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.