The neat and well-to-do town of Lewes is embedded in a gap in the South Down in East Sussex.
Lewes’ Medieval streets are set off beautifully by the neighbouring green hillsides, and poking around the town you’ll come by independent galleries, artist studios and lots of shops you won’t find anywhere else.
For a town of its modest size, Lewes packs a cultural wallop.
The Bloomsbury Group laid down roots near Lewes at Charleston, home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, while Virginia Woolf wrote several books at her summer retreat, Monk’s Cottage.
Add to that mix Glyndebourne, the world-famous opera hall, just moments away by car.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lewes:
The artist couple Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant picked this large farmhouse in the village of Firle as their country home in 1916. Over the next 50 years the house would be a meeting place for the Bloomsbury group, a set of forward-thinking artists, writers and intellectuals made up of the likes of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot.
Bell and Grant were two of the leading English painters in the first half of the 20th century and Charleston is prized for the decoration they applied to the walls, fittings and furniture.
The house and its bedrooms, kitchen, dining room and studio has been frozen in time, and is embellished by decorative art from the Bloomsbury Group’s own Omega Workshops.
There’s also a tremendous art collection with paintings by Delacroix, Picasso, Renoir, Derain and more.
The gallery at Charleston puts on short-term exhibitions by well-known contemporary artists, while the walled garden has been restored after becoming overgrown after WWII.
2. Lewes Castle
A Norman motte-and-bailey stronghold, Lewes Castle was built within three years of the Battle of Hastings (1066), and for most of the Medieval period was controlled by the Earls of Surrey, descendants of the nobleman William de Warenne who fought at the battle.
The castle was reinforced throughout that time but the precipitous mound is a Norman holdover.
Made from chalk blocks this is a challenge to climb even today.
But your efforts will be paid off by dreamy vistas of Lewes, the South Downs and the gleaming chalk cliff at Cliffe Hill.
At the foot of the mound is the barbican, which can also be scaled and is considered one of the best of its kind surviving in England.
3. Cliffe High Street
You may not find a lovelier high street in England than this east-to-west artery through the centre of Lewes.
Cliffe High Street is on a bit of a slope, with a pedestrianised section at the top and a few narrow lanes and passages disappearing off to the sides.
On this upper stretch there are views of the South Downs to stop you in your tracks, as well as a farmers’ market on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
The street is flanked by period houses; some flat-fronted Georgian townhouses and more than few slate-clad buildings with gables and dormers.
On a sunny morning you could visit for a cup of coffee at one of the terraces to watch the sun climb over the downs to the east.
The landowner John Christie was a music aficionado, and after moving into the late-Medieval house at Glyndebourne began to host opera evenings in the inter-war years.
This eventually led to a theatre being built on the grounds, upgraded in 1992 to a modern performance venue that can seat 1,200. The Glyndebourne Festival took off in the wake of the Second World War and now has international fame.
There are six productions per season, and something special about each performance, other than its superlative quality, is the 80-minute interval.
This is purposely extended to allow you to take a picnic on Glyndebourne’s lawn.
If you have tickets to a show you’re invited to arrive early to tour the splendid garden and view the Stalls Gallery where there’s a new art exhibition each summer.
5. South Downs
Lewes rests in a stunning gap in the South Downs, a range of chalk hills in southeast of England roughly from Winchester to Eastbourne.
This region became the UK’s newest national park in 2011 and is threaded by a National Trail.
The route passes close by Lewes and you could walk a section to the little village of Southease, downriver on the Ouse, and crossing the scenic Blackcap Hill on the way.
The 146-metre Mount Caburn, meanwhile, is only a mile out of Lewes and 2,500 years ago was crested by an Iron Age hillfort.
There’s a breathtaking view of Lewes from the top, while the hill’s grassland is treasured for its wildflowers, comprising the largest number of burnt-tip orchids in one place.
6. Lewes Priory
In a park at the head of the Ouse Valley in the south of Lewes you can investigate the Grade I-listed ruins of Lewes’ Priory of St Pancras.
This was a Cluniac priory, the first Cluniac house in England, founded around 1081. Nearly everything you see is from that time and the century that followed.
It pays to remember that this site has been heavily quarried since the priory was shut down in 1537 in Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The church was among the largest monastic churches in the country, and you can make out traces of its southwest tower and its wall arcading.
Other fragments include the precinct wall, two dorters (dormitories) and the hospitium (hospice).
7. Southover Grange
There’s a spellbinding Elizabethan house within seconds of Lewes Station.
Southover Grange was built in the 1570s using ashlar stone from the recently dissolved Lewes Priory.
A private home for centuries, Southover Grange was visited by the Prince Regent in the 1790s when he came for the Lewes Races.
The house is now home to Lewes’ Register Office and can be hired out for weddings.
Framed by this stunning building the formal gardens are free to enter and are a joy for their vibrant borders, fastidiously tended lawns, boxwood hedges, roses and mature trees.
The future Queen Elizabeth II planted a tree here in 1951, while the venerable mulberry is particularly beautiful.
The house is closed for regular visitors but there’s a tearoom serving tea and cakes with old-fashioned china.
8. Monk’s House
In the village of Rodmell, three miles south of Lewes is the 17th-century weatherboard cottage owned by Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard as a country retreat.
They purchased Monk’s House in 1919 and while staying here entertained luminaries from the Bloomsbury Group like E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey and Roger Fry.
Monk’s House has been in the care of the National Trust since 1980, and a treat for any fans of Woolf’s work is the weatherboard writing lodge at the bottom of the garden where she wrote a series of works including Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and several more.
After she died, Leonard buried her ashes under an elm in the garden.
Virginia painted the interior walls herself in green, pomegranate, blue and yellow.
The very intimate collection of photographs documenting the comings and goings at the cottage, known as the Monk’s House Album was recently published online.
9. Barbican House Museum
Included in the same ticket as the castle is a museum in the Barbican House at the entrance to the site.
The official name for this attraction is the Museum of Sussex Archaeology and there’s a spectrum of artefacts to view from the Stone Age to Medieval times.
Among the finds are flint tools, pieces of pottery, jewellery and weapons, while there’s a mini-cinema screening a well-made film about Lewes’ progress through the ages.
There are regular family workshops on archaeology during the school holidays, and downstairs is a well-stocked archaeology bookshop.
10. Anne of Cleves House
The Sussex Archaeological Society also owns and operates a museum at the timber-framed Wealden hall house once owned by Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.
The house was raised in the 1400s, and although it was part of her annulment settlement the Queen never actually lived here.
At any rate the building is a spectacular example of vernacular Medieval architecture and the museum inside is compelling.
The galleries deal with Sussex trades in times past, like the iron-making industry, represented by a hammer from the forge in Etchingham.
The house’s kitchen and bedroom are recreated in the Tudor style of Anne’s day, and the garden has species and planting schemes also common in the 16th-century.
11. Railway Land Nature Reserve
Off Cliffe High Street and behind Lewes Railway Station you’ll suddenly find yourself in a clear natural space.
This is the Railway Land Nature Reserve, looked after by a charitable trust and found on the site of a former railway marshalling yard.
Where there used to a tangle of railway sidings there are now four different types of water environment.
These are: Floodplain grassland sprinkled with wildflowers in summer, ponds abounding with fish and newts, reed beds inhabited by reed warblers in summer and wet woodland.
This last space is on the site of a lost Victorian estate, and still has some exotic species from its park like a swamp cypress and holm oak.
12. Bentley Wildfowl & Motor Museum
A day out that should suit different members of the family, this museum combines classic cars with a wildfowl collection in opulent formal gardens.
The motor museum covers a century of road transport with some beguiling exhibits like a Chevrolet Corvette (C3), a BMW 315-1 Sports Roadster, a Frazer Nash Mille Miglia and a genuine Delorean.
The avian collection is made up of 1,000 birds from 130 species across the planet, including the stunning Spectacled Eider Duck, Wandering Whistling Duck and Indian Runner.
Little ones can climb aboard the miniature railway, and the South Downs Pantry prepares both full meals and teatime treats.
Added to all that is a craft barn, leased to local artists and crafts people, and selling a range of paintings, sculptures, wooden toys, accessories, homewares and wooden toys.
This historic factory once manufactured candles and then switched to hypodermic needles during the First World War.
Today the brick building in the town centre on West Street has been taken over by a set of one-of-a-kind shops and craft studios.
There’s a seamstress, hairdresser, a design shop, book and art shop, a quirky card and gift store, as well as a craft goldsmith and vintage furniture dealers.
On your shopping trip you can take a detour to the Back Yard Cafe, which has original brick floors and a beamed ceiling, serving quiches, tarts, soups and homemade cakes.
14. Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare
Founded as an animal charity in 1952 by M. Raymonde Hawkins, Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare is a sanctuary for hundreds of different species.
Nearly all the animals at the centre have been rescued or donated from homes and zoos.
You’ll meet tortoises, ponies, alpacas, horses, donkeys, goats, rabbits, parakeets and a wealth of other exotic birds.
The centre is in idyllic countryside on the shores of a series of ponds, and has an adventure playground for youngsters.
At the end of your visit there’s a shop for the charity, and a cafe with tasty vegan and vegetarian options.
15. Harvey’s Brewery
Established in 1790, Harvey’s Brewery makes traditional English cask ales that are sold across the South East of England.
You can take a tour here, at the oldest independent brewery in Sussex, for an experience deeper than you’d get at other breweries.
First of all, this takes place outside the working day, and goes into such depth that you can spend up to three hours chatting with master brewers and learning the intricacies of malting barley and brewing ale.
The business is now in the eighth generation of the same family, and also operates as a wine merchant, importing bottles from all over the world.
Call in at the brewery shop on Cliffe High Street for Harvey’s selection of ales and wines, as well as some rare spirits.