Autumn is upon us, and the streets are full of families in fancy dress. People of all ages are dressing up, everything from smugglers to suffragettes. In Lewes it can only mean one thing — it’s bonfire time again.
Elsewhere in Britain, Bonfire Night has been overwhelmed by Halloween, but here in the historic county town of Sussex (forget about this newfangled East Sussex nonsense), Guy Fawkes is still going strong. This is no tame firework display, organised and sanctioned by the council. It’s a celebration of local kinship — half a dozen bonfires, one in each part of town, each with its own loyalties and rituals. These rituals stretch back centuries: 17 burning crosses commemorate the 17 Protestant martyrs burnt here by Bloody Mary; Pope Paul V (1552-1621) is burnt in effigy every year, alongside modern villains like Vladimir Putin.
While so many market towns are being swallowed up by the commuter belt, how has Lewes retained its identity? I reckon it goes back to Tom Paine. Paine wrote his first political pamphlet here, in a handsome old house on the high street, and aired his radical ideas at the Headstrong Club, which met in the White Hart Hotel (still a lively place).
Lewes has always been -nonconformist, and that independent spirit endures. Unlike many a bland dormitory town, it has resisted the remorseless invasion of the chain stores. Edward Reeves, Britain’s oldest photographic studio, has occupied the same premises since 1855. Malcolm Rose makes harpsichords in a beautiful oak-beamed building that dates back to the 16th century. Harveys have been brewing beer on the same site for 200 years.
Lately, Lewes has become a magnet for arty folk who can’t afford a family home in London or who find Brighton a bit grungy, but its industrial heritage has saved it from cutesy atrophy. It’s still a working town, with a bit of dirt beneath its fingernails. And though some of its festivities are ancient, others are brand new. I’d been here a few times before, but only for the odd day trip. This time I made a weekend of it, staying overnight for Lewes Light. Now in its third year, this festival of light in mid-October is a great way to explore the town.
Some of the illuminations are fairly simple — the ornate war memorial, usually shrouded in darkness after sundown, is lit up by a discreet spotlight. Other instillations are more ambitious, recreating lost relics from Lewes past. In an anonymous modern arcade, silent movies flicker across a tattered bedsheet, recalling the Art Deco cinema that once stood here. In a sidestreet beside the brewery, dry ice and headlamps conjure up a ghost train, racing along the old branch line shut down by Beeching half a century ago.
I had dinner at the Snowdrop Inn, an atmospheric boozer that felt like a groovy throwback to the 1970s. We sat upstairs amid old books and thrift store paintings. There was a blues band playing downstairs. I spent the night in a chalet in an orchard a few miles out of town, near Glyndebourne, waking at sunrise and walked out into the fields beyond to marvel at the graceful contours of the South Downs. Back in town, I ate the best bacon sandwich I’ve had in ages, then caught a fast train to Victoria. In an hour I was back in London, and Lewes seemed a world away.