Susie Cave: How To Spend It in... Lewes
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I started going to Lewes regularly about five years ago after I discovered Pells Pool, which is a 20-minute drive from my home in Brighton. It is the oldest documented freshwater lido in England, built in 1860. The water comes from an underground spring and has all manner of healing properties, so I’m told. It’s absolutely beautiful, surrounded by giant pine trees, and looks like something from the 1930s when they might have done synchronised swimming. I still go there about three times a week. I love swimming – my father taught me in Lake Malawi, near where I grew up in Africa – and I find it very meditative. I tend to think more clearly when I’m underwater.
Three years ago, I found an old abandoned Victorian Sunday school in Lewes, also built in 1860, that we turned into the headquarters for my clothes label, The Vampire’s Wife. The walls of the building run directly down into the River Ouse, and I spend far too much time sitting in the window, sometimes with my feet dangling out over the water, dreaming and watching families of swans go past the window.
The town of Lewes itself began as a Saxon village around the sixth century, and it has retained quite a mysterious and strangely sinister atmosphere, probably because of its bloody religious history – 17 Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake here in the 1500s. The medieval Lewes Castle sits atop the hill, looming over the town, which adds to the atmosphere – all richly inspiring for the wife of a vampire. All sorts of interesting people live in Lewes too, lots of artists, musicians and creative thinkers. And a lot of the people I’ve met seem to belong to a coven – there are witches who serve you in Waitrose.
Restaurants & Cafés
Café Du Jardin, cafedujardin.co.uk
Irma’s Café & Bistro, irmascafebistro.co.uk
Pestle & Mortar, 4 Lansdown Pl, 01273-483 888
The Unity Centre Lounge, being-in-unity.com
Sites, Galleries, Museums
Anne of Cleves House, sussexpast.co.uk/attraction/anne-of-cleves-house-museum
Bluebell Railway, bluebell-railway.com
Charleston Farmhouse, charleston.org.uk
Farleys House & Gallery, farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk
Lewes Castle & Museum, sussexpast.co.uk
Pells Pool, pellspool.org.uk
Cliffe Antiques Centre, cliffeantiques.co.uk
Cliffe Gallery Antiques, 39 Cliffe High St, 01273-471 877
The Fifteenth-Century Bookshop, oldenyoungbooks.co.uk
Lewes Flea Market, flea-markets.co.uk
May’s Antiques, 49 Cliffe High St, 01273-473 787
No 1 Lewes, theshoplewes.com
Pastorale Antiques, antiquessussex.co.uk
The Sussex Guild, thesussexguild.co.uk
How to get there
Trains to Lewes run regularly from London Victoria and take just over one hour
Lewes is known as the bonfire capital of the world, and every year on 5 November (unless it falls on a Sunday) the town gives itself over to a semi-lawless, pagan bacchanalia that dates back to 1605. Up to 80,000 people descend on the town and go completely crazy. It’s frightening, to say the least, and I often retreat to the belfry of The Vampire’s Wife HQ and watch it from there. It is an extraordinary event – the whole town literally shuts down and gets boarded up, and you can’t get in or out.
For something a little gentler on the nerves, McBean’s orchid nursery is just outside the town, a really stunning place founded in 1879. They keep the breeding plants for the rarest orchids in the world – the orchids that Queen Elizabeth had in her wedding bouquet are there. It was my darling father’s favourite place to buy flowers for my mum. December to May is the best time to go, when the plants are in bloom – a forest of orchids that look as if they come from another planet. There’s a pizza restaurant and Tom Dixon is friends with the owner, Rose, so some of his sculptures are there.
If you like vintage and antique stuff, Lewes is a great place to shop. The Cliffe Antiques Centre, Lewes Flea Market, No 1 Lewes… these places will be the ruin of me! The town is full of vintage ceramics, including Staffordshire figurines, which I buy a lot because my husband [the singer-songwriter Nick Cave] loves them and has a vast collection. I also buy vintage clothes, and furniture – I would say 80 per cent of the furniture in my office is from Lewes, including huge old mirrors, which the town is known for. And bookshops – there are incredible antique bookshops, dealing in rare books, illustrations and drawings.
My favourite place to eat in Lewes, and perhaps in the whole world, is Irma’s Café & Bistro, which serves homemade Caribbean food – a humble place run by beautiful people, and the food is absolutely delicious. I’m vegan so I have the rice, but they have all the standard fare. Also, next to Pastorale Antiques, which is one of my favourite vintage shops, is a lovely restaurant and coffee shop called Café Du Jardin, in a little courtyard surrounded by antiques – I often meet friends there for tea.
On the outskirts of Lewes is Charleston Farmhouse, the home of the Bloomsbury Group, which is a wonderfully atmospheric place to visit, and there are often fascinating exhibitions. Glyndebourne opera house is nearby, as is Farleys House & Gallery, where the photographer Lee Miller and her husband Roland Penrose, the surrealist painter, lived. Tucked away on a little street within the town is also Anne of Cleves House, which was given to her by Henry VIII. Anne didn’t inspire Henry in the bedroom but managed, against all odds, to retain her head. All this adds to the great and eternal beauty of a bewitching town that has this crazy history and is wholly resistant to change. I feel Lewes drew me to it; it cast its spell. Nothing is too wild and wonderful for this singular town.
The Vampire’s Wife Bonfire candle, £85, launches on 5 November
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