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.
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.
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.
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.