DAVID ARNOLD - Victorian era writer blew hot and cold about Lewes

Writing in 1882, William Morris (left) was much impressed with the sight of Lewes seen from atop the downs but was somewhat disappointed with what he found in the town. Of Lewes Castle he wrote: '&It is not very grand at all.'
Writing in 1882, William Morris (left) was much impressed with the sight of Lewes seen from atop the downs but was somewhat disappointed with what he found in the town. Of Lewes Castle he wrote: '&It is not very grand at all.'
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I was pleased to see Lewes weigh in at Number 29 in last week’s “50 Best Places to Live in Britain” as featured in “The Sunday Times”. The only other Sussex town to make the list was Chichester.

The description of Lewes opened with a splendid quote attributed to William Morris, a Victorian-era writer, designer and political visionary: “On the whole it is set down better than any town I have seen in England.”

Intrigued to find out what other nice words he had penned about my hometown I did some research and discovered that he’d gone to stay in a house in Rottingdean early in 1882.

On January 10, he wrote to the property’s owner, Mrs Georgiana Burne-Jones: “Here we are, having just come back from an expedition to Brighton where we spent an hour or more in the aquarium.

“I think I saw more ugly people in Brighton in the course of an hour than I have seen otherwise for the last 20 years; as you justly remark, serves me right for going into Brighton.

“Yesterday was a lovely day and we took a trap and drove to Lewes. You have to go a long way round, as the wheel-roads across the downs are doubtful or so it seems.

“It is very beautiful when you go on to the brow of the hill above Falmer. A long way off to the right you can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hill; the whole ride is very pleasant.

“Lewes when you get there lies on a ridge in its valley, the street winding down to the River Ouse which runs into the sea at Newhaven. On the whole, Lewes is set down better than any town I have seen in England.”

So far so good and what splendid copy for our modern-day estate agents! William Morris sounds impressed. Unfortunately, upon entering Lewes, he at once becomes wholly disillusioned and writes dismissively: “Unluckily it is not a very interesting town in itself. There is a horrible workhouse or prison on the outskirts and close by a hideous row of builders’ houses.

“There are three old churches in it, dismally restored, but none of them over-remarkable. There are the remains of a castle, 14th century, but it is not grand at all.”

However, he does conclude his description on a more cheerful note: “Nevertheless it isn’t a bad country town, only not up to its position.”