Note: I am leading Lamar University’s study abroad group to my home town, Brighton, to study travel writing and photojournalism. As well as writing features about Brighton and beyond, I’m keeping a diary, of sorts, about the class experience. Here is part 7.
LEWES, England — I love going to Lewes. I have been there many times over the years and my girlfriend, Ramona, absolutely loves the old town. When I was planning the study abroad program, I knew that a couple of days in the Sussex county seat was a must.
As I wrote in my last blog, this trip has allowed me to find new things. How often do we visit far-off exotic locales, yet completely overlook what is in our own back yard.
While I was researching the admission fee to Lewes Castle I noticed that there was a combo ticket for the castle and Anne of Cleves House. What? Henry VIII’s fourth wife has a house in Lewes. How did I not know that? Of course, we are going there. It was only 12.50 pounds for the pair.
Lewes is a medieval town that was founded after William the Conqueror gifted William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, a swath of land alongside the River Ouse which runs through the town. He built the castle on the site of a Saxon fort and visitors can quickly see why. From the top of the turret one can see for miles in all directions, making it easy to defend. With his wife, Gundred, de Warenne, built the Priory of St. Pancras in 1081.
During the reign of Queen Mary, Henry VIII’s daughter, she sought to return England to Catholicism after Henry had established the Church of England. Not for nothing was she nicknamed “Bloody Mary.” More than 300 protestant martyrs were burned for treason during her reign, with 17 of them being from Lewes. It is now the site of the country’s biggest Bonfire Night, held Nov. 5 to commemorate the foiling of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot where a group of Catholics tried to blow up the Protestant king during the opening Parliament. The town’s 17,000 population swells to 50,000 as revelers burn effigies and watch firework displays.
The castle is quite laissez-faire about entry. When the tickets are bought one is given a key fob to get in. There is a small museum attached to the visitor center that has several artifacts, and a 12-minute film tells the history of Lewes with a large model of the town which lights up as each historical fact is mentioned. When you choose to watch it is up to you, but I would recommend watching the film first thing as it sets up the whole day.
The castle is remarkably intact, and one should expect to climb some quite narrow stairs to get the best effect. The view from the top of the building is spectacular, with chalk hills in one direction and the English Channel glimpsed from another.
The day we visited had the added bonus of a group of English school children, probably 6- or 7-years old, on a field trip. One little girl said, breathlessly, “I love this.” Cassie said the girl expressed exactly how she felt but she was too cool to shout it out. Jhocelyn blogged about it being like a fairy tale.
After visiting the castle — which is at the top of a steep hill — the students were pleased to find out that Anne of Cleves House was at the bottom of the hill. We had to pass through Southover Gardens on the way to the house, so we took the opportunity to grab some lunch on the lawns.
I have unwittingly fostered some addictions on this trip. Cups of hot tea, Cornish Pasties and, most of all, scones with clotted cream and jam. To picnic on the grass with the students was really quite a nice moment.
We headed to Anne of Cleves house, technically called the Wealden Hall House. Anne received the house in 1541 as part of her annulment settlement from Henry VIII, although she never even visited the house. Anne (1515-1557) was queen from Jan. 6 to July 9, 1540, but the wedding was declared unconsummated and annulled.
The timber-framed house contains period furniture and an iron museum. The students had fun putting on costumes that are available and, for a brief moment, pretending they were 15th-century courtiers (Vy took it upon herself to be queen which the rest of the group just went along with).
We ended the visit by paying quoits and skittles in the gardens. The sun was beating down, but the temperature was a mild 70 degrees. One could easily imagine being in a relaxed 15th century garden enjoying a pleasant time with friends.
Lewes’ history is rich and deep, but still ever present in the buildings and the pride of the people who live there. Have an adult beverage in the Gardeners Arms and Simon will be happy to regale visitors with stories.
History is real — and it is still very much alive.
Admission to Lewes Castle is 8 pounds for adults, 7.20 pounds for students and 4.30 for children. Admission to Anne of Cleves house is 6.10 pounds, 3.50 pounds for children.
Both buildings are within an easy walk of each other.