A short geography lesson for you: Lewes is the county town of East Sussex. You’ve probably heard of Lewes Bonfire Night, even if you’ve never seen it because it’s the largest bonfire celebration in the UK. Indeed, Lewes is regarded as the bonfire capital of the world. This spectacular display goes beyond the standard remembering of the Gunpowder Plot – it also commemorates the seventeen Protestants who were burnt in Lewes for their faith during Mary I’s Catholic reign.
Fireworks aside, Lewes is an iconic town in many ways. When it comes to looking at what’s on in Lewes, you’ll be overwhelmed with options. Lewes provides a high quality selection of attractions for those looking for a day out in the southeast.
In 1066, the Battle of Hastings left many marks on England, including this Norman castle. William de Warenne, a nobleman who served William the Conqueror, was built in the late eleventh century to stand as his stronghold. One of only two castles in England to have two mottes (the other being Lincoln Castle), Lewes Castle stands on a manmade mount just to the north of the high street, meaning that wherever you stand, panoramic views all around are guaranteed.
Visiting Lewes Castle is one of the best historical things to do in Lewes. Just try not to pop in photos taken from visitors below you.
Next to the castle is Barbican House, a Grade II listed building built in the sixteenth century. Now a museum, Barbican House is the headquarters of the Sussex Archaeological Society. Visitors can explore artefacts from the Stone Age to medieval times, which document what life would have been like in Sussex during those days.
Opening times are from 10 am until 5.30 pm, with the last admission being 30 minutes before closing time. Tickets are generally priced, though members of the Sussex Archaeological Society can visit for free. For more information, see https://sussexpast.co.uk/attraction/lewes-castle/
Lewes Priory, Priory Park
Not to be confused with Lewes Priory School, the full name of this site is the Priory of St Pancras Lewes. The Priory of St Pancras Lewes was the first Cluniac house in England. It belonged to the Benedictine Order of Cluny, based in France.
In short, William de Warenne (yes, he had a priory as well as a castle!) and his wife Gundrada wanted to restore the traditional monastic life of the Church, which began with the Benedictine Order (again, a French influence). Despite becoming one of the wealthiest monasteries in England, Lewes Priory played a very small role in national events, except during the Battle of Lewes in 1264, when it was occupied by King Henry III.
Today, some ruins have been given a Grade I listing, as well as a small folly tower and a cottage (both neo-medieval buildings) that were built using stone from the Priory. A large metal sculpture of a knight’s helmet was added in 1964 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes. Green thumbers will enjoy seeing the recreated herb and kitchen gardens, plus the apple orchard with six old Sussex varieties.
Being located in a public park, Lewes Priory is open all year round and is free to enter. For more information about its history and how to plan your visit, see https://www.lewespriory.org.uk/
Anne of Cleves House
Know your Henry VIII’s six wives? History lovers and Tudor fans will marvel at the opportunity to see this timber-framed house given to Anne of Cleves at the end of her (very short) marriage to Henry Tudor. Fun fact: Anne never actually lived there, preferring to live in grander houses like Hever Castle (she owned nine properties in Sussex).
Well-preserved features of this house provide a glimpse into Tudor and Elizabethan life; these include a kitchen, a parlour with a stone-built fireplace and a bedroom with a four-poster bed. An iron gallery also represents the Sussex Wealden iron industry, which prospered during Tudor times. Inner children will be satisfied with the selection of dressing-up costumes – I will never forget my pale pink gown embellished with (faux) pearls, playing Catherine of Aragon in a class reenactment of Henry VIII’s life.
Anne of Cleves House is open every day of the week except for Monday, 10 am until 5 pm. As with Lewes Castle, SAS members can visit for free. And, it is one of the best things to do in Lewes on a rainy day. For more information, visit https://sussexpast.co.uk/attraction/anne-of-cleves-house/
Built-in 1572 by William Newton and owned by his family for the next three hundred years, Southover Grange is now owned by the East Sussex County Council. This beautiful Grade II listed building is also home to the Lewes Register Office, which provides marriage and civil partnership licenses and ceremonies. With the choice of four ceremony rooms, those hoping to get married here certainly have plenty of options!
Whatever the weather, the gardens of Southover Grange are guaranteed to provide a beautiful backdrop. Features of the gardens include a mulberry tree that is believed to be 350 years old and trees planted by the late Queen Elizabeth II in May 1951 – nine months before she became our monarch. The gardens, owned and managed by Lewes District Council, are open from 8.30 am until dusk (usually 9 pm) every day except Christmas Day.
Dogs are not allowed except assistance dogs.
For more information on visiting times and availability, please visit https://www.ceremoniesineastsussex.co.uk/about-southover-grange
Built-in 1860, Pells Pool is the oldest freshwater pool in the UK that is still going!
Fed by spring water from an underground spring beneath it, the lido is 50 yards long and 25 yards wide. It is unheated, with only the sun being a source of warmth – Pells Pool has a policy when the water temperature falls below 15 degrees Celsius, during which swimmers are advised to wear wetsuits and not stay in the pool for an extended period, plus children are not allowed to swim in the colder water.
Sessions catering to different levels and ages, such as family and adult-only, are available at Pells Pool, as are lane and open sessions. Facilities include a kiosk, male and female changing facilities, disabled toilets, open-air showers, a paddling pool and a cycle rack.
So there you have it, five things to see in Lewes. I wish all first-timers an enjoyable visit to East Sussex’s county town. And for some extra inspo, check out our guide on the best places to eat in Lewes.
By Annabel Barker