Saturday, 23 January 2016

Lewes - Part Two

Following on from my first article about Lewes, I continue the story about my connection with the town and how I ended up working there.

In 1988, the company I was working for was taken over by a larger concern that happened to have its main factory in Lewes. The intention had been to merge the operations of the two companies at the larger and better equipped Lewes site. Fortunately, a last minute change of heart by the new owners led to the shelving of this plan, and production and packaging continued much as before at the Nature's Best factory in Tunbridge Wells.

Harvey's Brewery  Shop
This did not stop close cooperation between the two sites, and in my role as Quality Assurance Controller for Tunbridge Wells, I became a frequent visitor to Lewes. I normally timed my visits to arrive first thing in the morning, so that business was generally concluded by lunchtime. This gave me the opportunity of enjoying a pint of Harvey’s, plus a bite to eat in one of the local pubs before heading back.

It was during one such visit that I first discovered the Harvey’s Brewery Shop. The shop is situated in Cliffe High Street, just in front of the brewery itself. As well as selling the full range of Harvey’s bottled beers, there were always several draught beers on sale for customers to take away in their own containers. In fact Harvey’s state that they will supply up to two gallons on demand (for quantities greater than this they require 24 hours notice).

This was not usually a problem, so far as I was concerned, as I found a four pint container to be sufficient and, providing it was kept in a cool place, the contents lasted over a two day period. For times when I was expecting friends, or over long weekends, such as Bank Holidays, a gallon container was the order of the day. Suitable containers were available from the shop; 50p for a four pints and £1.00 for a gallon one.

What I found especially good about the shop was the fact that the beer was sold at brewery prices. Back in March 1995, a four pint container of Best Bitter cost just £3.95, which worked out at slightly less than £1 a pint. Even cheaper was Harvey’s Knot of May Mild, a seasonal light mild. Four pints of this beer cost a mere £3.13! The excellent strong pale ale, Tom Paine, available only during the month of July, retailed for £4.47, equating to just £1.12 a pint.

The Harvey’s shop was to prove a life saver when, in 1992, my job was transferred to Lewes. This was following a further takeover when the whole group was bought by a Danish pharmaceutical company. The Danes did what the previous owners had shied away from - namely concentrating all operations on the Lewes site.

My former workplace - an old chalk quarry on the edge of Lewes
I didn't particularly enjoy my job there; nor did I enjoy the sixty mile round trip to work each day. The factory I was based at was situated on an industrial estate, occupying the site of a former cement works, on the edge of the town. It was a good, brisk walk of some twenty minutes or so, along the banks of the River Ouse before one reached the town, but it was worth it in order to escape from what could often be a highly charged and stressful workplace. 

On such occasions, I was invariably smitten with the old world charms of Lewes. Its ancient and historic buildings seemed a world away from the chaotic nature of the factory. I spent many a happy lunchtime browsing round its numerous antique shops or, when time permitted, some of the second hand bookshops sited at the top end of the town.

I was also a regular visitor to the Harvey’s Shop, where I was always addressed quite politely, and properly, as "Mr Bailey"! I even received preferential treatment. At times when the shop was closed for stocktaking, I was told to "pop round the back", where the staff would willingly replenish my container for me. I was also treated to sneak previews and tastings of new brews, or special commemorative ales. In short I was treated with that "old-fashioned" politeness and civility which is so sadly missing from much of the retail trade today.

I ended up spending nearly four years working in Lewes, and despite being short-listed for several jobs elsewhere, never quite managed to escape. Not until, that is, I was made redundant in November 1995. The saddest part of leaving was telling the staff in the Harvey’s Shop that they would be losing one of their regular customers. Apart from that, the redundancy turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it forced me to concentrate all my efforts on finding another job, and I was fortunate to find a reasonably paid managerial position in Tonbridge itself.

Since my redundancy I have been back to Lewes on several occasions. The first occasion was in 1996, when I called in to the Harvey’s Shop. At the time the shop was housed in temporary accommodation following the disastrous fire of February that year, which completely gutted both the shop premises and the brewery offices. Upon entering the shop I was greeted like a long lost son by the manager and his staff, and it was very much like meeting up with old friends again.

In the autumn of 2004 I attended a wine presentation and meal at the brewery. This was back in the day when my wife and I had our of-licence in Tonbridge. Seeing as we were selling cask beer to take-away by the pint, we obviously had an account with Harvey’s; in fact the brewery’s Sussex Best was our top-selling cask ale and occupying a semi-permanent position on the bar.

John Harvey Tavern
We also bought wines from Harvey’s; wines which were in the next price bracket up from the run of the mill, lower-priced Chardonnays, White Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons which made up the bulk of our wine sales. Harvey’s were particularly supportive in of sourcing and helping us promote some reasonable wines and in respect we had the help of Andrew Harris, their Wine Manager.

I had first met Andrew when he was a helpful young lad, working in the Harvey’s Shop in Lewes; not realising at the time he was studying to complete various courses connected to the wine trade. It was therefore good to see him on those occasions when he visited the shop, accompanied by our normal sales rep, John.

It was through Andrew that I received an invitation to attend the aforementioned wine presentation. Harvey’s had invited their wine grower from the Rhône region of France over to give a talk about some of the wines his family produced, and in order to showcase them at their best, there was to be a five course meal to accompany the tastings.

I jumped at this opportunity’ particularly as time away from the off-licence was a rare treat, and for a night away; well, that was almost unheard of. I booked myself a room at the White Hart; the best known and most prestigious hotel in Lewes. Situated opposite the Law Courts, this historic old coaching inn has roots going back to the 16th Century. The White Hart was also the meeting place of the “Headstrong Club”, a group of radicals and revolutionaries, who included one Thomas Paine amongst their number. The latter’s writings inspired the American War of Independence and he went on to become one of the "Founding Fathers" of the United States. 

Unashamedly putting this trip down as a legitimate business expense, I drove down to Lewes on the afternoon of the appointed day, parked the car at the White Hart and checked in for the night. Shortly afterwards, I walked down the hill towards the River Ouse and Harvey’s Brewery. The dinner and presentation was being held at the John Harvey Tavern, opposite the brewery, and arriving there early meant I would be able to catch the first of the season’s Old Ale.

Plaque commemorating Thomas Paine
This I did, and found it so good that I just had to have another pint. On reflection this wasn’t the wisest of moves given that there was a whole evening’s wine sampling ahead, but hey-ho! The meal and the sampling took place in the upstairs function room, and were both very good. The French wine grower certainly knew his stuff and we tasted, and enjoyed, a variety of his wines ranging from an unusual White Rhône, through to a full-bodied Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

And there the evening might have sensibly ended were it not for the fact that the meal was followed by several glasses of vintage port. The port was 40 years old, in fact, and was “flood damaged” stock salvaged from the devastating flood of 2001 which completely swamped the brewery. Wine bottles, of course are hermetically sealed, not just with a cork, but with a foil seal. The contents therefore remained completely unaffected, and after the bottles had been washed and wiped down with disinfectant, they were perfectly OK to be drunk. Harvey’s were not allowed to sell the salvaged bottles though, as the insurers had already paid out on them, but there was nothing to stop the port from being served to non-fee paying guests, like us.

The smooth rich, mellow port slipped down a treat, and whilst the sensible thing would have been to have refused the several top-ups offered, I decided that the opportunity to enjoy such a rare and excellent drink were unlikely to come again. Consequently I had more port than was wise. I said goodbye to the other guests and thanked my generous hosts, before staggering back up the hill to the White Hart. I found my room and collapsed into bed. Somewhat surprisingly I didn’t feel too bad the following morning and ate my full English breakfast with considerable relish.

Three and a half years later I found myself spending another night in Lewes; but this time in far less salubrious surroundings. I was on the first stage of a walk along the South Downs Way, accompanied by a friend. This first section was designed to break ourselves in gradually and to get ourselves used to walking, what for us, were quite lengthy distances.

We had spent our first night at a B&B in the lovely old downland village of Alfriston, and were heading towards our second overnight stop. The village of Kingston had been our preferred choice, as it was on the trail and we knew there was a good pub there in the form of the Juggs Inn.  Unfortunately all the B&B accommodation in Kingston was booked up, due to a series of performances taking place at nearby Glyndebourne.  Lewes is slightly off the South Downs Way, but we weren’t too concerned.  With many attractions to tempt us, not least of which were the Harvey’s beers brewed there, Lewes would be a good alternative.

A good place for drying socks
After being caught in torrential rain as we descended from Firle Beacon, we had stopped to dry off at the Abergavenny Arms in Rodmell.. Although it was the last week in May there was still a welcoming log fire burning in the grate! We took advantage of this feature to dry off our socks and our boots, whilst enjoying a couple of pints of Harvey’s. Looking at the map, there was still a fair way to go before we reached Lewes, and the shortest route, and one which avoided the roads, was along the banks of the River Ouse. Whilst this seemed a good idea on paper, in practice it was not so clever.

Although the rain had eased off the long grass was still soaking wet. Pretty soon it had soaked through our boots and our feet were as wet as ever. What was worse, the course of the river twisted and turned and although we could see Lewes and its imposing Norman castle through the mist, it seemed to be getting further and further away, rather than nearer. Eventually, soaking wet, footsore and weary, we reached Lewes. The pub we were staying in was right at the top end of the town, which meant a long trudge up through the rain soaked streets.

Unfortunately we had drawn a bit of a bummer with our choice of accommodation, certainly after the bright and airy B&B in Alfriston our second nights billet left a lot to be desired. Still, in the state we were in, an old barn would have sufficed, and after a couple of warming cognacs in the bar, and a change of clothing, we set off to explore the town and find ourselves something to eat.

King's Head, Southover, Lewes
For a town of its size, Lewes had precious little in the way of pubs serving food on a cool late May evening, but we were directed to the Kings Head;  an excellent street corner local in the Southover district of town. As well as furnishing two hungry and weary travellers with an excellent steak meal, the young, attractive barmaid provided us with some interesting conversation. For a start, she was really in to sixties rock music, which was our era. We spent a most enjoyable couple of hours talking about music and bands us two oldies had seen and bands that she would have liked to have seen, before returning to our somewhat austere and rather basic accommodation for the night.

I won’t name and shame the pub we stayed in, as looking at its website it seems to have been altered and improved out of all recognition. So much so that I am tempted to call in the next time I am in Lewes. This of course, just goes to prove that nothing stays the same in the world of pubs.

I returned to Lewes in June 2012, in the company of four friends.  We had travelled down by bus, from Tunbridge Wells,  and spent a most enjoyable day in the town walking around and visiting a few pubs. To save myself having to repeat them all, you can read about the trip here if you so desire.


kevin webster said...

Oldham kills Lewes.

Anonymous said...

Lovely piece Paul.

Interesting point Kevin, well worth testing. Depends if you stretch Oldham to include Chadderton, Shaw, Saddleworth etc.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks, Martin. Not sure about Oldham Kevin, although as Martin points out the surrounding villages, and the moor land in between them, are worth a visit.

Matt said...

One of my mates went to the Bonfire Night celebrations in Lewes when he was a student at Brighton Poly in the late 80's. It didn't sound like the kind of place you'd want to go if, like me, you're a Catholic, even if the thought of drinking Harvey's in its home town is appealling.

Paul Bailey said...

Matt, whilst there is an historic anti-Catholic theme running in the background of the Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations, (hardly surprising when you look at the history of the town), there is nothing sinister or threatening about it and it’s certainly nothing like an Orange Order parade. A girl I used to know thought the whole thing a hoot; and she was a practising Catholic!

I am planning a blog post about Lewes Bonfire Night, but would add November 5th is not a good time to go drinking in the town. Most pubs and shops in the town centre have their windows boarded up - for safety reasons and the few pubs which are open will normally only admit regulars. There are ways to circumvent this, as my friends and I discovered, and I will reveal all when I publish my post.