British Towns and Cities: Lewes

Garth Christian appraised the “ancient character” of Lewes, taking in its Puritanical influence, its legacy of ironworks and its architectural highlights.

“Dined at the White Harte, Lewes... ate the best duck sauce I ever tasted,” wrote Sylas Neville, squire, physician and student of law in his Diary for September, 1771. “What a pity it is that this delightful place is so near London, owing to which everything is very dear.” He is not the only man to have mourned this fact, though the cost of living in Lewes to-day is no higher than in any other Sussex town and probably lower than in most. Each summer, however, the citizens of the borough find it hard not to regret their town’s geographical position—seven miles from the sea and “forty-nine from Westminster Bridge,” to quote the milestone in Lewes High Street.

Yet few country towns near London have so completely retained their ancient character. True, new housing estates have scarred the Downs not far from Mount Harry, where “that detestable Battle of Lewes” was fought 700 years ago. True, there was talk a few months ago of building a greyhound stadium in the town; and less than six years have passed since a Sub-Committee of the Town Council proposed that several of the Georgian houses in the High Street should be demolished and the road widened, leaving the Church of St. Michael’s— with a round tower and west wall built in the thirteenth century—to form an island between streams of passing traffic. This suggestion, like the proposal to construct a greyhound track, aroused strong opposition, and Lewes remains what it has long been, a handsome, thriving market town largely dependant for its prosperity on the farming community around.

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