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Ups and Downs in Sussex
Lewes, Sussex

by Sarah Shuckburgh

From ancient castles to the Blomsbury set, Lewes and its villages are full of art and history, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

Lewes was recently voted the best place to live in England. The pretty Georgian town is also a perfect base for a weekend - with unexpected layers of history, and, in nearby pockets of the South Downs, literature, art and opera. My grown-up daughter and I can’t agree about what to see first. Amy - a passionate painter with a half-written novel - wants to head straight for Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, but I want to start in 1066.

I win, so it’s Lewes castle first - one of several fortresses built by William the Conqueror to defend his route between London and Normandy. William Warenne was its first feudal lord, and his family ruled Lewes for the next 300 years. We climb the spiral stairs of the castle motte and emerge high above the town to a tranquil panorama of rooftops, chalky downs and the winding river Ouse. Reading the historical notes, I realise that Lewes’ history began much earlier than the Norman Conquest. The Twittens, a grid of narrow cobbled alleys where our hotel stands, date from Saxon times, and there are also Roman remains, and iron age ramparts.

In the castle museum, we are delighted to find that our hotel features in the illuminated diorama illustrating the town’s history. When the model of Pelham House lights up, we can even spot the turret which contains our bathroom. From the 16th century, the house was owned by a series of bigwigs, including four generations of Gorings, all called George, and then seven generations of Pelhams, several called Sir Thomas. In the 1930s, it became the headquarters of East Sussex County Council, but mercifully, the bureaucrats didn’t rip out the Elizabethan oak panelling, the stone staircase or the Georgian windows and shutters, which all survive today in the hotel, with more austere council chambers and corridors.

After lunch, we return to the 16th century, and a rambling timbered house which Henry VIII gave to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement. The Queen never lived here, but the building has changed remarkably little since her day. The huge upper floor is our favourite - a sleeping and living hall with lofty beamed ceiling, dark oak furniture, tapestries and four-poster bed. We linger in the gloom of this wonderful room, discussing Tudor divorce and modern step-families.

Leaving Lewes, we drive through winding lanes to the village of Rodmell, where Virginia Woolf spent weekends and holidays from 1919 until her death in 1941. Woolf called Monk’s House “unpretending”, and it is indeed modest, with low ceilings and flagged floors, but it is full of colourful Bloomsbury art, with furniture and pottery painted by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, and tapestry chair-backs designed by Duncan Grant, and stitched by his mother. By the back door, we read a short story by Virginia Woolf entitled ‘The Garden‘, and then step into her own paradise of tumbling roses, lily ponds, fruit trees and beds of shoulder-high perennials. It is hard to imagine being unhappy in such a beautiful place, but it was here that Woolf killed herself. Beyond a croquet lawn is her summer house, with her work table and pencils, and sepia photographs of the couple’s distinguished literary and artistic guests.

Amy wants to stay here all afternoon, but it is time for our next cultural visit. In the Glyndebourne car park, we quickly doll ourselves up and join hundreds of guests strolling in the afternoon sunshine. The gentlemen are in dinner jackets, but no sartorial rules constrain the ladies - some have apparently raided dressing-up boxes for tiaras, long gloves and ball gowns, and the rest seem to have hurried here from the beach, in cut-off trousers, flip-flops and tee-shirts. There are some ill-advised bare shoulders, but the ubiquitous clodhoppers are a sensible, if inelegant, choice on the soft ground. As we lug plastic bags to a lakeside picnic spot, Amy muses that Virginia Woolf would have brought an elegant wicker hamper, and a proper rug.

In the opera house, we have brilliant seats - the cheapest, and surely the best - sitting one behind the other in a wooden pen beside the stage. We are perfectly placed to watch the audience, and we spot several flowing skirts and loose chignons straight out of Virginia Woolf’s photograph album. The performance is an exciting new production of Cerenterella. Sitting on our carrier-bags during the interval, Amy and I discuss the sympathetic portrayal of Cinderella’s step-sisters, as our grander neighbours tuck into smoked salmon at damask-covered picnic tables.

On Sunday, after sauntering up Lewes’ steep, pretty high street, and wandering through the cobbled Twittens, we leave the sleepy town and drive to Firle Beacon for a ramble on the springy turf of the South Downs. From the top, astonishing views open up - north over rolling countryside, and south to the grey, glittering English Channel, where a ferry chugs towards William the Conqueror’s Normandy.

We have a delicious lunch in the 600-year-old Ram pub in Firle, a tranquil village at the foot of the downs, and then drive on to the farmhouse which was, from 1916, the home of Bloomsbury artists Vanessa and Clive Bell, and Duncan Grant.

Amy and I have been to Charleston before. Amy, then aged 14, was captivated by the exuberant decorations on walls, doors and furniture, and by the bohemian lives of the artists. We had just moved house (as with Anne of Cleves - a divorce settlement), and within days, Amy had painted every door with flowers, teapots and cups, landscapes and post-impressionist nymphs.

I worry that our return trip may be a disappointment, but the magic of Charleston works again. In each room, vibrant colour enlivens tables, mantelpieces, book shelves, cupboards and window frames. Borders of zigzags and crosshatching surround prancing figures and vases of flowers. Bloomsbury portraits hang from walls daubed in earthy colours. Upstairs, bedrooms are simple but arty, with homemade rag rugs, original fabrics, and more painted tables, cupboards and lampshades. Best of all is Vanessa Bell’s studio, huge and airy, full of clutter and charm. Beyond is the garden, exquisite outdoor rooms with sculptures and mosaics, trees and ponds, and flowers in subtle swathes of colour. In an outhouse, we buy a welcome cup of tea and homemade cake, and watch a documentary about the unconventional Charleston household.

Amy’s head is spinning with ideas as we drive to the nearby church of St Michael and All Angels, in Berwick village. Here again we find many layers of history - an early Saxon font, 12th century nave, 14th century windows, and 17th century tower. But we have come to see the wonderful 20th century murals, painted during the war by the Charleston artists, and featuring local people and places. Duncan Grant’s fresco on the chancel arch shows a soldier, sailor and airman kneeling among poppies, with the South Downs in the background. Vanessa Bell included the Charleston garden in the background of her Annunciation, and her daughter Angelica was the model for Mary. Local shepherds stand in a Sussex barn in Vanessa Bell’s nativity scene on the north wall. Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, appears as Jesus in a mural by Quentin Bell, son of Vanessa and Clive Bell. I love Duncan Grant’s rural scenes of the four seasons, and his views of Charleston pond by day and by night. Amy’s favourite is the pulpit, exquisitely decorated in 1962 by Duncan Grant and Angelica Bell, with flowers and cascades of fruit.

Our final visit is to a pottery at South Heighton, where a remarkable 97-year-old potter still works. Ursula Mommens is a living link with the Bloomsbury set, and remembers playing croquet at Monk’s House. “The lawn sloped, and there was a lot of cheating. Visitors’ balls always ended up in the pond!” she remembers, blue eyes twinkling. We buy a temeku-glazed jug from her studio, and head for home. I am thinking of the thousand years of history that we have glimpsed in Lewes this weekend. Amy is dreaming of tomorrow, when she will paint a picture of our new vase, full of flowers, on my sitting-room mantelpiece.

First published by the Telegraph

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