Saturday, 21 December 2013

Lewes Historic Trail

View From The Mount
We struck lucky once again with the weather and the girls and I had another day to amuse ourselves. They were keen to have another outing in the lovely autumn sunshine, but with the countryside all around under a sea of mud I fancied a rather different kind of walk and we therefore headed over to my home town of Lewes for a history trail.  The girls lapped it up - we downloaded a trail they could follow and we parked at the railway station for the start.
Lewes Priory

Our first port of call was Lewes Priory, which was an absolute revelation to me!  For my whole life it was dismissed as a dangerous structure and surrounded by a high chain link fence to deter visitors.  However, with a good deal of lottery money spent on it the ruin of what was left.  The result showed that there is value in the remains of what is left (and it isn't much!).  This once extensive priory was destroyed by Thomas Cromwell during the reformation.  Having been demolished in situ the remains were then systematically plundered for building materials and especially for Southover Grange, a short distance away.  Interpretive boards showed us what I have been looking at without a clue for many years. Ironically the main part of the building still left is the toilet block!  What was particularly striking to me is how much of the original estate is now under nearby housing and the nearby railway line.  Indeed during the excavation of the railway in the 1840s, the bodies of William and Gundrada De Warenne (the founders of Lewes Castle) were found and removed to nearby Southover Church for reburial.

Battle of Lewes Memorial
The Priory has been imaginatively restored and it was quite possible to feel the atmosphere of the old place.  Where the walls had been completely mined of their stone, outlines of the old structure had been drawn out in the turf, giving a good idea of how extensive the complex must once have been.  I also found out more about the little tower at the far end of the site, which had always fascinated me. Despite appearances it wasn’t that old, although its history is a little unclear.  It is thought to have been built by John Blaker, who owned Lewes Priory in the middle of the 1800s and later became the town clerk.  It appears on the OS map of 1873 so was probably built soon after the railway came through.

Prospect Tower
Having had a good walk around the ruins we headed off to a building with another connection to Henry VIII, the so-called Anne of Cleves House.  This 15th Century house was given to Anne of Cleves as part of the annulment settlement from her ill-fated marriage to Henry VIII.  She never actually lived in the house though and most of the articles on display illustrate life in Sussex rather than being connected to those far off Tudor times. The house does have some Tudor furnishings though and the children liked having a poke about in the bedroom and perhaps the kitchen even more.  Here they were able to open pots that had typical Tudor smells in them, some of them good and some plain awful!  I was drawn more to the room full of Lewes artefacts and two pictures on the wall caught my attention most of all, which were of Lewes Bonfire in Victorian times and what still counts as the worst avalanche in Britain, which killed 9 people in the Cliffe back in Victorian times. The visit occupied us for about 50 minutes and the girls came away with some little Tudor rings as souvenirs of their trip.

Inside Anne of Cleves House
Opposite Anne of Cleves House is the former Southover Manor School, an independent girls school of some repute that was opened in the 1920s and lasted until 1988.  I can remember seeing the girls playing hockey in the fields outside when I passed by on the train.  Now sadly all you see is housing as the playing fields are now occupied by Cluny Street.  One of the former pupils of the school was none other than Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall who grew up in this part of Sussex.

Southover Manor
Our next stop was the wonderful gardens at Southover Grange. As mentioned before the old house (dating from the 16th Century) was largely built from stones that came from Lewes Priory.  The gardens are what draw people here though, and even this late in the season there was plenty to look at.  The colours of some of the shrubs were at their zenith and a fiery red one by the house itself really caught my eye.  The sunlight picked out the textures of the grasses  and the autumn colours perfectly, while we also enjoyed the sculptures that seem to have popped up in the gardens.

Southover Grange
We wandered around for a short while before passing my old school and heading up the steep climb of Keere Street.   For two years I used to walk this way home each day from school and always seemed like a mountain! This cobbled hill was the unlikely spot where a royal dare is supposed to have been carried out.  The Prince Regent (later to become George IV) drove down the street with a coach and horses to win a bet.  Judging from the steepness of the street it must have been terrifying for all concerned!

Grange Grasses
We stopped off for a sausage sandwich in the cafe at the top (on the request of the two girls) and a welcome rest.  Once refreshed we passed by Thomas Paine's house (he of the 'Rights of Man' fame) and on to the castle.  Thomas Paine was rather a colourful character, being an excise officer during his time living in Lewes and this experience resulted in him becoming politically active.  He became one of the main characters in the War of Independence in the USA as his papers were widely admired and helped to draw up the documentation of the Founding Fathers.

St Michael's Church
The castle is the centrepiece of the town and used to be a mainstay of all school trips when I was a kid.  There isn't a huge amount left but it does provide a great view across the town.  We started our visit in the small museum across the road from the castle, which houses a lot of archaeological material found on the chalk hills that surround the town.  There was time to have a look at the town model, which I think I must have seen about 20 years ago last.  These days it is possible to go into The Barbican as well as the castle (this wasn’t the case when I was a boy) so we started our castle visit there.  On one of the intermediate floors the children got to have a go at dressing up in mediaeval clothing, which pleased them no end.  While dressed up they also had a go at the siege engines that were placed out as demonstrations (models of course).

Rights of Man
The displays in the main part of the castle tell the story of the Battle of Lewes in 1264.  We were taught as children that this was one of the pivotal battles in English History as outcome led to the setting up of the English Parliament.  The battle was fought by the forces of Henry III, a deeply unpopular and autocratic King and the barons led by Simon de Montfort.  The Kings forces were well beaten largely because of the tactics of De Montfort, although he didn’t live long to see the fruits of his win as he was killed in the Battle of Evesham the following year.  He did enough though to win the concession of having the King recognise baronial influence in the ruling of the country, a forerunner of what we now know as Parliament.

Lewes Castle
By now it was mid afternoon and the light was sadly beginning to fade. We wandered down through town as far as Cliffe High Street.  The immediate impression I git from walking down the High Street was how much the town had changed since I grew up here.  The buildings largely remain the same of course as most of them are listed (save for the odd awful 1960s one thrown in), but the businesses on the ground floor are almost totally different.  
Castle View

At Cliffe Bridge we headed across the Railway Land Nature Reserve that was a beloved playground for me as a child (and when it was a proper wild place!).  This part of the town has now been turned into a visitor attraction, but when I was a child the old sidings had been gone for about 12 years and vestiges of them still remained.  There was also a short stretch of embankment of the old Uckfield line where we used to try and catch slow worms and butterflies.  I realise of course that we were here during the autumn months, but my experience of coming on to this nature reserve is that there is far less biodiversity than there ever was back then.  

Harvey's Reflections
By now it was getting increasingly dark and we found the car back at Lewes Station.  My trip down memory lane was very enjoyable for me and the kids thought the museums were very cool. I was only sad that there wasn’t more daylight for I think we would have happily walked further.  Maybe another time?

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