Sometimes His Majesty and The Ethical Hedonist just need a day out to recharge our batteries, let someone else do the cooking, and loose ourselves in the great British countryside.
“It’s Thursday morning, let’s go to Lewes, I suggest very decisively. “ I’ve heard the town really likes to champion green businesses and local, organic food producers, and they even have their own currency, the Lewes Pound.” His Majesty looks quietly pleased. “In that case, how would you like to go and see where Jimmy Page lived in the ‘seventies? It’s called Plumpton Place. It’s an Elizabethan, moated manor house, remodelled by Lutyens, and with gardens by Gertrude Jekyll, secreted in a wood. An American billionaire owns it these days; but it would be fun to see where Jimmy filmed some of the scenes from The Song Remains The Same.”
By eleven o’clock, we are walking along Station Street, a rustic artery into the country town of Lewes. I am delighted to see that every other shop in this narrow, medieval street is either a tearoom or cafe offering organic lunches and afternoon tea, or the small, perfectly formed interesting and local independent shop selling crafts, well chosen books and lovely bit and bobs for the keen gardener. Leaving Station Street we find ourselves in the elegantly spacious High Street and the pulse quickens at the prospect of not just one or two antique emporia – but a whole street, ranging from elegant gallery to the more traditional old curiosity shop. Each of them beckons to us with the most enticing window displays crammed with all manner of tempting, ladylike fripperies from an oversized shiny black Mary Quant bag to a painted claw foot bath fit for a queen.
I’m banned from exploring the enticing shops until we’ve had lunch, so we head straight to Bill’s, a café and produce store and something of a Lewes phenomenon. Bill’s started life as greengrocer. After the famous Lewes floods, Bill added a few tables where you could sit and sample simple, wholesome food inspired by the produce on sale in the shop. I first discovered Bill’s in Brighton, three years ago, and remember exactly what I had to eat with a friend – a wonderfully light and well-executed goats cheese tart. It was buttery and just the right side of flaky, and came with all manner of exciting salads strewn with colourful, edible flowers. The Pavlova to follow was equally decadent and well executed. I left longing to return.
The owner, Bill Collison certainly possesses a genius for letting the produce do the talking. In Bill’s you sit surrounded by colourful jars of store cupboard staples and tables piled high with tempting artisan breads and sacks of flour. The resulting atmosphere is one of colourful, overflowing abundance. Shame then that on this occasion my asparagus tartine didn’t quite live up to expectation. It certainly looked like it could win a culinary beauty contest, with sensuous dollops of fluffy mozzarella and slivers of red peppers, roasted asparagus tips, rocket and juicy broad beans. Sadly, I was less impressed with the resulting taste. The asparagus was yellow and tasteless and so was the rocket. It seems to me that Bill’s has changed. Everything might look achingly gorgeous, but don’t be fooled into thinking you are sitting in an organic farm shop, feasting on produce plucked from the ground within hours. I hope I am wrong; but it now seems more about the experience of sitting in a charmingly rustic setting, than the quality and provenance of the ingredients, as the menu offers no insight into origin or pedigree of the ingredients. Having said this, His Majesty did enjoy his beef lasagne, pronouncing it ‘very good indeed’; and his glass of pink lemonade came with a seasonal flurry of strawberries, and looked wonderfully pink and summery.
Given that Bill is doing very nicely, and is poised to open outposts in London and Reading, I hope this isn’t the point when standards start to slip, and it just becomes another chain where style, not substance is all that matters.
His Majesty isn’t like most men. He did accompany me around the gorgeous emporiums of Lewes for a whole hour! Lewes is a magnet for its antique shops and we thoroughly enjoyed dallying around the finest of them. We admired a handsome bookcase, a lovely 18th Century writing bureau (with a price tag only a merchant banker could afford) and a very attractive overmantle mirror that had not yet been spoiled by garish reguilding.
We came across two independent health food shops, one Landsdown Health Foods selling gorgeous cakes from Judges organic bakery in Hastings and the other, May’s General Store boasts a delightful cornucopia of treasures, including children’s toys, knick-knacks, lots of lovely green bath and beauty products, our favourite biodynamic eggs from Orchard Farm in Forest Row and locally made jams and honey.
The shop that impressed me most was Gossypium. I have long admired their simple, stylish lingerie; but I didn’t know they had a bricks and mortar shop, and that the business started out in Lewes. Here, everything is made from organic cotton produced without pesticides and chemical dyes, which has to be touched to appreciate its true sensuality. I was excited to discover that the same design philosophy applies to their covetable range of elegantly stylish summer clothing; I also liked the well made, charming clothes for children, the bedlinen and sumptuous towels with their interesting trimmings and attention to detail. Abi and Thomas Petit, The husband wife team behind this elegant store are true pioneers – taking organic production and Fairtrade values to the High Street. This is definitely a shop I will return to soon, and make some investment buys for the house.
By now it is teatime, and I couldn’t embark on our walk without a reviving and properly made cup of organic tea. We stopped at Seasons, an organic & vegetarian cafe, in the basement of a tiled house near the war memorial. The tea came in a pot and the owner carefully wrapped a piece of handmade carrot cake and an apricot flapjack in two recycled boxes for us to take on the next part of the adventure. I can report that both cakes were very good. The carrot cake was particularly moist and loaded with fruit and the flapjack was made with juicy, unsulphured apricots, not the orange variety that taste of absolutely nothing.
We headed out of the town along the peaceful river Ouse, passing wild cherry trees, laden with fruit, but not quite ready for harvesting, alas! Then it was up onto the chalky South Downs for big panoramic views, the sight of a balloon drifting dreamily by in a pale blue haze, golden brown Skipper butterflies and orchids galore. – The highlight of the day? Watching His Majesty lying in the grass happily taking pictures of these beautiful and very endangered flowers that you can see here.
There is always a loose sort of plan to our adventures, and by eight o’clock we were hungry again, and looking forward to our final pitstop at the Half Moon in Plumpton. Unlike many pubs in town or the countryside that seem to have forgotten the art of simple hospitality, the pub goes out of its way to work with local farmers and even has its own allotment. “ We are in the ‘banker belt’; but we don’t want to be a restaurant or a gastropub; we still want to be a good local pub for everybody,” said the very friendly barman, as he pointed out beer from three local breweries and five types of cider. We enjoyed an unpretentious pub supper of local pork sausages and mash and locally cured smoked salmon wrapped around a little mound of very fresh micro herbs and salad and tasty roasted tomatoes, and good, local bread and butter. Next week the pub will be offering beer from the vicar and his own micro-brewery!
As the sun set across the golden fields and we had an hour to find our way to Plumpton railway station for the journey home to bed – His Majesty finally showed me a house fit for a Prince of rock n roll. Plumpton Place looked mysteriously beautiful and out of reach – dancing beyond a vast moat shimmering in the twilight. “Come on,” said His Majesty, I’ll show you the house in the film when we get home.”
Bill’s Produce Store and Café 56 Cliffe High Street, Lewes, 01273 426918
Gossypium 19 Cliffe High Street, Lewes, 01273 472211 www.gossypium.co.uk
Landsdown Health Foods 44, Cliffe High Street, Lewes, 01273 474681
Seasons 199 High Street, Lewes
Half Moon Pub Ditch ling Road, Plumpton, 01273 890253 www.halfmoonplumpton.com
It doesn’t take as long as you might think. Trains from London Victoria leave every thirty minutes, and take just under an hour. The carriages at each end of the train, next to the first class compartments have spacious tables for four people in standard class. The rest of the train doesn’t.