Royal Tars of Old England

Royal Tars of Old England poster

Royal Tars of Old England poster

This “Royal Tars of Old England” poster is moderately famous and is reproduced in various ways. I’ve seen it on tea towels and faux rusted tin wall hangings alongside modern copies of Kitchener and his pointing finger and the “Keep Calm” poster that has been turned to a mind-boggingly large number of purposes (“keep calm and I love shopping” being one I’ve seen, and I’m not sure that even makes sense as a sentence).

This poster is an original though, printed in Lewes, nearly 220 years old and picked up for just a few pounds and for much less than the modern copies. I like the rips in the corner where it was pulled off whatever wall it was nailed to before being folded and put away somewhere as posters for other conflicts replaced it. I don’t know where it came from but perhaps one of many pubs that displayed these posters when they were printed in 1797.

It’s an appeal for men to join the navy (“any Ship o’ War”) down the road in Shoreham, where a blockade was set up at sea to help ensure merchant ships could land. “Let us…protect and defend our good KING and COUNTRY against…our natural enemies who intend in this year to invade OLD ENGLAND…to murder our gracious King as they have done their own, to make whores of our Wives and Daughters…to teach us nothing but the damn’d Art of murdering one another…now is the time to show your love, all who have good hearts…who hate the French and damn the Pope”.

The language is a great piece of marketing, picking numerous angles so you’re sure to find one that resonates with you. The King…but if that’s not your thing then how about bashing the Pope? Protecting womenhood? Fighting the French? Patriotism too of course, and the financial incentive isn’t small either – the landmen’s “bounty” of 30 shillings was nearly a month’s salary upfront.

It was printed by William and Arthur Lee in their premises at 64 High Street, Lewes, which is now where Rowland Gorringe trade. The Lee’s father was something of a revolutionary and was a member of the Headstrong club with his friend Thomas Paine, and printed his first pamphlets for him too.

England in 1797 would have felt DSC_0185 very genuinely under threat, which is perhaps why such strong language is used. This year the French actually invaded, landing in Wales, captained by an American. This was the last time Britain was invaded but they weren’t to know that then. It wasn’t just the French who were being fought either, it was also the year Nelson lost his arm fighting the Spanish. The world was an increasingly uncertain place with revolutions, new alliances and the old order being overturned, and the dominance of the Empire was being questioned and challenged in a way it perhaps hadn’t been before.

When this poster was being printed Lewes was going through a period of transition too: a smattering of new large residential dwellings were going up, and the Freemason’s hall had just been built for the first time. The Market Tower and Friends Meeting House were new buildings too. In fact, a lot of the Lewes we recognise today first appeared within a decade either side of this poster being produced.

Reading the newspapers of the time gives a strong sense of the kinds of fears and uncertainties the town and nation endured too: the French, not content with invading, and not for the first time, were capturing trade shipping within sight of the Sussex coast and taking the boats, their supplies and their crews with them (hence the need for the blockade and enlarged navy this poster is recruiting for). The Lewes MP – one of the Pelham family whose name lasts on in town businesses – went missing in October 1797 for such a long time and causing sufficient concern it made the press. Eventually he turned up in Bath “in good health” though no reason appears to have been given.

Even now with the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to read the stories and not get the impression everything was on the edge of tipping over into chaos. Hard to imagine though what it would have felt like to live through it.

There’s humour too though – a local flax dresser “for a trifling wager” started the year by deciding to eat a square foot of plum pudding in a fortnight. According to the newspaper that’s 1738 cubic inches and would weigh “if properly baked” 42 pounds. For a modern equivalent I think that’s about 400 jam filled sugary doughnuts…

Georgian Lewes feels in many ways like Lewes today though – the posters are very different obviously and while the challenges and changes may be less existentially threatening than they were, if in 220 years anyone is looking at the posters and newspapers of today they’ll unquestionably still see echoes from the 18th century into the 21st.

I don’t know if there’s any record of how many people from Lewes responded to the poster but it took 18 years for this particular threat to diminish via Waterloo, Trafalgar and a host of other battles that I’m sure would have had men from Lewes involved.

More on them some other time perhaps.


Over the hills and far away…

For over 20 years now I’ve tried to make the most of living near the South Downs in Sussex, with Tennyson’s lines becoming a bit of a mantra for me:

“You came, and looked and loved the view
Long-known and loved by me,
Green Sussex fading into blue
With one gray glimpse of sea.”

Living as I do at the top of what I’m fairly sure is the Biggest Hill in the Whole of Lewes I’m blessed in that I have a view just like that from some of the rooms in my house, and can be on the hills in less than a 3 minute walk from my front door. Sometimes I’ll even leave my house earlier than I have to just so I can divert my route onto them and spend a bit of time absorbing the benefits they offer – there’s something about the 360 degree space and rolling green that can’t be conveyed photographically, but which resets my brain. Having lived in a lot of places without this I never forget how lucky I am.

For the past few years I’ve worked in Brighton, around 8 miles door to door by road, though occasionally I’ll walk home over the Downs, which is closer to 11 miles, slightly more if I take a short break in the pub in the village of Kingston on the way through, sometimes a temptation too big to ignore. This morning, waking early and with the promise of a lovely day, I decided to walk in to the office.

It was total darkness when I left my house, and I’d dropped down through Nevill and Winterbourne Hollow up to the Swan without encountering any cars or people – in fact, it was about 5 miles in before I saw anyone else, a lone mountain biker enjoying the countryside as much as I was.

Ashcombe WindmillBy the time I reached Ashcombe windmill the sun was brightening the sky and the frost that had surprised me in feeling it underfoot was now glinting, while the only sound was a cacophony of birds and waking farm animals all around.

There was a mist now visible too, glowing a pale blue between Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon, as slowly pink and orange clouds started to appear in what had been a totally clear night sky.

By the time I reached Kingston Ridge the sun was starting to come up fully from behind Caburn – the kind of stunning sunrise which reminds you why getting up early can often be a very good thing. Stopping briefly to take some photos I was amazed, as I always am, but just how far you can see from this spot.

Sunrise over Mount Caburn

HillsThen on towards the Castle Hill nature reserve, Seaford Head in the distance just starting to creep out of the mist, and dropping down into Woodingdean, then along the seafront from Brighton to Hove under a perfect blue sky, and into work.

It’s not a bad way to get to the office, and while I’m changing jobs soon I’ll still be doing my best to make sure I’m on the hills as much as possible.

I just wanted to say thanks too for visiting my blog – I was surprised this week to see I’m getting over 700 visitors most months. That’s a spur to make sure I update it more often than I have been doing 🙂

The sea in Brighton this morning

The sea in Brighton this morning

We’re all merry and bright at Seaford

I have many happy memories of childhood visits to my grandparent’s house, idyllic then, and still so now in recall. Among the pictures on the walls and bookshelves was a studio-taken photograph of a proud man wearing medals, who I would later learn was my great great uncle. I met him once when I was very young, and have a hazy recollection of him laughing and that he gave me a little bit of pocket money – I still have the small picture I bought with it as a souvenir of meeting him.

I would later learn more of his story, and that he was a professional soldier who had joined the army while underage and before even the outbreak of the First World War. As a result he was in the first group sent to France in 1914 right at the outset, he was in the Battle of the Marne, the retreat from Mons, and somehow survived the whole war while working in the incredibly dangerous role of being a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery, at some point earning a medal from the King of Belgium too. There’s a photograph of him somewhere in France or Belgium with his friends, a chalked sign in front of them declaring them the “Hell for Leather Drivers”, and he’s the youngest by far in a group of some impossibly young looking men. Not surprising as even after a couple of years on the front line he was still too young to officially be there.

Later I’d be given his brother’s – my great grandfather’s – medals from that same war. His story and that of his family is incredible – the type of extraordinary heroes who like so many of that generation survived adversity after adversity in a way that’s nearly impossible to imagine now.

Photo courtesy of Ian Cumming

Photo courtesy of the wonderful Ian Cumming

I think of them often, never more so than Remembrance Sunday and during the Remembrance moments of Bonfire, not just in Lewes on the 5th but elsewhere too. The Remembrance at Firle Bonfire in 2015 was one of the most poignant I’ve witnessed, and I’ve rarely been more emotional than when I had the honour to carry the “Lest We Forget” at Lewes in 2014, the regimental badges of these ancestors on my bag as always, the brass band playing Elgar’s Nimrod and a full moon bright in the sky.

I think of them too when I’m in antique shops and junk shops and see photographs of anonymous soldiers in piles of old images that once meant something to someone. Those millions of young men who went off to war, nervously, proudly, having their photograph taken before they went, and so many not returning, or returning broken, and every single one an individual story we’ll almost certainly never know anything about.

Front of the postcard

I normally see these photographs when I’m on the lookout for interesting local memorabilia. A few months ago on one of these searches on the internet I came across a vintage postcard from Seaford, and as that’s where my parents live I bought it for them as a curiosity.

When it arrived I discovered it was older than I’d thought, and that it had been sent by a solider stationed in Seaford at the start of January 1916, as many soldiers were before going to France. The note on the back is typical from that period – full of the everyday, with thoughts dominated by those at home and expressions intensified by absence.

My dear Florrie” it begins, “I got home quite safe 1130 Seaford. My God it was dark. We could hardly see our hands before us but we managed it somehow.”

I’ve often walked across unlit Sussex hills and streets at night and can imagine this only too well.

It continues, “I hope you got home quite safe dear. The weather here was awful Sunday so they say. I will send you a letter Tues dear. I expect we shall go for a route march Tues if fine. Tell mother that the rolls are lovely. I hope she is quite well.

Rear of the postcard

It is past 7.30, think of me about 9.45 because I will of you, so good night duck. I am writing home Tues so I must close with heaps of love and kisses, from yours forever Reg x x x x x x”

Reg clearly missed Florrie enormously and just like those photographs of anonymous men in uniform and their families it jarred with me that this postcard so lovingly sent was now just a curiosity, disconnected from context and people.

Who were Reg and Florrie? And what had happened at 9.45, a very specific time to remember?

I started looking for clues and drew a blank, reassured at least that the Commonwealth War Graves website didn’t find a Reg who was likely to have been the sender of the postcard. My Mum then turned detective using her vast genealogy experience and found him: Reg was Reginald Brockett, born in Chelsea in 1883, so 32 at the time he sent the postcard. Florrie Siillitoe who he sent it to, was Florence, born in 1887 in Lambeth.

It turns out that Reg survived the war and lived until 1950, marrying Florrie in the summer of 1919 and having a son, also Reginald, in 1921. I’m sure they sent hundreds of postcards like this during the war, from home and from danger overseas, yet there’s a chance that if there’s no surviving family Reg and Florrie would have entirely disappeared from memory had I not bought the postcard for a pound or two. While that’s not unusual of course, something about that possibility is sad.

For me the history of big events – and current events – is all about the individual stories, the people like Reg, like my ancestors, and it’s important that their stories continue to be told, and that wepostcard stamp angled with meaning don’t let anonymity become a reason to forget.

Since getting this postcard I’ve got some other abandoned letters I’m researching to find the people and stories behind them, but with this one my favourite part is actually unwritten: my Dad pointed out the angle of the stamp, and remembered from his youth that this had meaning. Sure enough, looking into the “hidden language of stamps” I found that Reg had positioned this one to mean “accept my love”.

I can only imagine what it meant to Florrie to get this card in London in January 1916, and now it’s back in Seaford I’d like to think that Reg and Florrie wouldn’t mind a little bit of their love story being told 100 years on.

Pells Pool video

A few weeks ago thanks to the kindness of Rob Read I was lucky enough to visit Pells Pool with my good friend James McCauley and his lovely wife Annie to play around with Go Pro cameras before the pool opened to the public.

The pool is spring fed and at over 150 years old is the oldest freshwater outdoor swimming pool in the UK. I can’t recommend a visit highly enough…it really is very special.

I used the opportunity to test my Chinese Go Pro copy too (£36 off eBay!) which I know does a more than good enough job for me when walking or cycling but I hadn’t yet tried underwater…

…the footage is below – on the whole it did well, especially considering the price. Certainly good enough for my daughter to put on her wetsuit when she goes in the sea on holiday. Underwater it seemed to struggle with some of the tones and the contrast between incredibly bright sunlight and shade, crunching things down to a much reduced palette of blues, so I’ve tweaked the footage to make it a bit more deliberately unreal rather than the slightly “off” colouring the raw footage had.

It needed music so that’s me on the piano, playing a piece I wrote last year: this is a bit of a leap for me as I don’t normally record what I write and often forget how to play things after a few weeks (much to the annoyance of my wife!). It has some mistakes as I did it a bit hurriedly straight into my mp3 recorder, but it’ll do for now, and maybe one day I’ll go back to playing around with GarageBand and re-record it properly 🙂


A frayed collar

A couple of people have told me I don’t post frequently enough and they’d like more, but I’ve taken on quite a lot recently which together with the day job is limiting the time I have to finish up the half written posts I’ve got sat in my drafts folder and the many that are in my head waiting to be typed up. Hopefully I’ll catch up soon, but here’s something I wrote a few years ago.

This comes from the habit I’ve got of quickly writing down experiences and emailing them to myself for future reference, like a diary, or sometimes just because I find them worthy of noting down for no reason other than that they affected me in some way. As a result my inbox is full of small rapidly typed vignettes of (mostly Lewes) life, the majority of which – even if I polish them a bit – will just be filed away and never go anywhere else. I was in two minds about sharing this but I think it happened long enough ago now that it’s OK to:

Afternoon drags, time stretches through a day heavy with heat and uncomfortable brightness, traffic shackled through the bottleneck and down the High Street, choking it’s way past pavements thick with snatched songs and sounds of cricket commentary and indistinguishable voices pulled through car windows opened in hope of relief.

In the Grange children are tying together transient moments forever as triggers in minds still uncluttered by memories: they are tasting ice cream for the first time, noticing the hum of bees between flowers, playing beneath a sprinkler as the water catches sun-scattered diamonds and rainbows…and down the hill into town the Ouse sparkles too as it is pulled through Lewes, through Landport, Malling and Cliffe, past yellowed grass and trees that seem wearied by the effort of growth.

And in Cliffe, near the river, an elderly man is walking with a faded green suitcase. He wears a tie and a jacket despite the sun.

But I don’t notice him when he comes into the charity shop where I am looking at old books.

A few moments later though I am behind him in the queue for the tills. I see how he is holding the suitcase off the ground even though he could rest while he waits, and how it is heavy, or at least uncomfortable because he is easing the weight off his fingers one by one, taking them off the handle in turn and flexing them then putting them back again almost as if counting.

Finally he is at the front and I see how he visibly readies himself, how his hands shake as he props the suitcase on the counter and talks to the lady who stands behind the till.

I have here some of my wife’s clothing and I didn’t want to throw it out if someone else can get some benefit and

His words rush out each propping up the next until he catches himself and slows down, and he has the case open now too, pausing as he looks at the carefully folded blouses, skirts and hand knitted tops.


a deep breath, as if stifled


his hand is now laying on top of the fabric. I feel my breath catch.

well, I don’t suppose you can make use of everything

and he picks up a blouse with a collar frayed at the back of the neck and runs his thumb across it. There’s a history of touches in that collar, that thumb,.that momentarily breaks me.

but maybe someone can get some use?

He looks at the shopkeeper with a look that hopes she says yes and hopes she says no.

Now the lady speaks, softly, judging the moment perfectly

 – this is all lovely, thank you. I am sure we will be able to use it all…

and she continues talking but even as I listen I’ve stopped hearing, my mind racing, until I register his surprise at suddenly having to consider the future, his reaction almost like a sleep twitch when he is asked if he’d like the suitcase back.

This brings a pause, and with both hands he returns the carefully refolded blouse to the case

  – I don’t think I’ll be needing it no, thank you

He appears momentarily detached, then he pulls out a silk scarf, white with a pattern of blue wildflowers and birds and butterflies and he holds it as if weighing it

 – I think maybe I’ll just keep this though if that’s alright

And he closes up the case, sighs heavily, and takes his hands away, hesitatingly

– she would have been very pleased

Then that visible steadying again but this time marginally more confident, slightly more set, and he walks out of the shop, into the heat and the bell above the door tinkles briefly before disappearing in the noise of a passing lorry.

The lady tenderly picks up the case and puts it behind the till before turning to me. There’s a silence as we look at each other, struck dumb until she asks me for the money for the book I’ve forgotten I’m holding, and so paying, I leave.

Later on my walk home I need space so I go through the Grange and there he is, sat on a bench with an ice cream., by the trees, by the wildflowers where butterflies dance between petals away from the children whose shouts and laughter blend into the background..

I think about asking him if he’d like company but he looks peaceful, almost happy even.

So I go past, making sure I give him a friendly smile, a comment that might bring further conversation if it seemed appropriate

 – what a lovely afternoon

and he smiles back and agrees

 – yes, yes it is. A lovely afternoon

And he’s back in his own world, watching two birds sing to each other in a tree.

I say I hope the weather holds nice a little longer, but he doesn’t hear, so absorbed and cheered is he by the birds, and then I see where he has one arm folded across his chest, under his hand and in the front breast pocket of his jacket, very neatly folded and over his heart – of course – is the silk scarf.


Red ink

Sometimes we don’t even realise we have memories until they are triggered.

“Red ink”.

Such an innocuous thing to overhear, walking through Cliffe just after a rainstorm.

Two words, but feelings and memories come back strong. Funny the words that ambush us in familiar streets, fall into our thoughts, bloom and break against us.

“Red ink”.

It’s what my piano teacher used to say when I’d made a mistake so often that corrective notes in pencil were no longer deemed enough. In saying it her normally impeccable English became heavily French accented. She’d come to England as a war refugee and had told me once about seeing a U-Boat as they crossed the channel. Hundreds of children lining the deck, looking over the railings into the sea in silence at this threat to their existence.

And yet it’s not red ink for myself I remember most though it happened often. What I remember most is sitting in the side room reading Beano and Dandy albums from before I was born, left there to entertain children amongst all the antiques while their siblings had their lessons, and how I’d sit there hearing one of my brothers playing arpeggios, gradually increasing in complexity, until inevitably fingers tripped on keys and I’d hear them restart and restart. Then there’d be a pause while advice was given, more false starts, a longer pause and then I’d know it was coming: “red ink”. Heard through heavy closed doors and walls dense with old paintings.

My brothers and I would leave and walk home together, when we were old enough to do so without a parent, myself being younger trailing slightly behind, crunching and kicking up autumn leaves, constantly distracted then as I am now. Sometimes we’d cross “the field”, a grassy area that acted as a short cut (long since built on) but our lessons finished late enough that for probably half the year the darkness made the hidden hollows and trenches best avoided. It wasn’t far from where our teacher lived to our home, yet I remember walking home almost as clearly as the lessons, going in through the back gate of our house into the narrow alley between us and the neighbour’s house, the kitchen windows misted with condensation from cooking, my mum a blur behind, busy making sure everything was just right for us in one of those selfless acts of parenting we often don’t even realise is a constant of our upbringing until long after we’ve left home.

Two words and so many memories firing off at unexpected tangents. The smell of old pencil shavings in a desk, the rough feel of leather inside a school satchel when pulling out a conker hardened to unbreakability by age and playground recipes, of walking alongside my dad, not tall enough to reach his waist, the laughter as he gradually increased his pace so I had to run to keep up, memories of perfect days with beloved grandparents, and with my parents who continue to be inspirational in so many ways, and now after that Cliffe rain memories of running home in a summer storm, breathless, laughing with clothes wet-clinging tight as skin.

I walked on through Cliffe and up Chapel Hill, and sitting at the top looking over Lewes I watched as a rainbow stretched from the castle and arced to nothing in a still-bruised sky, and I realised stronger than ever before that we are all the product of our memories, both conscious and unconscious, the apparently small and inconsequential just as much as the obvious.

“Red ink”.

Up by Jill’s Pond

Unable to sleep, I went up the hill.

Up through the field where nobility fought nobility via peasants in 1264, and where now despite being windless the air was still cold enough to pinch my skin as I approached Jill’s Pond. Grass was stiffened into waves, frozen dew capping each swell except where it had been flattened dark in the footprints of a man and a dog who had already gone this way, their stride shortening as the gradient steepened.

Man and dog

Man and dog

At the time the Battle of Lewes took place here the belief in revenants – the malignant returning dead – was strong. This area is often covered in dense, sound-swallowing fog and with the fading, shifting shadows of sheep and birds and trees it must have been saturated with nervous, half-imagined half-glimpsed horrors for a long time after.

I reached the top and the fence by where racehorses train, and though the stars were still bright in the soft half-light I turned to see those behind me that were closest to the horizon beginning to sink into the orange slick of sunrise, Lewes beneath in a shallow wash of mist, Newhaven and the sea to my right.

In summer I’d counted butterfly varieties up here with my daughter, then we took snagged wool from thorns and used it to bind broken twigs to make stick people with buds for heads. We’d put them in the ground hoping they still held enough life to flower, a gift for Titania. It’s hard to live in Lewes and not be alive to the seasons: wildflowers, butterflies, crickets, skylarks…all and more take turns as barometer, clock and calendar as the year goes on.

I walked to my left where the crucifix was a silhouette, not yet given detail by the sun. As I got closer I saw a man heading in my direction, looking like he’d come some distance rather than from any of the stables. His collar was turned up against the chill, hands visibly balled in coat pockets, and after pausing briefly to nod to the cross as if fulfilling a well practiced daily ritual, he looked my way, nodded again, and headed down the hill.

The cross on the hill

The cross on the hill

His footsteps arrowed towards Lewes as fresh imprints in the frost and I could just hear, soft in the air, the gentle whistling of a hymn.

A coach and four, the strongman of Brighton, and Black Monday

I wrote before that I’ve got a thought about the story of the Prince Regent and Keere Street, his “coach and four” run down the cobbles and the fact that there’s no evidence it actually happened. It is supposition but if nothing else perhaps it adds a bit of background to the story, and I’ve not seen it mentioned elsewhere.

The Prince had a close friend named Sir John Lade, a baronet from Warbleton in Sussex. This friendship carried on much to the annoyance of all those around the monarchy who tried to turn the Prince against Lade, deeming him entirely unsuitable. Lade was a colourful character standing out even in Regency times: there’s a picture of him at the British Museum carrying a naked man on his back round the Old Steine in Brighton. He was a small man, called a dwarf in his day, and he had bet Lord Cholmondeley he could carry him twice around the Steine (which sits just outside the Prince’s Royal Pavilion). Cholmondeley took the bet at which point Lade insisted he stripped naked as he hadn’t said he’d carry his clothes too.

Needless to say Cholmondeley refused and Lade won the bet.

“The Dwarf & the Giant or, the Strong Lad of Brighton taking off the Princes Chum”

That’s the Prince Regent leering at the ladies on the left of the picture. (Image from the British Museum here.)

Lade’s wife, Letitia, was equally interesting. She had been mistress of both an executed highwayman and the Prince’s brother, and was so renowned for swearing frequently and casually that “swearing like Lettie Lade” entered popular parlance.

John Lade wasn’t just from Sussex, he had Lewes connections too, owning a house on Lewes High Street, and as a successful owner and breeder of racehorses he won races all over the country, including at Lewes Racecourse. Amongst Lade’s many vices which caused the Prince’s advisers to frown was a catastrophic gambling addiction – the phrase “Black Monday” to describe huge financial loss is reputed to originate from him, being how he denoted the day each quarter that he paid off his debts. That bet with Lord Cholmondeley is one of many that perhaps show a compulsive habit.

In those wagers there weren’t just naked Lords, there were also several related to him showing off what a skillful driver of coaches he was. One bet even involves driving a coach and four in a confined, risky space around a very cramped yard in London. That’s a bet which resonates strongly with the Lewes story. So it doesn’t feel beyond possibility to me that a Lewes connected friend of the Prince, with a gambling habit, who liked challenging people to wagers about coach driving skills, might have been involved in some way in a wager with the Prince that led to a charge down Keere Street.

So maybe the Prince did do it. Or maybe Lade did the run, and the Prince took Lade’s glory to defend Lade and protect himself from more accusations of bad judgement in his choice of friends. Or maybe Letitia did it as her skill as a coach driver was also well known at the time, if deemed scandalously inappropriate. Or perhaps the Prince sensibly opted not to take the wager and Lade spread the story to spare his blushes.

Whatever the truth is I am sure Lade was involved somewhere, and it certainly fits what was going on in the Prince’s circle in this area at that time.

Keere Street

Lewes always shines in the rain, when the wet streets look polished and new. It’s the same on a clear night, when moon-waxed bricks and tiles reflect light and just as much absorb it into gaps and bumps, shadows re-marking rubbed and faded lines as hard and new. Keere Street is no different from any other part of town in this respect, the cobbles and uneven pavement, the flint, wood-boarded and brick walls all catching light through rain or moon and showing shapes and dips, becoming timeless.

Keere Street is one of several streets that still run from Southover up the side of the hill of Lewes, the hill which one argument says is how the town gets its name (“Hlaew” being Anglo-Saxon for “hill”). There are other streets, and some are lost or much truncated. Antioch Street, at the top of Rotten Row, is barely the length of two cars today but was once a parallel street to Keere Street, and similarly dropped down to what is now Grange Road. Fire destroyed Antioch Street though, and it was enclosed around 1595.

The remainder of Antioch Street

All that is left of Antioch Street

At the top of Keere Street is the 15th century bookshop, with the stone sign marking the miles to the Standard at Cornhill, Westminster Bridge, and Brighthelmstone. The Standard was a water fountain near London Bridge and for a while in the 16th and early 17th century it was used as the starting point of standardised distances to London. It’s long gone but there’s a plaque near where it once stood, on Gracechurch Street. The site of the Standard isn’t far from Tooley Street, where the Priors of Lewes kept an inn hundreds of years ago, and which is now somewhere underneath London Bridge station. I’ve cycled from the location of the Standard to Lewes and while the roads I followed probably weren’t the ones used for measurement centuries ago it was still close enough to the distance given to show the methods of measuring were more than accurate enough 500 years ago.

Why is the stone on the bookshop? Possibly for the benefit of those leaving the town via the West Gate, which the bookshop is just outside. Those gates would have been closed each night along with the other gates in the walls surrounding Lewes. Odd now to think of a defensively walled town, shutting itself off every day. Some of the old town wall still exists: Pipe Passage runs along the top of it, and behind the houses on Keere Street the walls still tower up. And of course in names like Westgate, Eastgate and Westout (“outside the west gate”) the names of Lewes hold the locations of the gates and boundaries that used to define the town.

15th century bookshop

15th century bookshop

So Keere Street sat outside the town walls, the huge barrier at the end of the gardens a very visual sign of exclusion. It was originally a road lived in by those needed by the town, but not those they wanted living within it: the money lenders and other useful “undesirables” kept close, but far enough away too. On market days the road at the top of Keere Street would have been full of people and animals coming into town, and presumably when it rained the animal waste from the top would have washed down, mixing with all the human sewage and detritus, making it very different from the genteel, picturesque area it is now.

At the bottom of Keere Street there’s the famous sign that tells the story of the Prince Regent racing down the hill with a “coach and four” for a wager. There’s some dispute over whether this is true or not, and apparently there is no evidence from the time that this happened.

I’ve got my own half-theory of the origins of the story, which I’ll write about another time. However I don’t think the truth strictly matters here. Stories and memories twist and adapt consciously and unconsciously, shaped by changing perceptions and context and sometimes the existence of a tale that may be a myth tells us just as much about a time and a person as if there was incontrovertibly documented evidence.

Looking up Keere Street

Looking up Keere Street

A couple of hundred years before the future George IV possibly halted his horses outside Southover Grange, the future Charles II reputedly begged outside the building on his way to exile in France (via Shoreham), a folk-memory related by Lillian Candlin in “Tales of Old Sussex” and also featuring in the novel Ovingdean Grange by William Harrison Ainsworth. Charles was of course escaping Oliver Cromwell, a man descended from the family of Thomas Cromwell who oversaw the destruction of Lewes Priory, many of whose stones were used in the construction of Southover Grange. A sign of nothing more than the domination of certain families in English history, however I like these constant links between events, people and places over centuries in Lewes.

With the defeat of Henry III at the Battle of Lewes and Charles II and George IV all passing through it’s fair to say that the monarchy has had mixed experiences here, notably mostly around Southover Grange and the Priory. As with all over town the shadows of so many people, so many significant events, so many life-changing stories, are concentrated in the space of a couple of hundred metres. At least when the current monarch came to Lewes recently she did better, with a friendly crowd and a trip to the brewery.

Both Parliamentarians and Charles II led religious persecutions that affected the people of Lewes too, continuing the trend of Kings and Queens and Cromwells penalising the people of the town, and probably bringing back terrifying memories of the events surrounding the martyrdoms barely 100 years before. Again, something to go into another time.

Keere street, like a lot of streets, was once full of life and vitality, with a pub, shops, a bakery, an alms house for the poor and all the other commercial and community requirements for living. Like a lot of streets these are all gone now, the buildings changed to private housing as the essential services of the town are concentrated in ever smaller areas even as the population expands. You can still see where they were though, ancient buildings betraying their pasts in their ornaments, shapes, and sometimes in helpful plaques of information.

I walked down Keere Street recently on the way to visit a friend on Grange Road. All was quiet and still, the road and pavement empty, and everything flattened by a washed-out watercolour sun too weak to cast shadows. It was one of those Lewes moments that passes almost too quick to notice, where time seems to fold in half, the present touching the past.

Then someone in a car on the High Street honked their horn as they came out of Westgate car park, breaking the spell within a heartbeat. A lady hurriedly came out of the house I was walking past and slammed her door, agitated and shouting into the phone jammed between her shoulder and ear “…there’s always something else though isn’t there? This is never ending…”

And with that, following in a thousand years or more of footsteps, she strode up Keere Street towards town.

On the edge of Lewes

It’s a walk I’ve done often, cutting through the ruins of the priory, once one of the grandest buildings in the country but reduced to rubble by a vengeful King, then under the tunnel after the sports centre, on towards the RSPB nature reserve that runs alongside Rise Farm. The fields here are tidal, barely reclaimed marshland, though the river is much reduced from the days when the French sailed up from the sea and raided the Priory, sat as it is outside the protection of the town walls. I once spent a cold November day working out here, too busy to watch the clock but measuring time through the ebb and flow of that tidal water around my boots. Memories of that day are still how I think of that area.

River towards Kingston

River towards Kingston

I find that’s how I navigate in and around Lewes, through points of association old and new, my own stories and those of others going back centuries. There are often easier ways to describe places than how my mind does: “where the Meridian used to be“…but those points of reference create my internal Lewes geography, a map made of interconnected strands beyond just the physical…”where the Meridian used to be”…a conversation with a man at a bus stop who told me he remembered walking through the garden of the Meridian when pigs were kept there, a shortcut to school that got him in trouble, then meeting his Dad in the pub after school to walk home together, another man at the bar there telling me of when he was a stable boy at the racecourse. Conversations and shadows of pasts joining with the present and linking people and places, becoming part of my own story to pass on, strands dividing and dividing again, always growing.

Once in Kingston you can follow the path of the river past a concrete pillbox looking over the valley to the coast, one of many built in anticipation of a possible Nazi landing near Newhaven. This part of England is easy to invade, not far from Hastings, and even just over 200 years ago ships laden with sugar and rum from the Caribbean were being taken, the French again, within sight of landing at Newhaven harbour. The voyage and cargo were at times paid for by the wealthy merchants of Lewes. It’s not hard to imagine them sat in the White Hart in their 18th century finery planning the financing and onward sale of their exotic new imports from almost impossibly distant lands. They must have been immensely frustrated to lose so much money but the local paper reports it with such lack of fanfare it must have been common, even expected.

In summer the fields and hills around Kingston and Lewes are covered in shades of gold and green with wheat, rapeseed, and sheep-grazed grass, but as the year progresses the crops disappear revealing a ground far more contoured than you might expect when it was previously hidden, and exposing shattered flint, starkly white against the brown. By winter and after heavy rain this clay soil tugs at your feet and makes awkward clubs of your boots, joins you to the earth so every step is a fresh uprooting. Your imprint is erased soon after it forms, a fading echo of your presence as damp soil merges to fill the hole, but for weeks after your boot laces hold ashen dust.

Undulating fields of mud near Swanborough

Undulating fields of mud near Swanborough

Crossing the road, you get back to the hills through Swanborough where there is a manor, a 12th century house with 15th century bolt-ons, and which lists Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell amongst the previous owners. Once back in the fields it’s a steep climb to overlook the village of Kingston from a vantage point which spans out to horizons and open spaces that were filled with trees before the demand for ships and fuel for steel production led to their destruction. Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon are prominent, cresting waves each side of the valley.

The drop into Kingston then takes you past a dew pond and to Nan Kemps corner, a place of local legend. Stories vary, but what remains mostly consistent is that Nan Kemp was a witch who baked her baby in a pie and fed it to her husband. I’ve been told variously that the corner named after her is where she is buried, where her house was, or where she was hanged. Whatever the truth, generations of children have rushed past the spot not wanting to linger for fear of ghosts, or nervously performed rites supposed to bring about a sighting to impress their friends, and the story is still taken seriously enough that I’ve heard an elderly gentleman tell people not to joke about Nan Kemp.

Dew Pond sunset

Dew Pond sunset

Heading back to Lewes across the South Downs you pass Ashcombe windmill, built on the site of a previous six-sailed one and a reminder of how dependent we once were on locally produced grain.



To your right you can see out as far as Seaford Head and the sea, while in front Lewes castle rises over the hill as the first sight of Lewes, and still a commanding presence over town. Past another old windmill, now converted into a house, there are fields for horses, then a bridge crosses the A27, the road cut through chalk hills. A while ago, and for just a few pounds, I bought a 19th century watercolour painting by an amateur artist that I think is the view from around the area of the bridge before the road was dug into the landscape. It is largely unrecognisable now, but gummed onto the back by the artist is that the scene is in “Southover Lewes”.



I always finish at The Swan. This isn’t the original Swan of Lewes, that was near The Dorset, on Malling Street. The building for that Swan still exists as Pastorale Antiques and it’s role as a coaching inn is visible from the size and layout. It was originally called the “King and Queen”, the name changed by 1694, an alteration possibly linked to the end of the joint reign of William and Mary that same year. The address for most of it’s life was given as North Cliffe Street, so there’s a story about the changing face of Lewes and the country as a whole found in just these simple name changes to the pub and the road it is on.

Into the “new” Swan though (formerly “The Bell”) and those points of association again. Sometimes recognition is lost when something is experienced out of context and so it was with The Swan for me. I’d been there before, one winter day long before I thought I’d been there for the first time in more recent years for Sunday lunches and nights out. One evening a few months ago something about it jolted me into recognition and I remembered that first visit, at the end of a long walk from campus with a friend at University. We’d gone in before I knew either that pub, or Lewes, as I now do. Then it was just a warm, welcoming place to sit and have a pint at the end of a long day on cold hills before we caught the bus back to Falmer.

I remember now that we sat there discussing history as the stories of ordinary people, and music, and other intangibles that occupy me now just as they did then, and just as people have always spoken about throughout time in homes and cafes and pubs and streets. And outside the dark closed in, through shades of grey to black, while caught in the lights of passing cars the ghosts of children’s drawings appeared in the misting windows.

The Swan
Pastorale Antiques