Why You Should Visit... Lewes, East Sussex

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 10 months ago

Last Updated 01 September 2023

Why You Should Visit... Lewes, East Sussex
Image: Shutterstock

"Bonfire trousers - £4 a pair" reads a handwritten sign outside a charity shop.

Curiosity gets the better of us, and we venture inside and ask the volunteer at the till what exactly bonfire trousers are. White trousers, it turns out, any white trousers — a commodity in demand in this area during the autumn, on account of the town's Bonfire Night event.

And that's our introduction to Lewes. Unsurprising really, given that the East Sussex town is famous for its Bonfire Night celebrations (more on which below). But what is there to do here the rest of the year?

What's Lewes like?

Photo: Londonist

A word of warning: Lewes is hilly. The name Lewes derives from the Old English ‘hlaews’ (‘hills’ or ‘mounds’). The eastern end of the town centre, known as Cliffe High Street, is fairly flat, luring you into a false sense of security, the undulation beginning just past Waitrose, and continuing all the way up the high street... and up... and up. Until you're in shaky calves territory.

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But its undulating streets only adds to Lewes's charm. This place is extremely photogenic. Anywhere can be an Instagrammer's playground these days, but Lewes doesn't need hot pink cafes or edgy street murals. It has higgledy-piggledy, olde worlde beauty in abundance. Half-beam houses with wonky doors serve up charm by the spadeful, and the narrow, cobbled streets to the south of the high street wouldn't look out of place in the more famously-bucolic Rye.

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A lovely hand painted sign on a wall in Lewes. Look closely and you can see the words of a previous sign written underneath.

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With street names like Church Twitten, and shops called things like Closet & Botts, there's even an air of Harry Potter. Look out for ghost signs like the one above, dotted about on various walls in the town.

Things to see and do in Lewes

Lewes Castle. Image: Shutterstock

The main attraction in the moderately-sized town is Lewes Castle, a towering Norman fortress. Even if you're not into your Norman history, it's worth climbing to the top of the battlements for the views over Sussex (did we mention that Lewes is partial to a hill?). While you're there, pop into the adjoining archaeology museum where a mini-cinema tells the story of Lewes from prehistoric to Victorian times.

The other historical landmark in Lewes is Anne of Cleves' House — something of a misleading moniker. When Henry VIII tired of his fourth wife, he arranged an annulment of their marriage, which resulted in a generous settlement including several properties. She never even visited the Lewes property bearing her name, let alone lived there, and these days, the house is a museum showcasing the Tudor and Elizabethan way of life, and displaying items of local historical interest.

Anne of Cleves House. Image: Public domain

If you already know anything about Lewes (apart from the bonfires), it's likely to do with a certain brewery. Harvey's does run tours of its riverside home, but they are in high demand, with places very limited. Alternatively you can swing by the adjoining shop to pick up bottles of your favourite Harvey's tipple. Our resident beer expert raves about the bargain-priced (and rocket fuel-strength) stouts and Christmas ales to be snapped up.

Harvey's Brewery. Photo: Londonist

Once you're warmed up from trekking those hills, cool off with a dip in the oldest documented freshwater outdoor public swimming pool in the UK. Pells Pool opens from May-October every year, a 43m x 26m lido with exercise lane, paddling pool, changing rooms and toilets, and lawn area. If you're wary of cold water, visit towards the end of the season, when it's hopefully been warmed up. Be warned though: tickets sell out on a sunny day.

Photo: Pells Pool

For a dash of culture, head to Lewes Depot — based in the former Harveys Depot. Located near the station, this independent cinema and arts venue offers new-release film screenings, arthouse films and NT Live broadcasts, live music and supper clubs. It's also got an all-day cafe and bistro.

Where to eat and drink in Lewes

The original Bill's. Image: Google Maps

The pub game is strong in Lewes — and we're talking proper, old English pubs, none of this new-fangled craft beer nonsense. We've had ourselves a jolly old time at The Dorset in the past, towering Guys ready for Bonfire Night hanging around ominously in corners — although it more recently came to attention with a vegan  controversy.

The Lewes Arms is a Fuller's venue, a homey bar with a small garden that regularly features in best pubs lists. Symposium is a bijou wine bar by the station, serving up some unusual, and very well priced, vintages by the glass or bottle. We had a delicious Israeli red for £4.50.

Stonebaked pizza is available at The Lamb of Lewes

For food and drink, Bill's is a strong contender. Yes, it's a chain restaurant with venues all over the country, but the Lewes branch is the original. It was opened in 2001 by local greengrocer Bill Collison, and these days is a great place to sit and people-watch shoppers at the pedestrianised Cliffe High Street end of town.

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For something fancier, try Lime Tree Kitchen. Its ethos is in sustainable, local produce, which it turns into small plates and other dishes, with plenty of veggie options. There's also a boutique hotel room upstairs, if the restaurant's Gin Kitchen offerings all get a bit much (gin is a common theme around these parts).

Tucked away in the courtyard of Pastorale Antiques, opposite The Dorset, Cafe du Jardin (pictured above) is a French-inspired bistro serving pastries and egg dishes for breakfasts, and soups, quiches and salads for lunch.

Flint Owl Cafe sits on the main High Street

Flint Owl Cafe is an ideal pitstop halfway up the High Street hill, serving freshly-baked cakes, pastries and bread, along with hot drinks, with a secluded outdoor seating area out back for sunny days. Otherwise, head a bit further uphill and bear right for breakfasts and light lunches at Backyard Cafe, tucked away in the Needlemakers indoor shopping area. Demolish soups, ciabattas and pastries before indulging in some retail therapy — which brings us on to...

The best shops in Lewes

Photo: Londonist

To our mind, Lewes has the perfect balance between high street shops, and independent stores, a few charity and antique shops in the mix to keep bargain hunters happy — and more than its fair share of bookshops.

Even if you're not in the market for a new read, it's well worth trekking up to the top of town to clap eyes on The Fifteenth Century Bookshop, a beautiful half-beam building with a swinging sign, and a door that most people need to duck to get into. The books are reasonably priced too — we left with three for just over a fiver on our last visit. Bag of Books, at the complete opposite end of town, is a modern children's bookshop with eye-catching window displays. If you make it this far, wander up the side road it's located on to see some bucolic houses and cottages.

The Fifteenth Century Bookshop. Photo: Londonist

The aforementioned Needlemakers is a converted Victorian factory, now home to small collection of independent businesses including another bookshop, a jewellery store and a tailors. Speaking of jewellery, Silverado on the main High Street is a favourite of ours, selling quirky and unusual trinkets at prices that won't (always) make you wince.

Of a similar persuasion to Needlemakers, but slightly more modern is Riverside Lewes, a petite indoor shopping building in a former wharf home to a few different businesses. Haberdashery The Stitchery is a favourite of ours.

Lewes Flea Market is located inside the Methodist church, with vintage and antique dealers from all over gathering to sell their wares, from second hand furniture and retro homewares, to genuine, one-of-a-kind antiques. There are plenty of other antiquing gems dotted about town too.

Once you know about Bonne Bouche, you'll wonder how you missed it

One final mention for Bonne Bouche — no relation to the London artisan coffee chain,  but rather a tiny chocolatier. Tucked away down St Martin's Lane off the High Street, you'd be forgiven for missing it completely, but as soon as you start walking down the narrow hill, its bright pink frontage reveals itself. It was opened in 1987 by Elizabeth Syrett, formerly a chocolate buyer at Fortnum & Mason.

Unusual and quirky traditions in Lewes

Bonfire Night events in Lewes. Image: Shutterstock

Bonfire Night in Lewes

So about those white trousers. Lewes Bonfire Night is the biggest 5 November event anywhere in the world. Lewes and surrounding villages are home to several (friendly-ish) rival Bonfire societies, each hosting a celebration in the run-up to 5 November (seriously, Bonfire Night begins in September in this corner of East Sussex).

On the night of 5 November, they each begin their own procession, the routes joining up to form one huge parade through the town. 17 burning crosses are carried to represent the 17 Lewes Martyrs, and a wreath is laid at the war memorial. Those white trousers are paired with striped jumpers (different coloured stripes for each society), black boots and a red woolly hat to form a smuggler's costume, worn by everyone participating in the parade — and with up to 5,000 people taking part, you can see why white trousers are in demand at this time of year.

Crowds of around 80,000 turn up on 5 November to watch, so if you're planning to go, prepare for huge crowds, long queues, and no parking/vehicles in the town centre itself — many people walk from nearby villages.

Lewes pea throwing championships

The Lewes Arms. Photo: Londonist

At the complete opposite end of the scale is the Lewes pea throwing championships, an event so sedate, so genteel, that some locals have no idea it goes on in their town. For one afternoon in August — one hour of one afternoon, to be precise — the Lewes Arms hosts contestants taking it in turns to throw three peas down a lane next to the pub, the winner being the one whose legume travels furthest. The same pub also hosts an annual spaniel racing event (any dogs welcome).