By ProgBlog, Apr 20 2014 09:04PM
Lewes is a really pleasant place, nestled in the Sussex Downs and only 50 minutes from Croydon. The name Lewes has two possible derivations: either from a Celtic word meaning ‘slopes’; or from the Saxon word hlaew, which means an artificial mound. The local architecture features a fair amount of flint which fits in with the town’s air of gentility; there is an abundance of second-hand book stores including the warren-like and rickety Fifteenth Century Bookshop and a range of antique shops and flea markets, all of which are worth exploring.
There’s even a connection between Lewes and Crystal Palace. Gideon Algernon Mantell, surgeon and geologist, was born in Lewes in 1790. He discovered the bones of what he would later call an Iguanodon, famously misidentifying the thumb spike and assigning it to the nose of his animal skeleton, so that it appeared like a rhinoceros. A model of Mantell’s Iguanodon was erected in Crystal Palace Park and, as a publicity event, the Crystal Palace Company organised a dinner inside the Iguanodon on 31 December 1853, some months before the Park opened. Special guests included the scientists William Buckland, Georges Cuvier, Richard Owen and Mantell.
There’s a small museum on the High Street that holds some interesting local archaeological artifacts – there’s an Iron Age fort on Cliffe Hill that looms over Lewes and Lewes was important in Roman and Saxon times. Barbican museum is nestled under the part-ruined Norman castle and there’s another museum, also run by Sussex Past (the Sussex Archaeological Society), in Anne of Cleves House. It’s unlikely that Anne ever used the house – she was granted a total of nine Sussex manors as part of her nullity settlement in 1541. The building retains some original timber mullions, crown-post and queen-post roofs and the stairs are incredibly worn and uneven. There are temporary exhibits in the East Room, a potted history of Lewes in the Lewes Room and the Wealden Iron Gallery in the medieval barrel-vaulted cellar. Just to the south of Anne of Cleves House are the remains of the Priory of St Pancras.
Thomas Paine arrived in Lewes as an exciseman in 1768 and lodged at Bull House. Politics was a favourite discussion point in the town around this time, with topics ranging from the French Revolution, reform of Parliament, the Corn Laws, Catholic emancipation to American independence but radicalism seems to be embedded in the DNA of the town; during the Civil War Lewes had sided with the Parliamentarians. Lewes Puritans became Nonconformists and some became Quaker pacifists; George Fox was attracted to the town and preached at a meeting of The Seekers in Southover (Lewes.) The town returned Whig MPs until 1874 and the current MP is Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, first elected in 1997 when he overturned a 12000 Conservative majority. Though he doesn’t necessarily follow official coalition policy, he may find himself unseated in 2015 in a backlash against the Lib Dems for reneging on their pre-2010 election promises.
Paine came from a Quaker family and his ideas, set out in Rights of Man, form a coherent and compelling manifesto for social change and his writings (he was a great pamphleteer) were signed off with a rapier wit. Rights of Man was written in response to radical Parliamentarian Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France; Burke agreed with the revolution in the new colony but not the French Revolution. Paine saw that Burke was siding with the established ruling class and, with his understanding of the need for social justice, challenged Burke’s assertions, ridiculing the pomposity of the extant political class. Some people still regard Paine with suspicion and hostility. He had fought against Britain in the American war of Independence and advocated France going to war with Britain after the French Revolution but he is well regarded in Lewes, such that the local independent brewery, Harvey’s, produces the seasonal Tom Paine ale (in cask and bottle) in July and owns a pub called Rights of Man in the High Street. The range of Harveys ales is exceptional and I’m fortunate to have one of their pubs, the entertainment-less Royal Oak close to my place of work in SE1.
The pubs, historical sites, museums, bookshops and antique shops aren’t the only places to visit in Lewes. In 2013, The Guardian ran an article on the 10 best independent record stores in Britain and at the top of the list was Union Music Store, 1 Lansdown Place, Lewes, a haunt of Mumford and Sons. There’s also Octave Recorded Music Specialist and Si’s Sounds (formerly Rik’s Disks.) All three stores are worth visiting. Union sells instruments, effects pedals and clothes in addition to CDs and despite its self-styled image as a home of Americana, folk and country with no mention of prog, I rather liked it, finding it a very friendly store. The shop assistant put on S. Carey’s Range of Light, a multi-layered piece of chamber soft-rock that I thought was very fitting in that environment. Though I didn’t buy any music, I came away with a heavy gauge plectrum!
Since I’ve been coming to Lewes, the shop at 4a Station Road has changed hands a few times. My latest visit was to Si’s Sounds, where I picked up a 40th Anniversary CD and DVD of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick; a copy of Ian Anderson’s TAAB2 (CD and DVD) and a double CD of Soft Machine’s Six and Seven. Si is incredibly knowledgeable and though I was disappointed when I last visited the shop as Rik’s Disks, I shall certainly make a point of going in again.
Octave has a wide range of music. On previous visits I’ve bought 30th Anniversary King Crimson CDs in cardboard sleeves and a mini-box set of Vangelis’ three best known albums, Heaven and Hell, Albedo 0.39 and Spiral. I used to think the prices were very competitive but a new version of the anniversary TAAB from Octave would have cost me £10 more than the very good condition second-hand copy I bought from Si. Still, a town the size of Lewes with three independent record stores is quite remarkable. On top of these three are the CDs and vinyl that can be found in the flea markets and antique stores – last year I procured a pristine copy of Anthony Phillip’s album The Geese and the Ghost and in the same shop on my last visit, I nearly splashed out on Tangerine Dream’s Stratosfear. This appeared to be in immaculate condition but it wasn’t really on my wish list because this is a move towards a more conventional melodic album than the two rather experimental immediate forerunners, Phaedra and Rubycon, and a new CD wouldn’t have cost very much more.