Crowd Scenes at Lewes Market

I haven’t been out much recently. You might have wanted to tell me that I should get out more – people get funny when they are indoors a lot but those that know me better think I was a bit weird long before I became ill at the end of October last year.

I have seen the seasons change from my windows since then and the only big adventures in this time have been visits round the corner into the middle of the small market town where I am lucky enough to live.

I have also been able to watch from my study window, the bizarre and historically interesting mound, Brack Mound, which is now turning green with Spring. Once a military encampment, now it is a peaceful, unvisited piece of country within the town scape.

The uncertainty involved in the aftermath of a serious illness has often the accompanied these views. That anxiety has been partly was eased today. I had optimistic news this morning from my neurologist – inconclusive but hopeful about my recovery from that brain haemorrhage which somewhat altered my life for the last six months. I may get even more encouraging news over the next few days.Until then I shall do my very best not to get all over excited and run round town telling everyone that I might even make a total recovery from this potentially life threatening condition.

Lewes, the county town for East Sussex in South East England has been a good place to be based during this illness. It is full of historical, architectural and cultural riches but it’s main attraction, Harvey’s Brewery which makes the best beer in these parts, has been sadly denied me since I can only have three drinks a week whilst I am on anti-seizure drugs.

As one of my weekly drinks, I had a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter with my Kung Fu friends last night – so even before that email from my neurologist arrived this morning, I was beginning to feel that life really could return to normal.

Lewes sits on the River Ouse which was once a major trading route before it silted up leaving heavy industry and manufacturing as a distant memory with some very handsome buildings as reminders.

Just in case we forget that it was once an important waterway, every now and then it breaks its banks and floods the town that might otherwise forget that Nature doesn’t always follow English Middle Class rules.

Mostly though, the River Ouse is an asset; a pretty view, a plaything for boats and a home for more than our share of mute swans.

It was not always so peaceful.

Big events have come to town over the centuries.

A handsome sculpture of a knight’s helmet commemorates a major battle between King Henry III and the barons led by one Simon de Montfort. The Battle of Lewes, 1264, led to the King’s defeat and a victory for the rest of us – the peace treaty agreed to the setting up of what we now know as Parliament. A good thing for England even if its members, then as now, were not always beyond a bit of fiddling. Bloody and ruthless as the fighting was that day, the outcome became the first notable event that saw Lewes siding with the people and against the ruling authorities.

A memorial to more deaths is on the town hall wall. More folk saying no to authority – this time Protestants sticking to their beliefs in spite of the edicts of a Roman Catholic monarch, the so-called Bloody Mary. These seventeen were burnt at the stake in the High Street, their deaths went some way to end the rule of ruthless religious dogma in this country which had swung between extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism that has still in other parts of Britain maintained its cruel and pointless power.

Further up the High Street stands the White Hart Hotel which carries a plaque to a different hero. He too influenced his society and made the lives of those who followed immeasurably freer.

Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man, spent some years in the town, developing his radical ideas before travelling to the United States where he was an important voice in America’s fight for independence and for the creation of its still powerful Constitution.

It is a splendid thought that whenever you down a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter in the bar here, you are actually in “a cradle of American Independence.”

We may not go on about these people all the time, but they have influenced the character of this small town. It does value independence, the freedom of the individual, and the power of ideas.

In every street, small terraced houses mostly, if you are nosy enough to snoop, you will see more than the national average amount of upright pianos squeezed into little parlours and covered with sheets of music. These rooms are often also crammed with books and newspapers – the artifacts of liberalism. Many of the residents of Lewes value a good cup of ground coffee and a stimulating conversation over other more extravagant pastimes.

I was thinking about Lewes folk the other day when I visited the monthly farmers’ market. They were all there, out in force, and a wonderfully diverse group it was.

Most importantly, they had their priorities right. There was a run on the freshly cut asparagus and I was lucky to get the last three bundles.

Asparagus is just one of the luxuries that this woman had stored in her Great Dane’s backpack,
there was also a jar of gooseberry chutney. I think it was she rather than the dog that had such discerning taste buds.

Lewes people eat their greens and it was not just asparagus that was being shuffled off this Rastafarian greengrocer’s stall.
There was also a run that day on culinary herbs – I tell you, Lewes people take these things seriously. This woman went off contentedly with rosemary and thyme carefully arranged in her ruck sack between two jars of homemade marmalade.

And these two men were very uncertain about those early onions. They decided against them at first but came back later for a handful. Important decisions need time to digest.
There was a stall for Indian takeaway food too, the exotic aroma blended perfectly with the solitary jazz guitarist and the elderly man demonstrating 19th. Century agricultural equipment.

Apart from the undoubted pleasure of seeing what other people were putting into their shopping baskets, Lewes Market was a great opportunity for crowd gazing.

It was an easy mix of classes, races and genders, milling around in the pursuit of happiness. All born equal as far as this Saturday morning was concerned. Thomas Paine would have approved.

With soldiers and civilians dying violent deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan over that dispute of cultures between extremist Islamasists and the secular West, with the obvious and apparently unending hatred in the Middle East and with the indescribably terrible violence in Central Africa, it was, for a moment, such a relief to see human beings out shopping and chatting. I like to think that they were not ignorant of the many problems cutting scars into the rest of the World but they had something here, in this town, to place as an ideal above so much international turmoil.
Recently I have been reading George Bernard Shaw’s play Heartbreak House which was written in 1919 as a wise,witty, powerful but also gentle critique of the liberal-minded English middle classes. In so many ways it reminded me of the people of Lewes.
Much ridiculed as sandal-wearing, vegetarian old hippies, it is often too easy for more blinkered followers of extremist opinions or money-crazed financiers to criticise people who have chosen to live a simpler life in a town remarkable for its beauty, fair-mindedness and independence of spirit. A place where this woman can walk proudly with her wild flaming red hair and her black greyhound, where those two men could take all the time they wanted to choose their onions and where joy really can exist in a jar of homemade gooseberry chutney.

These joys are denied and, far too often, never even tasted in so many lives that, all over the World are still nasty, brutish and short. They are worth defending.

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