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Looking to kill some time at work? Please do check out my new blog at http://www.youresomummy.com
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
How sweet is this children’s bookshop? Every time I shop at Amazon, I feel guilty.
I had a camera for Christmas, so expect the photography round these parts to get a lot more sophisticated. Oh, yes. No more crappy iPhone shots for me. Because I’ve got a shiny new Olympus. I’m desperate to learn how to use it properly, but can’t…face…reading…instruction manual…
Anyway, this one could have done with more flash, methinks.
A common complaint about the countryside is that there’s nothing to do, so it’s been a nice surprise to find just how much is laid on. Admittedly it helps if you’re a fan of talks called things like, ‘Why Watercolour? A Personal View’ or ‘Sussex and the European Union: Should We Stay or Should We Go?’ But, to be fair, if you’ve a small child, you won’t struggle to find something to keep them occupied.
The problem is that everything seems to take place on the second Tuesday or third Thursday of every month (except half-term), which means you need Moneypenny-style organisational skills to keep track of it all (or at least a working knowledge of when the hell school holidays are).
What’s missing, of course, are the museums and galleries – the rainy-day staples of London life that let you feel like you’re on the vanguard of contemporary culture as you sit eating cake in the café and looking at the nice pencils in the shop.
The trick, I’ve decided, is not to try and recreate what I did in London, as this way depression lies. Whereas Sundays are when East London comes into its own, with Columbia Road, Spitalfields and Brick Lane markets in full swing, and cafes packed with people enjoying late brunches and boozy lunches, here we’re back in Morrissey territory, where it’s all a bit silent and grey.
So I’ve embraced the old-school Sunday – roast dinners and country walks, roaring fires and Downton on telly. It’s actually pretty nice. One week I even went to church (admittedly more out of curiosity about the neighbours than Jesus). And this too was pleasant, if exactly like The Vicar of Dibley. Not sure I’ll do it again though. Emilio, quite sweetly, danced and clapped along to the hymns, but I spent the whole time trying to keep him off the organ/pulpit, and even the vicar’s patience was tried.
Since I never once went to church in Shoreditch (that being far more Rev), I guess this all adds up to prove that a countryside move inevitably involves a massive change of life. I just can’t work out whether or not that’s a bad thing.
NB: Even the clothes have changed. This is me in my countryside get-up. I wanted to go for the whole Liberty Barbour/Hunters, look-at-me-fresh-from-the-city thing, but even I blushed at the cliché of it.
**update** I’ve had
two lots of compliments on the hat. It’s Rag & Bone, for anyone who’s interested.
One of the great joys of moving out of London is that – for a while, at least, until you get used to it – you get to swan about like Lady Bountiful, marvelling at how cheap everything is. ‘Three hours’ parking for £1.40, you say? Why, I’ll take six, just because I can!’ ‘Five pounds for my child’s haircut? Here, note the generosity of my tip!’ Whole afternoons can be passed trawling the antiques shops, hissing, ‘See this farmhouse table? Do you know how much this would cost at Spitalfields?’
The flipside of this is that the pace is proudly slooow. People here shudder at the go-go-go nature of London as if the alternative is somehow better, when in reality it’s no more than a series of minor irritations.
Yesterday, for instance, I took a pair of shoes in to be re-heeled. ‘Next Monday all right for you?’ said the cobbler. I was so busy doing my amenable new-in-town face that it only occurred to me on leaving that this was a full week away. A week to re-heel a pair of shoes. Isn’t the whole point that they do them while you wait?
Similarly shop-opening hours, hardly drawn-out at the best of times, seem to be vague guidelines rather than any kind of diktat. The other day I popped into our estate agent’s at 5pm, a full hour before it was due to close, and found it locked up for the night. I mean, for fuck’s sake. You might as well live in France.
In Lewes, our closest town, Bonfire Night is the highlight of the year. As the biggest bonfire event in the UK (in the world?), it’s both crowded and dangerous (last year someone was hit in the chest with a stray rocket, while the Bonfire Council – there is indeed such a thing – invokes the doctrine volenti non fit injuria, which roughly translates as, ‘You’re on your own, mate.’)
The event takes the form of a series of processions through town, with seven Bonfire societies competing to have the best fireworks and effigies. Members of the parade carry flaming torches and hurl barrels of burning tar down the narrow, smoke-filled streets. It’s quite the spectacle. Imagine something like this, but with drums and costumes:
It’s also controversial. The event celebrates the protestant martyrs burned at the stake in the 16th century, which, before your eyes glaze over, means that it is outwardly – though not actually – anti-Catholic. Signs saying ‘No popery’ hang above the streets, while members of the procession carry burning crosses (this, with its KKK connotations, is more uncomfortable than any tongue-in-cheek anti-Catholic propaganda.)
Nonetheless the BBC has been rather sniffy about it, likening it to Northern Ireland. On hearing this, my initial reaction was to think how ridiculous they were being. Of course it’s not offensive – this is tradition, not bigotry – and, honestly, how po-faced can you be? Then it struck me that I sounded like one of those commenters on the Daily Mail Online who claim that the term ‘Paki’ is a harmless derivative of Pakistani and no more offensive than calling a Welshman a Taffy.
But I gave it more thought and again came to the conclusion that it wasn’t insulting. I mean, no one in Lewes really dislikes Catholics, and what’s history but a game of goodies and baddies? And given that a good 500 years have passed since all this kicked off, it’s safe to say no one still bears a grudge.
So what you’ve got in the end – unlike in Northern Ireland – isn’t a political statement, but a charming and slightly nerdy reenactment. It’s a lot of fun, anyway. I wish I could have gone, but it’s not the sort of place you can take a two-year-old and finding a babysitter is a bitch. I got my Mum to take some pictures for me though.