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.
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.
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.
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.