Tag Archives: Lewes

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.

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Lewes Bonfire Night

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:

Pic: www.world-wide-art.com

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.


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Moving to the country?

So we made a lowball offer on the Sussex place, which has been accepted. You’d think this would be cause for celebration, but I’m now fretting about whether or not this is a terrible idea and I’m going to spend my life weeping into the laundry with only a two-year-old and the Archers for company.

The advantages are: it’s a proper, grown-up house, double-fronted and everything, with a massive garden and enough bedrooms that Misha and I can have an office, and we can invite friends (plural!) to come and stay for the weekend. Having spent about six months studying Rightmove, I know we’d never get anything like that in London for the price.

Emilio would have masses of room to play and do all the baking/art-type activities I currently pretend don’t exist because they’re too messy. And if we did stay down there, I could send him to the local school and know he’d get an education. No 13-grand-a-year fees, no renting an overpriced shoebox next door to the school, no pretending to find Jesus. Just sending him to the nearest school, like normal people.

BUT with the exception of my Mum, who is admittedly a draw, I don’t really know anyone in Sussex. And I don’t know if I can face hauling my arse around playgroups trying to latch onto other mothers. It all sounds a bit bleak, like the rural landscape in winter. And although the countryside boasts lots to do with kids on sunny days (petting zoos, steam railways, that kind of thing), I’m not sure what you do with them when it rains, when you don’t know anybody.

I don’t know *sigh*. I should probably mention that we’d be renting this place, not buying, and only for six months at that (the short lease is the reason it’s so cheap). Which makes it not so much moving to the country as taking a sabbatical there. An extended holiday, really. But just thinking about it makes me miss the Tube and Topshop and Ottolenghi and other people and…

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Leaving Shoreditch…

So it looks like we are finally – finally! – moving out of our one-bed into something a bit more family-friendly. Not sure where that’ll be yet, but we are trying to be open-minded, and yesterday I went to look at a place in the Sussex countryside, outside Lewes. It was beautiful, unnervingly big (where would we find the furniture to fill it?) and cheaper than anything we’d find in last week’s area of choice, Battersea.

But, like anyone who’s lived in London for a long time, I’m slightly terrified of living anywhere else, and assume the world outside to be a backward, parochial place where everything shuts at five o’clock and the food runs the gamut from pub grub to the Panda Chinese takeaway.

I know, I know, this is misguided prejudice and these days you country folk have Daylesford Organics and literary festivals and everything. And it would be nice to see the sky and the seasons. Plus there are other things to think about these days, boring things like schools, parks and sufficient bedrooms.

I’m still not sure where we’ll end up. But although there’s lots about Shoreditch I won’t miss – the dirty main roads, the pollution, the endless fucking scaffolding – having lived here for so long, there is loads I will. Such as:

The cinemas
We have three within easy walking distance: the Barbican, the Rich Mix and the Aubin. They are all great, the problem being that, once you factor in babysitting, the cinema becomes gob-smackingly expensive. Not so long ago, we went to see Attack the Block in Leicester Square, which ended up costing about 70 quid. I wouldn’t mind but it was crap.

Frame
Babies are a test to one’s sanity and exercise is how I preserved mine. Namely at this place, which considerately runs a crèche on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. They do fun classes, like ballet to rock music, and tribute Jane Fonda aerobics, and Joan and Pip, the girls who run it, are lovely.
www.moveyourframe.co.uk

The markets
Columbia Road, Brick Lane and Spitalfields. On Sundays there’s no better place in London to be.

The transport
My friends in other parts of London often comment that they rarely leave their West/East/South/North comfort zone, which always strikes me as a shame because no one part of London is so uniformly great there’s no reason to go elsewhere: to West London for its schmancy boutiques and rich-person people-watching; North London for Hampstead Heath, Primrose Hill and gastropubs; East London for creative edge and comedy hipsters; South London for…

Anyway, what’s great about living where I do is that, with three walkable Tube stations, it’s easy to get anywhere else (except Fulham). And in 2017 there’ll be Crossrail, which means it’ll take six minutes to get to Bond Street and 30 to get to Heathrow. Only six more years to go…

Having proper bars/pubs/cafes/restaurants
Lots of people think that the cafes/pubs/restaurants where they live are nice. They are wrong. They’ve just lowered their standards. Shoreditch has no shortage of rank venues popular with the skirt-n-shirt brigade, but there are still some goodies if you know where to look (and don’t come on a Friday night). The Albion, for instance, or Bottega Prelibato, or the Princess for Sunday lunch.

So – sniff – Shoreditch I will miss you. Thanks for the memories. But I’ve a boy who needs a bedroom, and room to run.

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Jobs to do in another life

On Saturday I was visiting my Mum in Lewes and popped into Cook to pick up that night’s dinner. If you haven’t come across Cook, it’s a small chain selling frozen ready meals using the same ingredients and techniques you would at home, so everything looks and tastes homemade. Prices are around £3.85 a portion, making it cheaper than buying the ingredients and creating the dish yourself. They’re a complete godsend if you’re ill, a new mother or, like me, too bone-idle to cook.

They also do a party range, where you can buy dishes such as large sides of salmon, honey-glazed gammon with cloves, or puy lentil and aduki bean salad. The salads cost £15.95 for what they say is 16-20 portions (so I will call 15). But even so, that’s a little over £1 a portion, which has got to be worth paying if it saves you standing over the hob cooking lentils for 20. Oh, and the dishes taste great. The chocolate mousses are so good my babysitter pigged both of them.

So, as you can tell, I’m sold on Cook. I was telling the man in the Lewes shop this and he in turn told me that he used to work in the City but, seeking a change of lifestyle, bought the franchise on the shop. It was the best thing he ever did, he said. Obviously the first question I wanted to ask was, how much money do you make? But there seem to be rules against asking that sort of thing, so I dressed it up, saying, “I don’t know anything about franchises, do they give you a good deal?”

He immediately guessed what I was getting at and said, “Oh yes. We far exceeded expectations in the first year, and we’re doing so well we’ve bought the franchise on a shop in Hove.” I then whinged about the fact that all their London shops are South West (they’re all in places like Clapham, West Dulwich and Barnes) and he was very encouraging, suggesting that I tell my friends to buy their own franchises and open branches across the rest of London.

I came away thinking that, since the product is so good and well-priced, it would surely be a guaranteed money-spinner. Admittedly Shoreditch isn’t the right location, and the rents in Islington or the City would probably cancel out any profit, but in somewhere like Queen’s Park or West Hampstead they would be all over this. I would be, anyway.

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