Research can take you to curious places. Cemeteries, tweeters, a football field called the Dripping Pan and an upstairs room at the Lewes Arms, where I remember that a view or a building rarely captures the essence of a place – it’s a meeting chance, a conversation or, in this case, a fusion of eccentricities. On the wall are two framed posters documenting events hosted by the pub: the Dwyle Flunking International and the World Pea Throwing Championship.
Visitors should not underestimate the noble art of pea throwing. “I am a former winner,” says my companion, before explaining why in a few days he will be on a podium wearing an archbishop’s robe while hand-thrown firecrackers rain down on his miter.
East Sussex has its fair share of idiosyncratic towns and villages, but they don’t get much quirkier than Lewes. Nestled beneath an inland chalk cliff and hugged by the South Downs, it seems a world apart from Brighton’s seaside, just 15 minutes on the railway. Brighton unconditionally welcomes visitors into its midst; Lewes is polite but reserves judgment.
A rebellious tendency
But Brighton’s buttoned cousin is no shrinking violet. In the mid-2000s, a boycott at the Lewes Arms finally killed a brewer who tried to remove Harvey’s Best from the pumps of the pub. Sharp-witted, fiery, and sometimes stubborn, the city’s rebellious and divisive streak has plagued it for centuries.
“We have it in our power to rebuild the world,” wrote 18th-century political activist Thomas Paine, who served as a boarder at the city’s Bull House. In one of his controversial pamphlets, Paine dared to rebel against working conditions and wages. He later wrote the Human rights (the eponymous pub is at 179 High Street) and played a central role in the American independence movement. The city pays tribute to him on its alternative currency, the Lewes Pound, which has its own Twitter account.
Revolutionary heroes, free thinkers, religious dissenters and academic pioneers have all found a home here. Just like pyrotechnic wizards. More recently, the town has become known for its annual Bonfire Night show. It’s an explosive affair involving a no-wake costumed procession through the narrow streets of the city with tens of thousands of flaming torches, flaming crossties, three-dimensional paintings (not effigies), firecrackers and a bit of barrel inflamed.
Last year, a daring member of the South Street Bonfire Society band managed to light up himself and his sousaphone with a lit torch (pictured in this year’s SSBS programme).
For members of the Lewes Bonfire Society, ‘Bonfire’ or ‘the Fifth’ is not a day but a year-long project that commemorates the Gunpowder Plot, the town’s war dead and 17 pioneers Protestants who were burned at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary. . A hillside martyrs memorial is lit on the fifth.
‘Don’t come’ says Visit Lewes
Interfering with these veiled rituals is akin to crushing the All Blacks Haka, and probably just as dangerous. For practical reasons, including a lack of transport, Visit Lewes (vistlewes.co.uk) advises visitors not to come.
“Lewes is a network of medieval streets, not an entertainment infrastructure,” says Helen Browning-Smith, who broadcasts the event on Lewes’ community radio station, Rocket FM (rocketfm.org). In 2021, the live stream had 31,000 views from as far away as New Zealand, Nairobi and the International Space Station, although this one “could have been a hoax”, she concedes. The best place to watch it, says Browning-Smith, is at home with a bottle of Harvey’s.
Arriving by train, I walk into the pedestrianized Lower Town and cross the Ouse via a stone bridge separating a riverside quay with shops and restaurants and the beautiful Harvey’s Brewery. As well as a good sprinkling of independent shops, the town has a spring-fed outdoor swimming pool, an independent cinema, art galleries and plenty of quirky pubs. There are charity shops, a chippy, a Polish pottery shop and an award-winning football pitch, the Dripping Pan, home of Lewes FC and honored by The largest grounds in British football.
Across the bridge on Cliffe High Street is the original Bill’s Restaurant, which opened in 2001. With its rustic produce store and edgy menu, it’s not hard to see why he turned heads. He makes a roaring trade, just like Gregg’s, a donut throw away.
The picture map in the information center is much more engaging than Google’s and I follow it to the Needlemakers. This heritage building was once a surgical needle factory and is home to many artisan shops. I’m drawn to the smell of wood smoke.
“I opened in August”, explains the owner, introducing herself as a Cop [Felicity Stuart-Menteath]. She tells me her smoke-infused skincare line is inspired by the Sudanese tradition of dukhan (smoke bathing) and foraging in the forest, and talks about our “ancestral relationship with oil and smoke.” “.
Smoke and Lewes – is there an umbilical connection, I wonder? “It looks like a good fit,” she says.
I grab a coffee at the Flint Owl bakery and walk up the steep, arterial main street to the Norman castle. In front of City Hall, a glass panel in the sidewalk reveals the stone steps leading down to the cellar of the old Star Inn where 10 of the 17 martyrs were imprisoned. Blue plaques and listed buildings (529 of them, according to listedbuildings.co.uk) dot Saxon streets. At dusk, you can park a broom in any of the Twittens (lanes) and flint-walled cobbled lanes stand out towards the stables of Nunnery, Popes Passage, Pipe Passage and Rotten Row.
Prints in the window of the Tom Paine Printing Press & Gallery read “Speak Truth To Power” and “Feare the Cliffe” (Cliffe Bonfire Society). The unofficial Sussex motto ‘Wunt be Druv’ (‘we shall not be driven away’) adorns a ceramic Sussex pig and a set of Bonfire Boys and Girls, rimmed guernsey miniatures, cost £60.
Wood museums and old bookshops
At the end of the main street are the wooden house and museum of Anne of Cleves and the castle. At the top of the keep, admiring the view of the Downs, are three Canadians, who have just arrived from the Fifteenth Century Bookshop across the road. I make it my last stop before the Lewes Arms. Inside, shelves are built around the contours of the rooms. The owner says it holds around 8,000 pounds, which could be weeks of sailing. I leave with two Sussex guides and some mites.
Lewes has a tradition of not talking about Bonfire. At this time of year, foreigners, who might question costumes and misinterpret anti-papal slogans, are in surplus. There are costumes to finish, display cases to put up and sermons to write. But over a pint, my companion in the pub, who is part of the high-ranking “clergy” of the Bishops and Bonfire Archbishops, is thawing. He even brought books.
He shows me video footage from last year’s bonfire sermon. Bonfire Boys and Girls throw firecrackers. There is so much smoke and fire that I can barely see his white archbishop’s robe. It’s a huge honour, he says, to be part of a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. “What do your friends and family think? I ask. “Well, I have to go to work on Monday, so I’m wearing gloves and goggles. I’m not completely psychopathic!
No, just a pea-throwing champion and a part-time archbishop. Normal for the course here.
How to watch Bonfire Night in Lewes
The Rocket FM Bonfire live broadcast begins around 5 p.m. on November 5 and continues until the end of the processions at the War Memorial at around 9 p.m.
Trains are not running in or out of Lewes on November 5 and roads are closed.