Although Lewes is just eight miles from Brighton, it took me years to get round to making a day trip here. I’ve since realised it makes the perfect escape from the Brighton summer crowds, so I was remiss to overlook it for so long. Since I stopped commuting to London for work and gained more free time, Lewes has become a regular day trip option from Brighton.
Now I visit often, for different reasons: a change of scenery close to home, to go shopping, to have lunch, to pub crawl, for Sunday lunch, sometimes just to wander around the pretty streets. I’ve even walked the distance here from Brighton through the South Downs National Park for charity! Today, I thought I’d share some notes from a recent day trip to help with your travel planning.
Day trip to Lewes
In case you’re reading this and have never heard of Lewes, let me describe it for you. It’s a pretty town just outside Brighton within the South Downs National Park. One of the best things about the town is its setting – surrounded by chalky cliffs and rolling hills. It has cobbled streets, cosy pubs and cafes, plenty of little shops to browse. It’s the perfect weekend city escape hatch. It’s the kind of place you’ll find work-weary Londoners catching their breath, Brightonians escaping the weekend crowds, and well-heeled country folk hanging out. Yet what surprises me is that it still remains one of the most underrated towns outside London.
As charming as Lewes might be, it also has a bizarre side: it’s the setting for the UK’s biggest bonfire night celebration, which sees seven local bonfire societies putting on six separate processions and political effigies are burned; it’s home to the 220-year-old Lewes Arms, well-known for its weird events, like the world pea-throwing championships, Dwyle Flunking, spaniel racing and the Toad-in-the-Hole World championships, which involves throwing coins (toads) into a box with a small hole in the top. Susie Cave – wife of singer Nick – has also recently made it the HQ for her business, The Vampire’s Wife.
Side point: I’ll be covering more Lewes secret in an upcoming guide, but for now, let’s get acquainted on a wander around.
Arriving in Lewes
Getting off at Lewes Station feels like a world away from crazy busy Brighton, even though it’s only a few miles away. I turn right out the front, past the little flower shop, and the independent Depot Cinema, which shows off-beat arthouse films. At the little roundabout, I turn right along Lansdown Road and head for a local-favourite coffee shop, called Ground Lewes, not far from an incredible little noodle bar, café, tea room and Asian grocery shop, Pestle and Mortar, another local-favourite with a hidden garden out the back.
I order and wait for my coffee and ponder the distant view of the South Downs, cocooning all the pretty houses. I forget where I am for a minute until my cappuccino arrives which hits the spot. I’ve a bit of spare time before lunch, so I head to High Street lined with interesting independent shops for a browse.
Shopping in Lewes
I stop in at a couple of favourites: 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 book shops, 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).
Twittens in Lewes
I also love discovering Green Lane with its old walls covered with trailing plants (above), Paine’s Passage, and St Swithuns lined with cottages. Across the road I duck along 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! But I need to turn round as it’s time for lunch.
I head back to Southover Street, another road of cute cottages, where you also find 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. But 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. But it’s warm outside, so we head straight to the chocolate-box cottage garden out back. We start with a lunchtime cocktail – dangerous, perhaps? But so refreshing. The food is simple, filling, delicious and well-priced – think mackerel salad for £12, and Sunday roasts for £14 – and I’m sold.
After lunch, we walk 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 rummage and a look at the incredible collection of vintage tins. Next, seeing as it’s so close, we can’t resist popping 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 art work.
I have a little time left before I need to catch my train home, so I finish 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 reminds me that I must come back 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, but my train home beckons. I walk back to Lewes train station and hop on a service to Brighton. Soon I’m off on the train to London Road in Brighton, watching the countryside scenery make way for urban landscapes.
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 depart 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.