Lewes and democracy

A walk through this fine county town on a slightly unusual route that gives a flavour of its long history.




2 miles (3.2kms)

100ft (30m)
1hr 30min

About the walk

Lewes is the county town of East Sussex, and boasts the necessary accoutrements of a fine stone County Hall of 1808 and a gaol. Perched on and flowing down from a ridge-top site, its architecture reflects a long history. Survivors from the Middle Ages include several churches, a hilltop castle, which unusually had two mottes (an oddity shared with Lincoln), and 13th-century town walls. There are many medieval and Tudor houses in the town, including Anne of Cleves House in Southover and stone mansions such as Southover Grange. Great wealth returned in the 18th century, and many older houses were refronted in brick or mathematical tiles, a hanging tile that looks like brick. A good example is the pair of black-tiled houses near the Barbican.

Lewes Priory

In Southover are the remains of the once huge Cluniac Priory of St Pancras, ruthlessly cut through and partly destroyed by the railway. The stone was re-used all over the town, including for the building of Southover Grange, and there are remains of the gateway next to Southover's church. Founded by William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, in 1077, after a visit to the great mother abbey of Cluny in Burgundy, the priory was one of the largest and wealthiest in England. This was a second destruction, for at the Dissolution in 1537 the church was wholly demolished.

The Battle of Lewes

The castle dominates views for miles around and was also founded by William de Warenne, around 1100. Unusually there are two mottes, or mounds, with a bailey linking them, part of which is the old tiltyard. The southwest motte is crowned by the current Norman shell keep, while the northeast one is less prominent but can be seen next to the Lewes Arms.

In 1264 the royal army of Henry III was defeated by rebels led by Simon de Montfort, the king watching from the castle here. Defeated, Henry had to concede and to heed advice – thus was born the English Parliament, which first met the following year at Westminster.

De Montfort was an unlikely champion of democracy and a pretty unsavoury character. French-born, he was the son of the ruthless leader of the Albigensian Crusade that slaughtered many thousands of Cathar ‘heretics’ in the south of France. He was killed at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265, universally hated by his former allies.

Walk directions

Go out of the rear exit of the car park, and in the park walk up the spiral path on the right onto the summit of the Mount, thought to be a post-medieval feature, for a view over the priory ruins. Return to the path and go right alongside a wall. Go through an entrance into the Priory Park and follow the winding path past interpretation boards explaining the priory ruins. At the end pass a small castellated folly tower. 

Just past Priory Cottage, turn right on Cockshut Lane, under the railway bridge, then turn right on Southover High Street, passing St John the Baptist Church, at the far side of which are the remains of Lewes Priory's 13th-century gateway. Go left at The King’s Head and shortly half right into the grounds of a mansion, Southover Grange. 

Follow the path diagonally through the park, cross a footbridge and leave the park to the right of the house and go left along the road, then right up a very steep cobbled lane, Keere Street. Emerge by The Fifteenth Century Bookshop and turn right into High Street, passing St Michael’s Church with its rare round tower.

Go left into Castle Gate, actually a lane, and having visited the castle pass through the 14th-century Barbican tower and then the Norman gateway. Pause at the information board relating to the Battle of Lewes. Turn right, ignoring Castle Banks and continue downhill along Castle Precincts, past the Lewes Arms towards Castle Ditch Lane and into an alley that emerges by The Lamb of Lewes pub. Continue ahead into Market Lane.

Follow Market Lane, then turn right past the toilets, through the Market Tower, with its painting of Thomas Paine. Then go right towards the war memorial. Cross over to St Nicholas Lane and descend to its end.

Turn right along a road, Lansdown Place, and at the crossroads go left to pass the railway station and left into Mountfield Road, turning right into the car park just before Lewes Football Club.

Additional information

Town roads, lanes and footpaths, parks and a river bank path

Mostly townscape with a foray into the town’s priory grounds

On lead; dogs not allowed in Southover Grange park

OS Explorer 122 Brighton & Hove

Mountfield Road pay-and-display car park or the station car park (more expensive)

Market Lane and Station Street

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