Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Sojourn in Lewes: books, beer and bonfires.

I spent a few days in the Sussex town of Lewes recently, it is not far from London geographically but some distance atmospherically. It has lured a number of Londoners away in recent years. At first sight it seems a typically sleepy provincial town with its castle, main street, old fashioned shops and coaching inns. However a number of odd qualities mark the place out. The least surprising is the dominance of the Harvey’s Brewery. Despite being at the bottom of the hill it has completely usurped the position of the castle.

Harvey's Brewery.

This overthrowing of aristocratic hubris by popular assent rests well with the second quality of Lewes, a belligerence against authority. It is a chippy little place, the home town of Thomas Paine will not be told what to do. Thus it has been a haven for various non-conformists over the centuries. This spirit is demonstrated today by an infamous Guy Fawkes night (the good people of Lewes know how to burn an effigy) and the area of Cliffe retaining a Passport to Pimlico style claim to independence. I recall being told by a Lewes-based barrister how the locals had registered their objection to some parking meters; by simply blowing them up. A final notable fact about Lewes is that it had an avalanche. Yes really. With snow and everything (but no St Bernards ).

Guy Fawke's night Lewes style.

On our way down we encountered our own mini disaster, flooding, and our train was stuck for some time. Even worse we were stuck next to a couple with a child who climbed on at Gatwick and were so appalling it made the wait a challenge. Loudly they talked about Italy, and this and that and Italy again and how it was going to be terribly difficult for them to adjust to England and how their poor little boy would find things so difficult and how exotic Waitrose would seem. Only when an older couple enquired quietly did we find they had been in Naples for just a fortnight… Upon mentioning this to our taxi driver on arrival he murmured darkly that they were “probably from Glynde”….

Vintage Shirt Company goodies.

We were looking forward to relaxing, possibly catching up with chums and shopping. I have to declare from the off that Lewes was rubbish in terms of vintage feminine wear. It was, however very good for jewellery of all periods. There are dozens of little antique and junk shops, not especially cheap (that doesn’t happen within a commute of London) but great to ferret around and enough of them to waste the best part of a day. It is a bit like sifting for gold really, you just work your way through lots of grubby dim cabinets looking for a 'find', unlikely as 'antique' dealers are a sharp bunch. The chap found an excellent swagger stick and purchased unusual cufflinks, pieces of turquoise held in pitch in old silver settings.

For the boys there is the presence of the shop of the very chappist Vintage Shirt Company, in fact Lewes is a treat for the chaps as there seemed to be plenty of antique masculine knick knacks plus an old-fashioned gentlemen’s outfitters and tobacconists on the High Street. There were ample picturesque thoroughfares to amble along and although I didn’t enjoy the tart smell of the brewery on the wind, its presence ensured a plentiful supply of pubs to provide refreshment.

The place has lots of antiquarian and second hand book shops. The bearded one borders upon obsessive compulsive about them and collects ancient tatty paperbacks. Funnily enough I find book dealers shops dreary and depressing. I have recently met a couple of fun bookmen but they are a very rare thing. The book dealer is by temperament a sulky uncommunicative type with no enthusiasm for either book or customer. The same cannot be said for Matt Birch’s bijou book emporium in Lewes. This might be because he sells new books, because he likes them or simply because he might (whisper it) be a bookseller who likes people.

Sky-Lark Bookshop

It may seem perverse to open a book store in a town full of charity shops, book dealers and savvy trendy Londoners who will buy on Amazon but Matt’s shop: ‘Sky-Lark’ is founded upon it’s owner's love of reading. Go in and start a conversation and he will discuss his stock with enthusiasm. The best example of this is to pass on his answer about what he enjoyed selling:

‘Books: Lewesian poetess, Catherine Smith's saucy collection, Lip (she was shortlisted for theForward Prize 2009); Lewes-based publisher Sylph Editions (www.sylpheditions.com) exquisite marriage of word and image, Ten Poems by Hafez by Jila Peacock, in which she sets her own translations of 10 multi-layered love poems next to animal shape-poems in the Persian calligraphic tradition, Wildwood by Roger Deakin, The Time travellers Guide to Medieval England, Prints: Brighton printmaker Helen Brown's woodcuts of the surrounding downs, always with her signature bold curling cloudscapes Films: The Page Turner, Hidden, The Darjeeling Ltd., Spirited Away, Spirit of the Beehive, The Motorcycle Diaries, Goodbye Lenin, Distant Voices Still Lives, Buffalo 66, Withnail and I (of course!) Music: Welcome to the Illinoise (Sufjan Stevens), Ruth Notman, Cole Porter, Sigur Ros, Madeleine Peyroux (esp. her gorgeous cover of Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" on the Careless Love album - surely one of the modern great tracks for all the romantics and flaneurs out there) and pretty much anything from Brazil or Cape Verde! Crafts: Peruvian animal finger puppets, Madagascan recycled wire bicycles, Bolivian recycled glassware (chunky, the odd bubble, subtle green tint), Indian gorara stone elephant carved inside an elephant, snake boxes.’

Sky-Lark again.

You’ve got to love a shop where you can buy books and snake boxes. Bottles of beer aside Lewes was short of gifts or local products to take home, in a way this was a good thing, the lack of ye olde quainte tat but one of Skylark’s stock of locally inspired or related books would be the answer to what to take to loved ones. The book stock is complemented by prints by local artists, fair trade gifts and an interesting selection of world music on CD. The proprietor is also a talented photographer and some of his prints are also on sale. I fess up to the fact that this shop is owned by an old friend but it is really worth a gander. Good book shops are gems.

Exterior of the Needlemakers Centre

It is also inside an interesting building, the Needlemakers: a restored candle making factory that was converted to make hypodermic needles during the thirties, Matt still finds them under the parquet flooring in his shop. There are reputedly ghosts in the basement. The building houses several other small businesses including a ladies vintage dress store which sadly had so-so stock and Kensington prices. On the ground floor however is an interesting bric a brac/junk shop which had a few charming pieces and a copy of The Chap magazine in the window. The café on the premises had eccentric service but served a very good afternoon tea with clotted cream.

Lewes is not a gastronomic town, its busy ‘happening’ place was called Bill’s but it didn’t appeal, it was too Westbourne Grove for my taste: a bit like a more primary coloured Petersham Nurseries type thing, although the food looked good. A little place down the road called Le Magazine however gave me a pile of strawberries with my scone (compensating for the whipped cream) was friendlier. We had decent pub grub, particularly at the Snowdrop. A bit of an institution this place, decked out now in a canal boat like way with painted canal ware hanging from the ceiling. It went through a rough patch apparently but seems to be on form again if the jolly staff and the scotch eggs are anything to go by. We also stayed at a pub: The Dorset Arms. It was very clean reasonably priced and in a central location. The guest rooms were named after famous residents of the town and I am pleased to report we were placed in the Thomas Paine Room.

There is not a lot to do in Lewes. You walk up the hill, then down the hill. You potter around in antique and book shops. You drink some beer. But really, what else do you want from an English country town?


Anonymous said...

one of our favourite places in the south, many happy memories


Lavender and Twill said...

The only other thing to do is to take photographs... >__<

b. of Depict This!

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