Today, I want to share some unique and unusual discoveries from a recent day trip to Lewes in East Sussex, in case you’re making any travel plans. Firstly, if you’re thinking: what and where is Lewes? Let me describe it for you. Lewes is a pretty market town eight miles outside Brighton – 1.5 hours from London – set within the South Downs National Park framed by chalky cliffs and rolling hills.
It has cobbled streets, cosy pubs, cafes and restaurants, an independent cinema and gazillion independent shops, the country’s oldest outdoor pool, and a dark history. It’s the kind of place you’ll find work-weary Londoners catching their breath, Brightonians escaping the crowds, and well-heeled country folk hanging out. Yet, the best part about this underrated English gem? It still remains off most tourists’ radars. Good news, if like me you prefer to avoid tourist crowds!
Day trip to Lewes
Although the town of Lewes is just eight miles from Brighton, it took me years to get around to making a day trip here. Now I realise I was silly to overlook it, and visit often for different reasons: a change of scenery close to home, to do guidebook research, go shopping, to pub crawl, for Sunday roast, and sometimes just to wander around the magical streets. I’ve even walked the 10km distance from Brighton through the South Downs National Park for charity! This place, my friends, is my secret English town and I want to share my recent day trip here with you.
Getting off at Lewes Train Station feels calm compared to Brighton, even though it’s only a few miles away. The first thing I did was head for coffee. Turning right out the station past the little flower shop, and the independent Depot Cinema, which shows off-beat arthouse films, and another right onto Lansdown Road to a local favourite, Ground Lewes. The coffee here – particularly the cappuccino – always hits the spot. It’s also not far from an incredible little noodle bar, café, tea room and Asian grocery shop, Pestle and Mortar, with a hidden garden out the back. What’s fun is waiting for your coffee out front you get to ponder the distant view of the South Downs, cocooning the pretty houses.
Shopping in Lewes
Coffee in hand, with spare time before lunch, I head up to the High Street lined with interesting independent shops for a browse. Favourites are: From Victoria, a botanic-themed gift shop, and Goods Lewes for its dreamy mix of vintage cane furniture and accessories like funky blankets. I can never resist a peek at 71 The Maker’s Gallery to drool over the jewellery. What is incredible about Lewes High Street is that it’s home to several cool little bookshops, like this one for its antique atlases and travel books, and my favourite, the Fifteenth Century Bookshop, in a stunning yellow building with a half-timbered facade and an interior full of rare and collectable books.
This heavenly bookshop is at the end of a twitten called Keere Street, the most famous twitten in Lewes, a cobbled lane on an incline lined with heritage homes and secret gardens. What is a twitten I hear you ask? These narrow lanes form a network of picturesque alleyways running perpendicular to the High Street. The twittens in Lewes date back to Anglo-Saxon times, and they’re packed with historic houses, unique details, and great views (Lewes is hilly).
Discovering Green Lane with its old walls covered with trailing plants (above) was a treat. Other little streets I love are Paine’s Passage, St Swithuns lined with cottages and Pipe Passage, another twitten, this time rooted in the pipe-making industry. It’s also home to a bizarre home called The Round House, the home Virginia Woolf bought but never lived in set inside an old windmill!
Southover Street close to the pub is also pretty, home to cute cottages and Anne of Cleves House, a 16th-century timber-fronted Wealden hall house. It was given to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement from King Henry VIII in 1541 and although she didn’t ever live here, it’s a good example of period architecture and even has a Tudor garden with a café.
Lunch in Lewes
There are lots of great places for lunch in Lewes, not to mention this hidden French café which I poked our heads into on the way back to the station. Today, I’m at the beloved Swan Inn at the end of Southover Street. It’s one of those cosy, time-worn local favourite pubs, with a roaring fire and laid-back atmosphere. Seeing as it was warm out, we sat in the chocolate-box cottage garden out back. I kicked things off with a refreshing Paloma cocktail – vodka and soda – why not? The food is simple, filling, delicious and well-priced – think mackerel salad for £12, and Sunday roasts for £14.
After lunch, we walked to The Needlemakers, a Victorian red-brick landmark building, once home to a WW1 needle-making factory. Today it’s full of unusual boutiques and shops, set over three floors. Don’t miss the vintage shop downstairs – I cannot remember the name or find it anywhere – for a rummage and a look at the incredible collection of vintage tins. Next, seeing as it’s so close, we popped into the Lewes Flea Market on Market Street almost opposite the Needlemakers, selling all kinds of trinkets and curios, from furniture and ceramics to jewellery and artwork.
Last minute, I decided to make it a full circuit of town, taking a scenic route east along Cliffe High Street, crossing the bridge over the river Ouse, past Harvey’s Brewery until we got to Malling Street, turning left for a quick peek into Pastorale Antiques. It’s set in a dreamy faded yellow building that was once a coaching inn and also hides a little French cafe in the courtyard. It’s called Cafe Du Jardin and it’s open during the day for tasty French-style breakfasts – think coffee, croissants and pastries, omelettes and eggs – and tasty lunches, like baked camembert, crepes, croque monsieur and steak frites. Pastorale Antiques’ collection is vast, spreading out onto the courtyard, from the warehouse inside, and up and down the stairs. Their speciality? French stuff, of course.
I had a little time before my train home, so I finished my Lewes day trip with a walk up to the golf course for a view across the town, and the Lewes Land Nature Reserve, a hidden town green space set on an old railway yard, reclaimed by nature complete and home to a spiralling reed bed. Taking in my surroundings reminded me just how many options for a country walk around the South Downs, one path near here taking you to the pretty village of Glynde, home to world-famous Glyndebourne Opera House.
How to Get to Lewes
It’s easy to get to Lewes from Brighton on the train. It’s also easy to get here from London with Direct rail services departing from stations like Charing Cross and London Bridge, and the journey takes just over an hour and 15 minutes. Driving to Lewes is an option, too. It takes around 20 minutes to drive from Brighton and two hours to drive to Lewes from London, and there’s parking in town.
I hope you enjoy your next day trip to Lewes in East Sussex. Let me know if you have a unique and unusual discovery to share!