s portrait, when presented with the real article he found himself unable to perform (I’d be inclined to blame his extreme obesity, and revolting weeping leg ulcer, rather than poor old Anne – I also imagine Henry would have happily had me beheaded for my sass).  He quickly had the marriage annulled (because the main point of marriage for him was to sire another legitimate male heir), and since Anne was smart enough to go along with this without putting up a fight, she was given a favoured position in court as Henry’s “sister,” and a number of properties, which brings us to Anne of Cleves House, in Lewes.  For, although the house bears her name, she never actually lived here; she merely owned it and collected the rents.

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It is quite a nice house nonetheless, all timber framed and Tudory, having been built primarily in the late 1400s.  Admission to the house is £4.90, assuming you haven’t bought that combined ticket with Lewes Castle I was talking about in the last post, or don’t have English Heritage membership, as this is another property that gives you half-off (if you bring it up).  We were advised to start our visit in the bedroom, which was very large indeed; probably bigger than my whole flat – this was some luxe Tudor living.

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I was delighted to find an entire clothes-rail full of Tudor costumes, and since no one else was there, I grabbed the best dress for myself and pretended to be a hopefully sweeter-smelling version of Anne of Cleves, sans headdress, as I didn’t see any there.  I actually went as Anne Boleyn for Halloween about 7 years ago (proof shown on right above), at least, Anne Boleyn if she had her head sewn back on after decapitation, and was wearing a not very historically accurate dress, so it was nice to pretend to be another of Henry’s wives (though in reality I wouldn’t have wanted to be any of them, though if I had to pick I’d go with either Anne of Cleves or Catherine of Aragon because then at least Henry would be young and semi-attractive, I just wouldn’t have put up a fight when he wanted to get with Anne Boleyn (and would have told my stupid nephew to keep his huge Hapsburg jaw out of it), and would probably have been treated reasonably well).

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The rest of the bedroom was just random pieces of Tudor furniture, but a sign helpfully suggested that I might enjoy putting on the costumes and posing with various items of furniture (well yes, obviously I did enjoy that!).  We then headed downstairs, which proved to be unexpectedly large, starting with the obligatory Tudor kitchen (wow, spits, and mortars and pestles, and a buncha iron pots, woot), but I actually shouldn’t badmouth the kitchen, because it held a “magic” table.

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This table was mentioned at Lewes Castle, so I was very much looking forward to seeing it, and insisted on referring to it as a “magic table,” even though I think it was supposed to be more like a religious thing, so maybe “miraculous table” is more what they’re going for.  At any rate, if you haven’t already read the caption above, the deal with the table is that after the knights killed Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, they rode back to a house near Lewes, and threw their swords on the table, but the table threw them back.  I guess it’s impressive just that a table from the 12th century is still around, regardless of whether or not it possesses magical properties, but clearly I’m thrilled by the whole story.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a small ironmongers’ museum in a back room, which was absolutely rife with authentic smells (for real authentic ones).  In addition to some tools of the trade, it was mostly a collection of firebacks, basically, the things that go at the back of fireplaces (I might have my terminology wrong here because I was still too thrilled by the magic table to read things properly).  I thought it was delightfully ironic that they had one with the image of the Lewes Martyrs burning at the stake on it, as I believe the job of the fireback was actually to keep the fire from spreading and burning down the house (and by extension, whoever was inside at the time).

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There were also some cannons and things, and a lengthy description of the moulding process in the long-winded style of a very old-fashioned museum, which is obviously the sort of thing I love, even if I wasn’t quite in the mood to give it my full attention.

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This was because I’d spotted a local history room upstairs, and my god do I love a bunch of dusty cases full of local history (I’m not sure if most visitors even come back there, as we didn’t see anyone else the entire time, and it kind of had an air of being undisturbed).  One case in particular stood out, as it contained “relics” meant to be from Gundrada, the wife of William de Warenne, who died in childbirth (William de Warenne being the guy who built Lewes Castle, and many other fortresses), in the form of a couple nasty yellowed teeth, roots and all; a mummified rat and silver spoon that was apparently responsible for having a servant girl thrown out on the street (where she presumably starved to death; actually, I’m surprised she wasn’t just hanged, as I’d imagine a silver spoon is worth more than a couple shillings or whatever the cutoff was for a capital offence (6 shillings?  2 shillings?  I can’t quite remember, even though I was just reading about it the other day)), when it was the rat that really took the spoon; and a bunch of toys carved by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, like the ones that were recently featured on Antiques Roadshow.  All of this appealed very much to my inner nerd.

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They had loads of other awesome things, like a “liberty cap,” which is really just a iron thing shaped like a hat on a stick, which I guess ties back to Thomas Paine and all that (who lived in Lewes, in case you missed my last post.  Yep, still excited about Thomas Paine), and some stuff from Harvey’s Brewery back in the early days, when they had competition from other local breweries.  I was kind of disturbed by the painting on the wall of an early Victorian Bonfire Night in Lewes, which validated my decision to not attend it, because it looked just as creepy as I’d imagined.  There was also a painting of another disturbing event in Lewes, where a giant wall of snow collapsed and killed a handful of people because they refused to move even after they were warned that a huge snowbank was about to squish their homes (this happened in the Victorian era; I highly doubt Lewes gets that much snow in this day and age); there’s now a pub called the Snowdrop to commemorate it, which is perhaps a bit glib, but I can dig it (another pun?).

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Also in regard to Bonfire Night (because they’re REALLY into it), there were a couple interesting advertisements about it; one from a year when it was going on in full force, with the schedule of events (which seemed to include much loud singing of “God Save the Queen,” the Queen at the time being Victoria), and then another year (1874) when it had to be cancelled due to disease in the town (typhoid, apparently, i.e. the same thing that allegedly killed Prince Albert 13 years earlier, assuming he didn’t actually die of stomach cancer as some medical historians have claimed).

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There was one more room of the Tudor house, a parlour, which contained similar furniture to the bedroom, and was nowhere near as enthralling as the local history room, but was still quite nice.  Our visit ended up taking much longer than we’d thought it would, since we didn’t know there would be so many extra history rooms, and we almost had to run out and buy another parking ticket.  For the money, I think this was much more enjoyable than Lewes Castle (though Lewes Castle is still probably worth seeing, because it’s a castle, I just prefer the time periods covered in Anne of Cleves House, in case you couldn’t tell from all the historical tidbits I’ve been throwing in).  4/5.

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In Anne of Cleves house, they had a few posters up about Lewes Priory (also built by William de Warenne, the guy got around); it’s now in ruins that have been turned into a park.  It was just down the road from Anne of Cleves House, down the hilariously named Cockshut Road, so we decided to go quickly check it out.  This too was much larger than I was expecting, and had lots of helpful informational signs up everywhere.

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The best part for me, because I have the same sense of humour as a 12 year old boy, apparently, was the fact that most of the surviving bits were the monks’ toilets – not just one set of toilets, but toilets through the centuries, with three time periods represented.  The priory had 59 toilets at one time, so that none of the monks had to queue in between the lengthy masses and prayer sessions, though there were of course, no doors or anything else for privacy.

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They also had a sculpture thing that commemorated the Battle of Lewes (yet again) with scenes from the battle engraved in bronze along the sides of a big rock.  I preferred the ruins themselves though.  This was a lovely park, and I think it’s well worth popping over to see it on your visit to Anne of Cleves House – you can probably even have a picnic by the old toilets, as I would have done if I wasn’t so vehemently opposed to al fresco dining (I was attacked by an aggressive ladybug when wandering the ruins, and I don’t even mind ladybugs, so I’d hate to get on the bad side of bugs that freak me out, like butterflies and spiders).  So I guess my conclusion is that Lewes makes for a varied and entertaining day out, I’d recommend it.  Especially the raspberry friands from that bakery, they really were super delicious and I can’t stop thinking about them.

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Lewes, Sussex: Lewes Castle

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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!

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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.

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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.   20140621_143752

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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