Monday, 18 June 2012

A Bus Trip to Lewes

It's Friday and the first day of my holiday, so what better way to spend it than in the company of friends visiting an historic town and taking in some unspoilt pubs? We were supposed to be attending the South Downs Festival in Lewes; in fact one of our party had been down to the county town a couple of weeks previously specifically to buy tickets for this "ticket only"event. Unfortunately he was unsuccessful in his quest, as all outlets had sold out. He even tried to purchase some in nearby Brighton. Undaunted we decided to travel down to Lewes anyway, but instead of visiting the beer festival we decided to have a tour around some of the town's pubs.

We stuck to our original plan which was to travel down to Lewes by bus. Brighton & Hove Buses operate an hourly service from Tunbridge Wells to Brighton, calling of course at Lewes en route. What's more the return fare is an unbeatable £3.70. Most of our group though, including myself, were starting from Tonbridge, so we had to buy an Explorer Day Ticket allowing us to use both the local Arriva services as well as those of the aforementioned Brighton & Hove Buses. This cost £6.80; still very reasonable given the distance involved.

Three of us set off from Tonbridge, alighting outside the BBC building in Tunbridge Wells where we were joined by Clive, the fourth member of our party, and the volunteer who had earlier attempted to obtain our tickets for the beer festival. The weather was chilly for the time of year, but dry, and after crossing the border into foreign parts (Sussex) we enjoyed a pleasant journey through the rolling wealden countryside. A little over an hour later we had arrived in the county town of East Sussex.

Our first port of call was the Harveys Brewery Shop, primarily to browse what was on offer in this well-stocked emporium, so that we could pick up heavy purchases, such as bottles of beer, glassware etc, later. Then, after Clive has led us to an independent record shop in the backstreets near the station, we climbed up to what is effectively the town centre, close to the law courts and the town's imposing castle.

A bit more browsing and it was time for our first pub and first pint of the day. Passing the long-closed Star Brewery (now converted into various craft workshops), that formerly belonged to Beard & Co, we made our way to one of the latter's former pubs, the unspoilt Lewes Arms. This solidly traditional back street local made national headlines a few years ago when it took on the might of Greene King. The Suffolk company had begun removing Harveys Best from all the former Beards pubs it acquired following the takeover of the company in 1998. However, regulars at the Lewes Arms were not prepared to give up their favourite tipple without a fight, and begun a boycott of Greene King products, and the pub itself. After adverse publicity, first in the local press, but then later nationally, Greene King relented and Harveys was restored to the Lewes Arms. A few years ago the pub had yet another new owner; this time Fullers. The Chiswick brewers though knew better than to try and remove the locals' favourite beer and today Harveys Best is on sale alongside a range of  Fullers and Gales beers.

Being the first pint of the day, two of us opted for the 3.9% Summer Ale; but Kevin couldn't resist the temptation of his favourite tipple and went straight in on the HSB! What is nice about the Lewes Arms is that it is a real community pub. It has three separate rooms, which are used by a variety of customers who comprise both local as well as visitors like ourselves. There is also a collection of traditional pub games, including the rare Sussex game of Toad in the Hole

We had a long day ahead so just had the one there, before departing for a further look around. The pub is built beneath the castle ramparts so we climbed up towards the summit on which stands the castle itself. From here we had an uninterrupted view north, across the town, towards the downs, and from the viewing platform could see the site of the Battle of Lewes which took place in 1264, and which saw the defeat of King Henry III and his army by forces led by Simon de Monfort, Earl of Leicester.

We were getting peckish by now, so making our way past the base of the impressive and commanding castle keep,  found our way to the second pub on our itinerary, the Brewers Arms. This family run free-house  occupies an attractive brick and part half-timbered building in the High Street and, as a terracotta plaque on the wall indicates, was once owned by Page & Overton, who brewed at Shirley, near Croydon. The Brewers is another pub with more than one bar; the front one, which is the more comfortable of the two, is for eating as well as drinking, whilst the larger bar at the rear, is more for pub games and stand-up drinking.

There was a good selection of beers available, but most of us opted for Hop Twister from Salopian Brewery, a pale, intensely-hopped 4.5% abv beer, that was both thirst quenching and satisfying. I also enjoyed an excellent steak and kidney pie, complete with new potatoes and a selection of vegetables, all for the princely sum of £7.00; real value indeed! Afterwards I risked a half of Dark Star Victorian Ruby Mild; a fine beer, but brewed to a typical Victorian strength of 6.0% abv! As well as the aforementioned beers, the Brewers Arms had a cask ale from Cotswold Brewery on sale, alongside the ubiquitous, and almost compulsory for Lewes, Harveys Best. I didn't take a lot of notice as to what the beer was called, but looking at Cotswold's website they seem to concentrate solely on lagers and wheat beers, rather than  English-style ales. All in all I was very impressed with the Brewers Arms, as I had been some four years previously on a similarly cold June day, when my friend Eric and I walked the South Downs Way.

It was a bit of a hike to the third pub on our itinerary, but the first part at least was all downhill. We called in at another record shop en route, but Clive was still unable to procure the obscure bluegrass cd he was looking for, and then continued down towards the Cliffe area of the town. Crossing the River Ouse by Harneys Brewery, we also passed the legendary Gardener's Arms, which we would be visiting later. We continued to the end of Cliffe High Street and turned left into South Street. At the far end we eventually reached our destination, the quirky Snowdrop Inn.  Rather than being named after winter flower the Snowdrop commemorates the Lewes Avalanche, which occurred on 27 December 1836, when a huge build-up of snow on a chalk cliff overlooking the town collapsed into the settlement 100 metres below, destroying a row of cottages and killing eight people. It remains the deadliest avalanche on record in the United Kingdom. The present pub was built on the site of the destroyed cottages, and named the Snowdrop in memory of this tragic event.

This was my first visit to the pub in nearly 20 years. When I worked in the town it was the nearest pub to the factory where I was employed, and was therefore a natural choice for a lunchtime drink Even back then it was a quirky sort of place, but I gather it had become rather run-down during the years in between before it was rescued by its current owners, in 2009. To me though, not a lot appeared to have changed, although the attractive, narrow-boat style paintings and decorations on the walls are a new and welcome addition.

The pub was pleasantly empty when we arrived, although that was soon to change when the beer festival closed  for the afternoon break. I noticed the pub had Budvar Light and Dark on tap, alongside Brooklyn Lager, but tempted though I was by the last two named beers, decided to stick to the more traditional offerings the pub had on sale, and was drawn to the two beers from Dark Star: American Pale Ale and Saison. The first beer was excellent, the second not so good, but still drinkable. It reminded me of a wheat beer; a style I have never been particularly keen on.

Time was moving on, and as a couple of our party were keen to get back in time for the England v. Sweden game, we had made a provisional decision to travel back by the 17.45 service. We re-traced our foot steps and made our way to the aforementioned Gardener's Arms. As expected, it was heaving and, regrettably, the Kissing Gate Smelter's Stout that I'd noticed on sale when we'd walked past earlier,  had all gone, (no doubt the refugees from the Beer Festival were partly to blame!). We still managed to find some space in the room at the rear, and I grabbed a couple of halves of Pot Belly Ambrosia Mild (pleasant, but nothing special) and Green Jack Mahseer IPA, (excellent).

I have known the Gardener's on and off over many years; it is a narrow pub with rooms to the front and rear of the central servery. Basic, probably sums it up, but it has always majored on serving an eclectic selection of beers, from some of the lesser known micro-breweries, although it has also in the past stocked "badged beers" from the likes of Archers and Cottage. The Archers connection is perhaps understandable, as I gather the guvnor is a Swindon Town FC fan; why else would there be a  photo of the team in the gents? Having said that it's a cracking pub, with an interesting mix of both regulars and visitors alike.

There was time for just one more pint before  catching the bus home. Just round the corner of the next block lies the John Harvey Tavern; the closest pub to Harvey's Brewery, and one that stocks a wide range of the company's beers. So far as I remember, the John Harvey has only been a pub for around 15 years, but the building itself is much older, and is constructed from local flints. .As mentioned earlier, the pub stocks a good selection of Harvey's beers, some of which are dispensed by gravity from casks kept behind the bar. My pint of  Armada was certainly in tip-top condition.

We stood outside, enjoying the sunshine, but all too soon it was time to go. The bus we had selected was the express service with  fewer stops and hence a much faster journey time home. It had been an excellent day out; much better than being stuck inside a beer festival. The visit  reminded me just what a charming town Lewes is; charming yet at the same time slightly Bohemian in character and possessed by an independent spirit coupled with a strong sense of local pride. It's a town I will keep going back to, as it has the right mixture of drive, quirkiness and sense of its own past to want to draw people back. Also there are several more interesting pubs just waiting to be explored!
As you may have gathered, I have something of a soft spot for Lewes. This historic old town nestles in a fold in the South Downs, and 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.

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 just outside 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.

You can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills ... on the whole it is set down better than any town I have seen in England.
— William Morris (1834-1896)


Anonymous said...

Great report. There has been many a time I've meant to go to Brighton, but never actually got past Lewes. Fantastic place espcially bonfire night. Great idea going on the bus too - when driving, it is guaranteed you'll get stuck behind that bloody bus at some point anyway.


Paul Bailey said...

I've always fancied booking a hotel and spending the whole of Bonfire Night in Lewes. Fantastic atmosphere, and good to see old traditions not only surviving, but thriving. The town certainly has something that is sadly lacking in Tonbridge.

bus sham alam said...

The bus trip to Lewes is good. Know all about it

michaelcage said...

My brother who was recently in Brighton for a family vacation is very happy. He visited many Brighton pubs, restaurants, museums and finally he wants to go next year too. He described the places of attraction in a way that I am also willing to there with him.

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