A guide to Lewes

One of the nice things about living in the capital is that, when you travel and strangers ask where you’re from, you get to reply ‘London’ in a tone that says, ‘Go on then, trump that.’ Lewes, unfortunately, lacks this brag factor, being a small town near Brighton few people outside Sussex have heard of and fewer still can pronounce (it’s Lew-es, like John, not Loos.) It’s a lovely place nonetheless, full of winding twittens and olde-worlde buildings – not poker-up-the-arse posh, but smart enough that you can pick up MiH jeans and REN skincare in the high street.

For the South East it’s unusually leftie, home to its share of Guardian journalists (including Polly Toynbee and Nick Davies, of hacking-scandal fame). Other notables include that Brummie one off the Fast Show and Arthur Brown (You know. ‘I am the god of hell fire, and I bring you… Fire! Da-da-da-da-da…’)

The town attracts numerous DFLs like me, along with lots of hippies and alternative types who like the idea of living in Brighton but secretly think it’s a bit rough. It’s well worth a daytrip, particularly if you’re furnishing a house, as there are about a thousand antiques shops, all miles cheaper than their London counterparts. And, unlike many English towns, Lewes has some excellent places to eat, places that pass the London test (as in: would I eat here if it was in London?)

It’s an hour and nine minutes from Victoria, which is about the same time it takes to get across town, so you’ve no excuse. And if you do come, I recommend you visit these places:

Where to eat

Bill’s

I can safely say that Bill’s passes the London test because last year a branch opened in Covent Garden. Naturally, being part of a chain (albeit a small one) makes it about 15 per cent less good, but the Lewes outpost is the original and, yes, the best. Everyone I bring here (and I do bring everyone here) says it reminds them of a Californian market, with shiny produce displayed everywhere and a generally wholesome vibe.

Le Magasin

Stylish café where everything, from the table you sit at to the antlers on the walls, is for sale. Most of it’s in that designer-y French-brocante style, where everything’s a thousand shades of grey. Swing by at the end of the day, when the artisanal bread is going cheap.

The Buttercup Café

Tucked away in Pastorale Antiques is this quirky little café, serving home-made soups, stews and spectacular salads. It’s a bit like Ottolenghi, if Ottolenghi was charmingly homespun and about a third of the price. I love Bill’s and Le Magasin, but prefer this place.

Where to drink

The Pelham Arms

I’d probably frequent this pub more if it wasn’t at the top of a massive hill. It’s nice. The interior has been Farrow and Balled, but not too annoyingly, and the lunches are excellent.

The Snowdrop

There’s something about the atmosphere of this pub everyone seems to like (they’re not funny about kids or dogs, either.) Incidentally, it takes its name from the UK’s biggest avalanche, which killed eight people on this spot in 1836. Which I thought was kind of tasteless, but there you go.

The Ram

If you want to check out the local countryside, go to Firle, which is so Sunday-night ITV drama it’s regularly used as a film location. The Ram is the village pub, and very smart it is too.

Where to shop

Wickle

Everyone in Lewes (well, me and my Mum) is slightly obsessed with Wickle, a mini department store stocking expertly chosen clothes, homewares and gifts. It’s not a big shop, but every corner is piled high with stuff, which means you can spend ages rummaging (and I do). It’s very family friendly, with Brio for the kids to play with and a teashop (lots of shops here serve coffee and cakes – hell, even the organic paint shop doubles as a cafe.)

Lewes Antiques Centre

Lewes is full of antiques shops and naturally there’s an element of luck to what you find, but this one, set on four floors and housing different concessions, is my favourite. I bought some coat hooks here for about £20 – similar ones in Anthropologie will set you back 68 quid.

Paul Clarke

From the outside, this place looks like a tweedy gentleman’s outfitters, but it’s all done with a wink, The Chap magazine-style. The women’s shop is further up the hill and stocks, among other things, Margaret Howell and Johnstons cashmere.

Flint

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Gift and homewares shop again selling pretty things in tasteful shades of grey and taupe.  The clothes upstairs are worth a look, and include By Malene Birger, Citizens of Humanity jeans and those H by Hudson boots, which look more expensive than they really are.

The Needlemakers

This looks like one of those slightly twee rural shopping malls, the kind that houses lots of crafty boutiques selling hand-crafted pottery and silver jewellery. It is that, sort of, but downstairs is a properly good bookshop and an excellent vintage shop (check out the cashmere.) And there’s something nicely straightforward about their advertising:

The café’s nice, too.

Bag of Books 

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How sweet is this children’s bookshop? Every time I shop at Amazon, I feel guilty.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “A guide to Lewes

  1. simon

    I presume this is a send up in the style of Chris Morris ? A Nathan Barley wannabe tells all his uber cool mates about Lewes (flint ? wickle ? Bills ?, do me a favour…) Fails to mention Harveys brewery, Britains oldest independent brewer. Fails, fails, fails.

    • It’s a bit of a wanky list, I’ll concede, with plenty of glaring omissions (Harvey’s Brewery being just one.) But it’s just a lighthearted guide aimed at people who’ve never been here before – not insiders such as yourself – so I wouldn’t get too frothed up about it.

    • I presume this is a send up in the style of the Lewes Forum? An uber-local tells off a seemingly perfectly nice person, and potential new neighbour or – heaven forbid – friend, for recommending local businesses to people coming from outside town for the day, so they can bring their money into our town’s economy.
      Fails to mention string, Lewes #1 commodity. Fails, fails, fails. ;)

  2. Enjoyed the review of Lewes. Makes me want to go for lunch at Bill’s – perhaps with the boys at Half Term for all day breakfast.

  3. Gideon Mantell

    Is this article a joke?
    It certainly reads like one to Lewesians.

  4. Nice post sir. I’m a Lewes person too…
    Most of these places (apart from the pubs, natch) aren’t ones I tend to go to much – amazingly I’ve never once been to Bill’s for example – but there you go. Doesn’t mean they’re not good places, and in fact if I was recommending places for people to visit on a day trip, my list would be pretty similar.
    Plus they’re mostly all local, non-chain type shops – thanks very much for ‘bigging up’ our little town, and encouraging your friends (and their money, lol) to visit :)
    All the best
    Matt
    ps I presume you know The Chap is produced here too?

  5. What a faux pas! I can’t believe you went to visit somewhere and blogged an opinion about it. Gawsh! :)

    Anyhoo, next visit, I think you should explore the bus station cafe: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=lewes&hl=en&ll=50.874643,0.01408&spn=0.00141,0.002851&sll=53.800651,-4.064941&sspn=21.718578,46.713867&t=h&z=19&layer=c&cbll=50.874643,0.01408&panoid=v0t7-M7iJUYjVj7mQzcZ7A&cbp=12,306.73,,0,0

    Your homework could be to find out how it links with one of your favourite Lewes eating spots…

    PS: I’ve never been to either establishment mentioned above, so I take no responsibility for the results.

  6. Anonymous

    Hi,
    Enjoyed reading your blog post, you definitely have a way with words.
    I’m currently living in London – Highgate, and moving towards Hove for work.
    Would you still recommend Lewes a year later? Are you still there?
    Is it full of locals like Simon? If so, I’m giving it a miss.
    Have enough jumped-up, small minded fools like him at the newspaper i currently work for.
    Thanks Jessica

    • Hi,

      Yes, we’re still here, a year on. I’d rather live in Highgate, to be honest, but you’ll get an awful lot more for your money down here. And it is lovely when the sun’s out, even if that is for only five days a year. Actually, everyone I’ve met has been pretty nice – I’m sure there’s a contingent of disgruntled locals, but all the people I meet have come from either London or Brighton. It’s good – pretty buildings, nice shops and cafes, lovely countryside. I say come!

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the reply.
        My husband has his heart set on Lewes, I’m leaning towards Hove (solely because I’m already daydreaming about the daily dog walk along the beach).
        Countryside, cafes and shops sounds good though.

      • Hmmm, it’s a toughie. A lot depends on whether you have kids, I think. If not, I suspect Hove will be more fun. I’m not sure Lewes really does nightlife, although I might be wrong (I don’t get out much).

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