Sunday, 17 January 2016

Lewes - Part One

In this, the first of a two-part article I take a look at an historic town in neighbouring Sussex; a town which is home to an iconic brewery, and a town with traditions going back centuries and which takes its Bonfire Night celebrations very seriously indeed.

I am talking about Lewes, of course, and whilst there is some mention of beer, with particular regard to the town’s celebrated brewery, the post is more about Lewes itself, and how it has grown in my affections over the years.

I have something of a soft spot for Lewes. Nestled in a fold in the South Downs, this historic old town with its narrow twisting streets, and attractive ancient buildings, occupies a fitting role as the county town of East Sussex. Lewes has some deep-rooted traditions, the best known of which are the famous Bonfire Night celebrations that take place every year on November 5th. Then the whole town comes to a standstill, as various local bonfire-societies parade through the town in a variety of colourful costumes (more about that later).

The famous Bonfire Night celebrations
Probably the main reason though why Lewes rate so highly in my affections, is that it is home to my favourite brewery - Harvey & Son Ltd. In addition, but of secondary importance, is the fact that I spent three and a half years working for a company based on the edge of the town. Although I disliked the job I was doing (as well as the long journey each way), I did leave a number of good friends there when I left.

I first became acquainted with the town in 1969, whilst on a Youth-Hostelling holiday.  I was aged 14 at the time, and was with a group of young people on a walk along the South Downs Way. We had begun our journey at Eastbourne, and were heading for Brighton on the second leg of our journey. We stopped off in Lewes for lunch, on the second day of our trip, picnicking in the grounds of the imposing castle in the centre of the town.

Harvey's Brewery - known as the cathedral of Lewes
It was only a fleeting visit, but the memory struck in my mind. It was to be some 12 years before I next visited the town, and by this time I had began to take an interest in beer and breweries. The fact that Harvey’s brewed in Lewes seemed a good enough reason to visit the town, but it was not until the early 1980’s that the chance came about.

During that time I was actively involved with the Maidstone & Mid-Kent Branch of CAMRA, and in the summer of 1982, our social secretary came up with the idea of arranging a bus trip to Lewes. Knowing that a prominent member of the neighbouring Gravesend CAMRA Branch, called Roland Graves, was the co-owner of a vintage double-decker bus, and also the holder of a P.S.V. Licence, was sufficient for our man to get in touch with Roland in order to take things further.

It turned out that Roland was happy to provide the transport for our trip, and also to act as our chauffeur providing the trip could be arranged as a joint venture between our two branches. So on a Saturday evening in late August, a bus full of eager CAMRA members set off in high spirits to make the 40 mile journey to Lewes.

The trip seemed to take an age, due to the bus being limited to a top speed of forty miles per hour, but it gave us time to appreciate the scenic countryside of Kent and Sussex which we passed through en route. When we arrived, Roland parked the bus, and we all set off, eager to explore the town and its pubs.

The odd thing about Lewes pubs is that whilst the town is home to Harvey’s, there are only three tied Harvey’s pubs in the town itself. At the time of our visit, most pubs in Lewes belonged to the firm of Beard & Co. Beards were a pub owning chain which opted out of brewing in 1958. For the next quarter of a century they contracted out the production of their beers to Harvey’s. One reason for them stopping brewing was their cramped, town-centre brewery, in Star Lane, Lewes, was suffering from a yeast infection. Beards felt that by pooling resources with Harvey’s, the future of both companies would be assured. Harvey’s would benefit from the increased capacity, whilst Beards would not have the bother of having to brew the beer themselves.

This arrangement lasted until 1986, when Beards pubs became free to choose from a wide range of different cask ales supplied by the company’s wholesaling division. This side of the business was later sold off; becoming the well-known wholesaling company The Beer Seller. During the early 90’s Beard’s pubs began offering Beards Best Bitter, which was produced exclusively for the company and allegedly to the original recipe, by the Arundel Brewery, based in nearby West Sussex.

The new deal didn’t last long though, as in the summer of 1998, Beard & Co agreed the sale of their entire tied estate to Greene King, and the company to all intents and purposes ceased to exist. It was rumoured that Harvey’s were somewhat put out by this deal, as not only did they lose their remaining supply contract with Beards, but they also lost the chance to buy the company’s pubs. It is believed that Harvey’s, had been under the impression they would get “first refusal” on Beards, should the latter ever come up for sale, although Harvey’s have never openly admitted this.

Lewes Arms - not sure about the old boy in the foreground
To return to the narrative, and that 1982 visit to Lewes; Beards pubs were supplied exclusively with Harvey's range of beers, which were badged as their own.

We split up into smaller groups; the party I was in visited several good pubs that night; all of them belonging to Beards. The most memorable was the unspoilt Lewes Arms, where, the unusual game of Toad-in-the-Hole was played. The latter is a game originally peculiar to Sussex, but is one that has now spread into neighbouring Kent. It involves throwing metal discs at what can only be described as a box with a lid. The object of the game is to try and get the discs to fall through a small, round hole in the lid of the box. The lid has a covering of lead, so the noise made as the discs clunk against it can be imagined! At the end of each round, the discs are retrieved by opening a drawer in the base of the box.

The old Beards Brewery buildings - now used as craft-workshops
Two other pubs stick in my memory from that night; the first was the Black Horse at the top end of the town, which featured some black and white photos showing the old Beards Brewery in its heyday. The other was the Lamb, in Fisher Street, directly opposite the then empty Star Lane Brewery. Today, the attractive old brewery buildings have been converted into craft-workshops. We stopped off at the chip shop just before boarding the bus. The journey back seemed to take even longer, but it was a good night out nevertheless.

My third trip to Lewes was on a hot Saturday in June 1984, when Maidstone CAMRA branch had been invited to tour Harvey’s Brewery. Roland Graves was once again our driver, but this time our mode of transport was a vintage single decker bus, rather than a double decker one. Our guide for the brewery tour was none other than Miles Jenner, head brewer at Harvey’s, although at the time of our visit he was deputy brewer. This was the first of four brewery tours I have made at Harvey’s, and on each occasion I have listened spell-bound to Mile's graphic and fascinating description, not only of the brewing process, but also of the history of Harvey’s, and of brewing in Lewes.

A couple of years later, when I was secretary of the then Tonbridge and Tunbridge WellsBranch of CAMRA, I arranged a further trip to Harvey’s. This time the tour took place on a Friday evening, but myself, plus a couple of friends decided to make a full day of it. Travelling by train, we chose Brighton as our initial destination; our tickets giving us the option of travelling on to Lewes later in the day.

Entrance to Harvey's Brewery
Only one Brighton pub sticks in my memory from that day and that was the Basketmakers Arms, an unspoilt back street local belonging to the late lamented Hampshire independent brewers George Gale & Co Ltd. The Basketmakers served a good lunch, and also gave me the opportunity of trying Gales 5X Winter Ale for the first time.

Most of the other Brighton pubs we visited that day were unremarkable, but nevertheless by the time we arrived at Harvey’s we were slightly the worse for drink. We met up with the rest of our party, just prior to the tour. Miles Jenner was once again our guide, and by the time the talk and trip round the brewery was finished we were ready for some more beer. A generous session in the Harvey’s sampling cellar made up for some of the lacklustre beers we had tried in Brighton; the Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale being particularly welcome on that cold damp winter's evening. We departed in sufficient time to catch the train home to Tonbridge, after a most enjoyable day out.

To be continued....................


Anonymous said...

Agree Paul - It's a particularly attractive town to walk around with some decent steep hills. All the pubs seem to have a convivial character and it's not totally dominated by Harveys. Doubt we'll see micro-pubs emerging in boarded-up buildings any time soon though !

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, Lewes has always been a town with a strong independent spirit, and reflecting this are some fine independent shops, restaurants and cafés. There are some good independent pubs as well, like the Brewer’s Arms, the Gardeners and the Snowdrop Inn,

As you rightly point out, there’s probably no need for a micro-pub in the town, despite there being plenty of suitable premises.

lee woo said...
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Joanna G said...

Plenty of events during the summer. Loveley scenery, great music and food, excellent people. One of my favourite towns in East Sussex :)