“Will you be joining me for Hiroshima night?” asked my landlady on my first evening In Lewes. “To float candles down the River Ouse?” I had found lodgings with a remarkable octogenarian, vegan (“I don’t mind you bringing meat into the house but I don’t want to see it eyeing me up when I open the fridge”) homeopath. Mrs Thompson’s political views were way to the left. She worshipped Tony Benn. She was also not alone in Lewes. What might have appeared to me, from my location in the north west of England, as standard home counties territory proved in fact to be rather more radical, frequently anti-establishment and in many ways unique (see especially “Lewes Bonfire” on the web). I knew we’d feel right at home.
Those who live here already know but, for those who don’t, Lewes is a brilliant little town that consistently punches above its weight. It’s a great place to potter round, with its Norman castle, narrow twittens (lanes bordered by continuous, high flint walls) and challengingly steep streets, and the picturesque, independent Harveys brewery standing alongside the River Ouse and giving out a splendid (my wife and daughter disagree with me on this one) aroma.
Being “alternative” seems always to have been the Lewes “thing”. The barons led by Simon de Montfort defeated the army of King Henry III here in 1264, which in my book counts as being a tad left of centre. The Marian persecutions of 1555 to 1557 included the burning at the stake of seventeen Protestant martyrs outside what is now the town hall – an event commemorated each year on 5 November, along with the Gunpowder Plot, in the country’s biggest annual bonfire celebrations. In the late 18th century we (we?) were home for several pivotal years to Tom Paine without whom no major political revolution, and certainly not the American or French ones, would have been complete. Interesting to wonder how Tom would get along in modern day Lewes. Organising petitions about the local parking scheme probably, or picketing pubs which didn’t stock the local brew. In true Lewes fashion he has his own beer named after him.
Surprisingly, Lewes – in Sussex, remember — admits to Britain’s worst ever loss of life in an avalanche. Eight people died in 1836 following a major fall of snow from high ground overlooking the eastern end of the town, commemorated in the name of the pub now close to the site – the Snowdrop. On a more positive note, we lay claim to the oldest freshwater lido in the country, our own currency (the Lewes pound) and Rodin’s “the Kiss”. Admittedly this last had to be removed and hidden from public view at the insistence of Miss Fowler-Tutt (honestly), headmistress of the local girls’ school. This is going back a bit, mind, to the First World War when it was feared the statue might give ideas to the large number of young soldiers billeted round the town.
When the whole of the lower part of the town disappeared under the flood waters of the Ouse in the year 2,000, the community did what it does best and rallied round. Harveys
brewery bottled, as “Ouse Booze”, the brew that had been interrupted when the site had to be evacuated, and donated the sales to the flood relief fund. With the brewing process having gone on longer than was decent because of the evacuation, the resulting “Booze” put hairs on the chest of the smoothest Lewesian and was likely to lead to further inundation if you walked too close to the river on the way home.
There are of course potential downsides to small town living. Be very, very careful who you gesticulate at through the car window. That complete and utter plonker who just cut you up may well prove to be a near neighbour, a teacher at your offspring’s primary school, a member of your babysitting network or a member of the council committee that you will be reporting to later that afternoon. Or in my most memorable case, all of those.
We do a nice line in interesting road junctions, complemented by our own version of the Highway Code, thanks to a general reluctance on the part of the townsfolk to allow the public authorities to demolish the town and replace it with “proper” roads. “Shared” road space is not just an interesting, modern day take on traffic management: it’s what you do when two five foot wide vehicles pass in a six foot wide street with a bus bearing down.
We seem to have more societies than people in Lewes and most of those have plenty to contribute to any debate, any issue. In many parts of the country, they say that councils find it hard to engage with the public. Not in Lewes, they don’t. We’re also now within the country’s newest national park, the South Downs. They tell us we’re the biggest town in any of the national parks, which is expected to raise “new and distinctive issues”. They don’t know the half of it.
Footnote: Sunday 16 March 2014: Manchester United 0 Liverpool 3. I’m just saying.