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