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

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.

and

a deep breath, as if stifled

well,

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.

 

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.

Windmill

Windmill

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”.

Painting

Painting

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

Pells

It was by accident, the first time I came here. Probably some point in the early 90’s, walking a random route and following whatever looked interesting. Past the Elephant and Castle and down to Gallows Bank where criminals both real and those convenient to be called so met their end before the prison on the other side of town took over the job. The road down to the Pells from Gallows Bank is overshadowed by the towering St John sub Castro church, an early-Victorian statement building on the site of the smaller Medieval church which was demolished to make space for it.

In the churchyard a monument to the locally held Russian and Finnish prisoners of the Crimean War shares the shade of the church with the grave of Richard Davies, a local survivor of the same war who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Russian Memorial, Lewes

Russian Memorial in churchyard of St John sub Castro

The charge was an act of such incredible bravery that the two cannons captured by Davies and the lucky few of his 600 or so comrades that survived long enough to reach them are said to be still symbolically melted down to make the Victoria Cross, the highest award given by the army for bravery. In a quirk of history the first act that ever won a Victoria Cross took place in the battle where those Russian prisoners held in Lewes were captured, the medal being awarded retrospectively a few years later. Strands of lives and history overlapping as they so often do.

At the same time Davies was charging through that Crimean Valley of Death “stormed at with shot and shell” as Tennyson has it, the former Naval Prison here was already home to those prisoners, who were rapidly becoming a tourist attraction with up to 500 visitors a day.  The toys they made to sell to those who came to gawp and fraternise were so popular local shopkeepers struggled to compete and so started to claim much of their toy stock was “Russian made” (though most of the prisoners were actually Finnish), and letters of complaint were written to newspapers about how wealthy these previously enemy combatants were becoming.

Despite this the prisoners were as popular with the townsfolk as their toys, and the memorial was already a couple of decades old and must have been familiar to Richard Davies before he was buried in an unmarked grave a few metres away, dug into the frozen ground on the last day of 1897. Apparently his grave ended up with a headstone but the lettering is now so worn away as to be invisible.

Down the hill from St John’s is the Pells, where water (of which Lewes has often had too much), is controlled and adopted into the landscape. The word “Pells” itself is derived from an old word for “pools” which perhaps suggests the marshy land around here has been tamed for a long time. The pond, near where a paper mill was built when the war against Napolean ensured imported paper was too expensive, is made murky with the fall from overhanging trees but the swans, ducks, gulls and fish confirm it as a living space and make it a place of tranquillity which can often feel timeless.

Gull over Pells Pond

Gull reflected in the water at Pells

At the end of the path past the pond a gently arching bridge over the River Ouse crosses the river near where Knights escaping the Battle of Lewes in 1264 drowned for lack of just such a bridge, apparently stuck in the mud and unable to dismount their horses in heavy armour. The story is that they had to wait hours as the tide slowly climbed to consume them while peasants stood at the side and mocked the fall of the nobility.

Bridge over the Ouse

Bridge over the Ouse to Malling

This is a town like so many in the country saturated and shaped with the stories of conflicts old and new, the depth so much even in the brief 400 metres of the walk from the pub to the river that it can be hard to take it all in.

Central to the Pells is more water and the rightly famous Pells Pool, perhaps the reason most people are familiar with this part of town. It is the oldest freshwater lido in the UK, founded from the town brook in 1860 by Public Subscription to resolve the lack of swimming baths in the town. You’ll still find it busy in the summer as people come from far and wide to wash off the heat of the day, just as they were doing within a couple of years of Richard Davies returning to the town. He came back to his pre-army occupation as a labourer, and lived within a few hundred metres of the pool. It’s likely he used it himself, walking the same route I did past the pub and church, making his way to where Lewes people have long used to their advantage the water that lies close in so many parts of the town.

Pells Pool
Elephant & Castle