An Overview and short history

Between the green rolling hills of South Downs to the north and the chalk cliffs on the coast to the south sits the picturesque town of Lewes (pronounced "Lewis"), where nearly 400 years ago a 54-year-old bricklayer by the name of John Parmelee Sr. gave up his life in Sussex to rejoin this son, John Jr., in the wilds of New England. From the moment you leave the railroad depot, you can't help but wonder how much of Lewes today he and his family saw in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The ancient Saxons who had founded the town called it Hlaew, or "hill," with good reason. The steep High Street follows one of their cross-country trading routes. As the town prospered, it was fortified to defend the strategic high ground between the River Ouse to the south and the once-dense forests to the north. The Romans built a fort to guard a ford, south of which the river was navigable; the remains of the fort can be seen in the churchyard of St. John-sub-Castro.

Without a shopping mall nearby today, the small businesses along High Street -- banks, bookstores,hotels, pizzarias, galleries, bakeries, health-food stores, jewelry stores and gyms -- appeared to be thriving. Above, High Street as it appeared in 1997. Yes, the streets are narrow. In fact, traffic lights are needed on some streets that narrow to a single lane, to allow one direction to flow through and then the other.

Ships plied round from London and other ports of south and east England. Imports included wine, cloth, spices, salt and fish. Exports included such local produce as corn, malt, leather and timber, with wool fast becoming the main exported commodity as the farming on the South Downs increased. During the Napoleonic Wars with France, the local iron foundries produced ordnance and wool was needed for uniforms. Canals were cut and locks bui1t to maintain a navigable waterway along the Ouse. But it was the coming of the railways between 1845 and 1858 that put an end to river trading . Ironically, the last busy period for the barges was the transporting of heavy building materials required for the railway construction.

Lewes became known for its beers and ales in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Harvey established the Bridge Wharf Brewery in the 1790s on the northeast side of the River Ouse. Now in its seventh generation, the last remaining Lewes brewery produces 50,000 barrels a year.

Just east of Lewes on Oct. 15, 1066, came the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror's Norman conquest over the Saxons led by Harold II. To reinforce his control over the region, William sent one of his nobles and a cousin, William de Warenne, to lay out the castle at Lewes. Nearly 300 years in the making, the castle still towers over the rest of the village of 15,000 today. Since the 1700s, the open land in the middle of the castle has been used as a bowling green; Sussex freeholders originally gathered on the green to elect their two members of Parliament.

In 1553-- about the time our John Sr. was a boy -- Mary I, a Catholic, came to the throne in an era of religious repression that earned her the name of "Bloody Mary." It was in Lewes that 17 Protestant men upheld their right to worship outside the Catholic Church. Rather than break their faith, they were burned at the stake in High Street.

In 1605 came the downfall of the Gunpowder Plot -- an event the town is probably most famous for and celebrates each year as Guy Fawkes Day. Fawkes and his conspirators tried to blow up Parliament in London some 50 miles away because of -- like the root of so many of the world's problems -- religion. Fawkes was Catholic; King James I was Protestant. Fawkes decided to blow up Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605, while the king, queen and their son were attending.

His demented plan included the subsequent installation of a Catholic king. But Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot was foiled when he overzealously planted 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar of the House of Lords and was subsequently caught. The treasonous men and his co-conspirators were tortured by manacles or by the rack, then hanged, drawn and quartered at Westminster -- and to add injury to insult, the Brits have celebrated his failure ever since. Bonfire Night is celebrated all over the United Kingdom, and in as far out places as Newfoundland and in Canada. In some places in New Zealand the celebrations got so big and dangerous, that they led to a ban on the sale of big fireworks.

The raucous celebration in Lewes has survived years of noise complaints and attempts at cancellation because of fires. Tens of thousands of visitors crowd the town to enjoy the pyrotechnic festivities into the wee hours of the morning despite official decrees asking everyone to stay away. From the official town site:

"The streets of Lewes are closed for November the Fifth, and belong to the bonfire boys and girls of Lewes. Unwary strangers are advised to give the celebrations a wide berth, but the town is packed with spectators, always giving the authorities and the bonfire societies a big headache. The celebrations are quite fantastic, but are run by Lewes people for Lewes people. If this old Sussex tradition is to survive in the County's Bonfire Capital, then it is best left for the local populace to enjoy, and the rest of us to enjoy by reading about it or watching and listening to one of the many programmes produced on the subject."

So there!

More recently, on Oct. 14, 2000, the heavens opened and deluged Lewes and much of southern England with rain, in what was to become the worst flooding of the area in living memory. Lewes was "almost completely unrecognizable," one local newspaper reported, after much of it was swamped with water when the River Ouse overflowed. More than 200 properties were underwater, despite 48-hour efforts of the local fire brigade.

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Updated March 1, 2020