Radical rambling

Sorry if the heading has misled anyone wanting to read about a) the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932, or b) that chap who walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats without the benefit of clothing, or c) some of the more convoluted passages scribed by loony lefty linguistics lecturer, Noam Chomsky. The following is in fact the retelling of a not-too-taxing walk on the South Downs near Lewes.

Writesofway has relocated to Sussex for a couple of months; ostensibly to do some research into mountain-biking routes on the lovely ‘bow-headed, whale-backed’ South Downs. Two-wheeled downland peregrinations are likely to feature regularly on these pages in the coming weeks. Yesterday, however, I was joined by the lovely Fiona and our friends Andy and Giulia – otherwise known as The Chalk Farm Stranglers – for a fine walk over the rolling chalk hills to the west of the county town of Lewes.

After a cup of coffee in the un-chained and idiosyncratic Runaway Café at Lewes Station we walked up the hill and around the grounds of the town’s Norman castle which sits sentinel-like atop Castle Mount. In a large flint-walled enclosure in the castle precincts, several gangs of old blokes were playing all-terrain bowls on the bumpy lawn. There was nothing twee about this scene at all; no-one was dressed in regulation bowls whites, fags and pipes were being puffed at and much raucous laughter accompanied the boules’ jittery progress across the uneven ground. For me this scene captured the essence of Lewes. Superficially, the town might resemble many other well-to-do and conservative little southern English towns, but scratch the surface and you’ll find something a bit earthier.

With the exception of County Hall, which looks like a communist-era East European secret police HQ, Lewes is a very fine looking town with some handsome architecture and lovely streets climbing around its hillsides and flowing through its declivities. Even the large and faintly menacing bulk of H.M.P Lewes is remarkable for its towering perimeter walls built from flint and lime mortar in the Sussex vernacular. The town itself is ramparted by broad shoulders of Downland and the onomatopoeic River Ouse winds sluggishly past the half-timbered edifice of Harvey & Son’s Brewery –  a nineteenth century tower brewery known as The Cathedral of Lewes and birthplace of the world’s finest beer.

True, there are plenty of hippies and Guardian readers, delicatessens and organic produce shops, artists’ garrets and craft workshops in the town, but there is little of the airy-fairy about Lewes.

The thread of radicalism is woven into the town’s history and is still holds strong today. Thomas Paine,  the author, pamphleteer, radical, inventor, intellectual, revolutionary and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America lived in Lewes between 1767 and 1774, before exporting his ideas for building the world anew to America in October of that year. It is Tom Paine whose benign countenance adorns the Lewes pound, the town’s own currency, which has been in circulation alongside the pound sterling since 2008.

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It is evident that Tom Paine’s philosophical and ideological treatises on democratic republicanism and the rights, responsibilities and liberties of ordinary citizens have not been lost on the townsfolk of Lewes. Any property developers or local authority planning department mandarins with designs on the town are likely to meet robust opposition should their plans be at odds with the aspirations of the populus.

The most striking manifestation of Lewes’s history of radicalism, however, is the town’s Bonfire Night celebrations, which are on a grander scale than anywhere else in Britain. On the evening of November 5th, the streets are filled with thousands of Lewesians and visitors.

In common with many other towns throughout the land, Lewes’s Bonfire Night festivities were first celebrated after the deliverance of the King and Parliament from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when November 5th was declared a national holiday. To begin with the celebrations in Lewes were not planned events that took place every year, but were more random events that were often more like riots. These riotous celebrations continued in a haphazard fashion until they were banned by Oliver Cromwell with the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1649. However, the festivities were reintroduced when King Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, although Bonfire Night was still a far from regular occurence.  By the end of the 18th century interest in Bonfire Night had waned, but the 1820s saw a popular resurgence with large groups of Bonfire Boys celebrating with large bonfires and quantities of fireworks together with the burning of effigies – principally of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V who was the incumbent at the Vatican in 1605 .

Bonfire Night festivities became increasingly riotous and rowdy until Metropolitan Police officers were drafted in to sort out the Bonfire Boys in 1847. Riots and skirmishes between the police and the Bonfire Boys ensued with the result that restrictions were imposed and in the following years the celebrations were moved to the fields of Wallands Park. In 1850 the  Bonfire Night celebrations returned to the streets of Lewes, but the formerly riotous festivities had by now taken the form of the processions familiar today. In 1853 the first two Bonfire Societies, Cliffe and Lewes Borough were founded with Commercial Square, Waterloo and Southover following thereafter.

The forming of the Bonfire Societies and the organisation of the formerly riotous festivities into processions, followed by the lighting of bonfires and firework displays, did not transform Bonfire Night into a genteel affair, however. Rioting, rowdiness and controversy have reared their heads at regular intervals throughout Lewes Bonfire Night’s proud history. In 1847, magistrates read the Riot Act to the Bonfire Boys following aggravation the previous year and were dumped in the River Ouse for their efforts. More recently, controversy stalked Bonfire Night when Firle Bonfire Society elected to burn a mocked-up gypsy caravan in protest at some Travellers living nearby their village. Doh!

The present-day celebrations take the form of torch-lit processions through the streets to the accompaniment of marching bands. Many members of the different societies wear the smuggler’s costume of striped jumper, white trousers, black boots and red hat. The different societies wear different coloured striped jumpers.  Other members dress up in a wide range of fancy dress costumes – many are very elaborate – with traditional favourites including Vikings,  Zulus, Red Indians, Puritans, Pirates and Romans.  To mark the executions of the seventeen protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake outside the Star Inn at the time of the Marian persecutions between 1555 and 1557, seventeen burning crosses are carried through the town and a wreath-laying ceremony occurs at the town War Memorial. Several large effigies are drawn though the streets every year and these always include Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, as well as any current Enemies of Bonfire ranging from national hate-figures to any local officials foolish enough to attempt to place restrictions on the Bonfire Night celebrations. Osama Bin Laden, George Bush, Tony Blair, Gully the Brighton and Hove Albion mascot (long story) and, bizzarely, Eric Cantona – in another  football-fish-seagull related instance. Anyway, I digress extravagantly, so let’s get back to the walk.

From the castle we continued on our way following a winding route to the prison, which sits at the western edge of the town. A track runs past the prison’s northern perimeter wall up on to the Downs by way of the old Lewes Racecourse. However, we continued north along Nevill Road for half a mile until we reached the confluence of paths and track roads arriving at Landport Bottom. Starting up the agreeably-gradiented slope, we could see a couple of huge gliders swooping back and forth like giant white raptors. They were pleasing to watch, but Giulia seemed anxious to know how these huge powerless man-made birds had taken off, where from and how on earth they would get back down again. There followed a brief discussion on the laws of physics led by Andy and we continued on our way.

We were now walking across the site of the Battle of Lewes, which took place on 14 May 1264 and was one of the two principal battles fought during the Second Barons’ War. The battle was fought between the Royal forces of King Henry III and the Baronial forces led by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester. Victory for the Baronial forces made de Montfort the ‘uncrowned King of England’. The battle was fought because King Henry III had vacillated over honouring the terms of the Provisions of Oxford, an agreement with his barons that he was signatory to in 1258. The Provisions of Oxford are regarded by some as England’s first written constitution. The provisions compelled the King to accept a new form of government in which power was placed in the hands of a council of twenty four members, twelve selected by the crown and twelve by the barons. The council were to elect two more men to oversee all decisions.  The council’s performance would be monitored by Parliament, which would meet three times a year. The significance of the Provisions of Oxford was that the English Crown was forced to recognize the rights and powers of Parliament for the first time.

We continued on our way across this innocent-looking, but historically momentous expanse of sheep-cropped hillside, climbing to Mount Harry then Black Cap along the edge of the steep northern scarp. With a chill wind blowing in from the north-east, we enjoyed views across the Sussex Weald to the North Downs in the distance. Although it was a Saturday, the spur of Downland rolling out ahead of us was largely devoid of other people save a brace of heroic middle-aged joggers and a lone mountain-biker. On weekdays it’s a not uncommon experience to be able to walk for miles on the Downs without encountering another soul. When walking on the Downs near Brighton, I often think how bizzare it is that this wonderful landcsape is almost completely devoid of people and yet there are a quarter of a million souls going about their business within a few miles of where I’m standing.

Anyway, we dropped off the top of Black Cap – out of the slightly-too-fresh breeze –  and descended into the wooded coombe of Ashcombe. Bottom. As we wandered down the track, silence closed in around us. After a while we climbed another rise and stopped for a bite of lunch in a rather battered copse; we perched among the twisted, horizontal limbs of trees that had been wrenched roots-and-all from the chalky soil. It put me in mind of the aftermath of the 1987 hurricane when I’d cycled up to Chanctonbury Ring above Steyning. A magnificent crown of elms ringed the Iron Age hillfort, which enjoys a commanding vantage point along its Downland spur. I’d always loved Chanctonbury and the scene of arboreal carnage confronting me on that October day in 1987 was one of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed.

We didn’t linger over our lunch as the breeze was still very fresh; we continued on our way, turning south-east on to the South Downs Way and were soon making a long and gradual descent with views on to Mount Caburn and the escarpment between Falmer and Kingston. Turning south and arriving at the foot of Bunkershill Plantation, we zig-zagged up through the woods and emerged on the browof Long Hill. Though it was completely invisible from where we stood, the buzz of traffic along the A27 was audible as soon as we emerged from the woods. The hillside plunged steeply towards the dual-carriageway and the roar of traffic increased as the road came in to view.

After crossing the road by way of a bridge, we continued along, passing under the Lewes to Brighton railway line before beginning the long climb up to the top of the Woodingdean-Rodmell ridge. The track climbed to the south-west before turning sharply south-east to gain the ridge. At the point where the track turns there is a large copse. I’ve often wondered whether this is one of two copses that W. G. Sebald refers to in his book Vertigo. According to Sebald, after the victory at Waterloo two copses were planted outside Brighton; one in the shape of Wellington’s boot, the other in the form of Napoleon’s hat. Scanning Ordnance Survey maps, I persuaded myself that this particular copse could perhaps be the latter – if changes to the landscape over time were taken in to account.

On gaining the ridge we turned north-east, still following the South Downs Way. Here there were quite a few people about, walkers, cyclists and horse riders. As we walked along this lovely spur with commanding views over Lewes, the sun emerged from behind high, fast-moving clouds to our rear, while a dark grey band of cloud approached across the Weald.

We followed the ridge-top path as it bent to the south-east again before taking a precipitously steep path down to the back of Kingston village. Cutting back to the north-west skirting the fine flint-walled Norman church, the tennis courts and village green we arrived on the path which descends from Kingston Ridge and runs in a fairly straight line all the way back into Lewes. This we followed, arriving in Lewes to the rear of the Swan Inn. Making our way into town by way of the lovely gardens at Southover Grange, we climbed one of the steep lanes up to the High Street. Crossing over the town’s main thoroughfare, we passed through the twitten rejoicing in the name of Pope’s Passage, which I can’t help but think is a rather colourful allusion to that most prominent Enemy of Bonfire.

Emerging into the Castle Ditch, we followed the narrow street around to the curved facade of the Lewes Arms. This is one of my favourite-pubs-in-the-world on account of its thoroughly un-made over earthiness. The Lewes Arms is well run, well-maintained, serves great beer and good food, but there’s no bullshit about the place. The pub is home to the local folk music society and also hosts theatre and live music performance. It can get very lively.  On Bonfire Night and evenings round about, the pub is rammed and feels a bit like a field dressing station in some absurd, fancy dress  war. Sitting in the Lewes Arms on November 5th is like being under siege with salvoes of  rookies bombarding the vicinity.

Continuing in the fine radical and revolutinary spirit of the town, drinkers at the Lewes Arms recently won a famous battle against those who would seek to impose their will on Lewesians. In October 2006, the Lewes Arms’ then owners – the Greene King brewery – withdrew Harveys ales from sale. Big mistake. Drinkers launched an energetic and determined campaign – including a boycott of their beloved watering-hole – until Greene King fled with their metaphorical tail between their legs. The restoration of Harveys ales to the Lewes Arms was celebrated under new ownership (Fullers of London) in August 26th 2007. Restoration Day is now a fixture in the local calendar.

A little weary from our walk, we installed ourselves in a corner of the Lewes Arms’  back bar and hoisted a couple of pints of Harveys in honour of the fighting spirit and heroic endeavour of those revolting Lewes folk. Cheers!


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