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.
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.
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.
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.