We set off after the old git and the dawter had hung the festive lights outside the kitchen, after I had brought up the Christmas tree and box of decorations from the cellar, and after a quick shower. It was 12.15.
The car seats were covered in Bombay mix – hard to get the Indian snack into the mouth when driving – but a tickle and a flap with the window cloth soon cleared the red leather seats, and Hastings beckoned.
The autumn display is nearly over, the trees are bare, the air chill. We had the heater on blowing on my face and over my feet. A perfect day for the south coast, blue sky, little wind and a low slung sun. But just before we reached the A21 the ‘oosbind, made a right turn and headed for Lewes.
Past pylons, allotments, garden centres and fields of sheep, we arrived in Thomas Paine country. We parked the car in the car-park, getting one of the last spots; £2.20 for three hours which beat £3./90 for an hour on the road.
Masks in pockets, the old git put his arm in mine and we wandered past ‘Bills’, over the bridge and left after ‘New Look’. We walked past buskers, the homeless, several charity shops and Harveys the local brewery. We walked past an old NHS building up for LET; The Friends Meeting House and All Saints church with an archway of 16th Century bricks being propped up. Pigeons settled in a holly tree which overhung the scaffolding. I felt for those noisy critters, their velvety bums balanced on the prickly Holly leaves. The red berries hung in heavy clusters – foretelling a cold winter.
Up the hill and opposite dainty houses, a music shop and an emporium for antique gardening implements, we stopped for a coffee. The little one room coffee shop shut at 2.30 so we had half an hour to enjoy a thick slab of ginger cake, so thick it could have been used as a temporary brick in that old 16th century Friars porch, all washed down with my oat milk cappuccino and his very strong Americano.
We walked past the station and arrived at Southover Grange Gardens which was built in 1542.
I quote ‘The gardens are a little piece of heaven on earth right in the centre of Lewes town, a lovely peaceful thing to do!’
Let me tell you that is an understatement. I was taken there last summer, flowers of orange, yellow and all shades between were planted together in breathtaking borders. Statues, all manner of trees, perfectly manicured hedges, grasses, and a throughly acceptable lavatory building worthy of the fifties. Today, though, it was being seeded and tidied by a young woman from Peru and the Head Gardener. In 1951 Her Maj had planted a Tulip tree and various other arboreal treats. She witnessed, as we did, in the centre of one of the lawns, a 350 year old Mulberry tree, one of the oldest in Britain. A little fence stands around it with a sign forbidding people to climb on it.
A little girl called Tilda was sitting on the branches of a leafless tree which she had named, ‘Layla’. Perched next to Tilda was her godmother who had travelled down from Leeds. She was slurping on a carton of hot soup whilst Tilda tore bits off a sandwich. They left the crusts on the branches for the chirruping sparrows. Later Tilda and her guardian were seen lying on the grass looking up at the wispy clouds as tame squirrels hopped round them. A seagull, the size of a Boeing 747, was feasting on a chunk of bread given to him by a family sitting on a bench.
Now, I blame Walt Disney for my love of chimney pots. There isn’t a Disney cartoon that doesn’t have a London sky line that speaks of orange sunsets and Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep. The Northern git even bought me a book of chimneys for a past Christmas gift but I can’t find the fucking thing. However, apart from wanting to be Snow White in all her cartoon perfection, I wanted to live in a house with a block of Jacobean chimneys and a perfectly drawn row of pudgy pots that billowed out animated smoke.
Here in Lewes, with the old bugger beside me, I looked up at the roof tops and there they were. Fabulous chimneys worthy of Walt himself. The listed chimney has a bell on the north side and a sundial on the south side.
I give you the visitors’ information:
‘Southover House or Southover Priory, was built by William Newton with Caen stone taken from the nearby ruins of St Pancras’ Priory. The date 1572 on the spandrels of the Newton Room fireplace has usually been taken as the year of erection.’
The leaded windows sparkled in the sun. Benches, strategically placed, mean that the house and its chimneys can be admired for hours.
In the middle of this meditative spot on the north wing resides ‘The Sussex Guild Shop.’ Filled with glass work, ceramic treasures, local artists display jewellery and hand made clothes, in the main shop was an Ash table so lovingly crafted that had we £2,000 to spare it would have gone on the roof of the car and driven back home to the cottage.
I bought a tiny handcrafted Christmas tree in pink and gold glass.
The atmosphere of the shop is like the rest of Lewes. It’s like standing on a memory foam mattress. There’s something about the ambiance – buoyant and gentle, like being on a bouncy castle wrapped in a homespun shawl, thats you not the inflatable, with a cup of artisan coffee thrown in. In one of the tiny houses the occupants had displayed a wooden Christmas house, complete with lights and populated by teddy bears. In the window was a sign;
‘Please stand your children on the windowsill so that they can fully appreciate the scene.’
That’s Lewes. I chuntered on about how life could be if everywhere was as welcoming and openhearted as the Lewesians.
When we first moved out of London, Lewes was a safe place to wander alone. In the summer of 1999 I drove down to see Rodins’ THE KISS displayed in the town hall.
The local paper, THE ARGOS, has a wonderful description of the historical connection with the three-ton marble statue being returned to Lewes from the Tate Gallery at a cost of £200,000.
‘At 4.30am in a removal lorry. Workmen had to remove the building’s doors to make way for the crate carrying it. It was finally set in place at the centre of the hall at 6.30am. And just as the crate entered the building, the grey and dreary weather suddenly gave way to a huge storm.’
‘The Kiss’ had been in Lewes from 1914 until 1917, but the locals protested over the nudity so the statue stayed covered up until 1933.
In olden days a glimpse of stocking and all that….
On the walk back to the car a young, homeless girl was sitting near Costa Coffee, a little sign said she was hungry. The Northern ‘oosbind gave her all his change and I bought her some food. Even Lewes can’t cover up the never ending misery that our self-serving system is putting us through.
We arrived home in the dark and put up the Christmas tree – which very nearly ended in divorce. We had supper and, as the last wisps of the eco coal sent eco puffs out of our chimney, which I am reliably informed originated in the Golden Age of stacks, the clock struck 2.00 and we buggered off to bed.
Sorry Hastings. Next week?