Less bohemian than Brighton, the East Sussex town of Lewes offers an attractive escape for Londoners looking to keep a toe in the cultural waters, finds Carla Passino.

It takes stamina and strong legs to make the most of Lewes, but it’s worth it. The climb up to the keep of the Norman castle will leave you short of breath in more than one way—once you make it to the top, the town stretches at your feet, a beautiful jumble of ancient roofs against the green curves of the Downs. Never did the turn of phrase ‘small but perfectly formed’ feel more appropriate than here.

‘It’s a lovely county town,’ says Liz Hollington of Strutt & Parker. ‘It has a great mix of architecture, from 15th- and 16th-century black-and-white houses to Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings and, of course, the castle ruins —it has a wonderful sense of history.’ The backdrop of the hills adds a sense of peace and tranquillity: ‘I can walk from my office down the high street and see the Downs—it’s gorgeous.’

Perhaps even more attractive than Lewes’s history and spectacular scenery is its vibrant atmosphere. Once home to political activist Thomas Paine and, later, Virginia Woolf, the town continues to draw ‘a lot of talent’, according to Mrs Hollington, thanks to a rare combination of art, music and culture.

With Glyndebourne a mere 10 minutes away, Lewes not only enjoys easy access to some of the best country-house opera in the world, but also has a thriving musical scene all year round with festivals and song recitals to attend and choirs to join.

A little further south, Charleston— once the country retreat of the Bloomsbury Group—runs a packed calendar of festivals and workshops that attract many artists and writers. As Lewes houses one of the Sussex Downs College campuses and the University of Sussex is just 10 minutes’ drive away, many academics also choose to live in the area. ‘We get a lot of intellectuals, artists, journalists and media professionals,’ says Mrs Hollington.

That said, one of Lewes’s most famous residents isn’t an academic or an artist, but a greengrocer turned restaurateur: Bill Collison, founder of the Bill’s restaurant and cafe chain. When his shop was badly hit by flooding in 2000, Mr Collinson added a small cafe that offered great food in a buzzy but relaxed setting and it was an instant success. These days, you don’t have to go to Lewes to enjoy Bill’s juicy steaks, but the original restaurant remains special, according to Mrs Hollington: ‘It’s vibrant and the food is fabulous.’

Not that Lewes has a shortage of great places to eat: other favourites are Pelham House, which serves inventive modern cuisine in a grand Georgian setting, and Flint Owl, which makes its own bread, pastries and cakes. Just outside town, there are some really good inns, according to Richard Everitt of Winkworth, who recommends The Cock in Ringmer, The Ram in Firle, The Griffin in Fletching and the Star Inn at Old Heathfield.

‘Not forgetting the brewery on the Ouse riverbank,’ he adds. Harvey’s has been making traditional beers at its Bridge Wharf Brewery since 1838 and its Old Ale won the title of World’s Best Mild at last year’s World Beer Awards.

Add to all this a crop of independent shops, excellent transport links—London Victoria is a little more than an hour away by train, Brighton is about 15 minutes and Gatwick is half an hour —and many good schools within easy reach, including Brighton College and Lancing College, and it’s easy to see why a steady stream of buyers has been making its way to the town in the past 15 years. ‘Lewes is a wonderful place to live: it has nothing against it,’ says Mr Everitt.

He explains that buyers, many of whom come from London, are evenly split between those looking for a property in Lewes and those who’d like a larger country house in sought-after villages such as Ringmer and Laughton. Mrs Hollington, on the other hand, finds that an increasing number of people prefer to live in town to be close to the facilities, shops, schools and station.

As a result, property prices in central Lewes have seen a marked increase. In particular, continues Mrs Hollington, ‘period houses within easy reach of the station are what everyone wants’.

She advises buyers to budget from about £500,000 for a period, terraced house with three bedrooms and £1.5 million to £2 million for a ‘stonking big’ property with a garden. As an example, she mentions a panoramic, semi-detached Victorian house with seven bedrooms she recently sold: ‘It went for £1.8 million and that’s actually a very good price for Lewes.’

NEED TO KNOW

Cafe: Flint Owl
Restaurant: Bill’s, Pelham House, The Cock Inn
Shopping: Flint
Art and culture: Glyndebourne, Charleston
Don’t miss: The November 5 celebrations, one of the largest Bonfire Night events in the country

** Search houses for sale in Lewes