From its leafy Wealden countryside to its seaside shingle, East Sussex harbours a range of stunning sites of historic interest. East Sussex’s county town of Lewes has itself an abundance of landmarks, including the remains of Lewes Priory and the town’s castle, as well as Charleston, the hub of the artists and writers of the Bloomsbury Set.
Afternoons are well spent in the gardens of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, or walking the South Downs towards Beachy Head. Bodiam Castle near Robertsbridge is one of the most picturesque castles in Britain, while the medieval port town of Rye is textured with an impressive history which encompasses Anglo-French raiding and a notorious smuggling operation.
Here are 10 of the best historic sites in East Sussex.
1. Anne of Cleves House
This historic Tudor house in Lewes, East Sussex, was once the property of Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII. Owned and operated by the Sussex Archaeological Society, the beautifully restored Anne of Cleves House highlights the history of Tudor England.
The building has been restored to its 16th-century condition, with the oldest part of the structure dating to the late 15th century. The house features an early-modern kitchen, parlour and bedroom complete with timber beams and authentic furniture. The museum incorporates a display devoted to the iron industry in the Weald, which shows how locally mined iron ore was smelted and the resulting iron cast into cannon.
2. Medieval Rye
Rye is a historic port town in East Sussex, England, that was an important member of the Cinque Port Confederation during the medieval period. The name Rye comes from ‘rie’ meaning bank or the West Saxon ‘ieg’ meaning island, as the town was once entirely surrounded by sea.
Rye’s ties to the sea have coloured its long history with shipbuilding, royal visits, thriving trade and violent smuggling. Notorious locations include a Norman church, The Mermaid Inn, The Olde Bell Inn and the Ypres Tower, all open to visitors today.
3. Pevensey Castle
Pevensey Castle is a Norman castle built upon the 4th century Roman fort of Anderida, the substantial remains of which are still visible today. Pevensey Castle itself, found within the south-east corner of the Roman walls, mostly dates back to the Norman invasion of 1066. In fact, Pevensey was the site where William the Conqueror landed in Britain on 28 September of that year.
Now a picturesque ruin under the remit of English Heritage, Pevensey Castle is open for visitors to explore its grounds. The exhibition details the castle’s ancient and medieval history, as well as its role as a World War Two observation and command post.
4. Royal Pavilion
The remarkable royal residence at the centre of Brighton was built as a seaside pleasure palace for George, Prince of Wales, who became King George IV in 1820. The palace’s exterior is informed by Mughal architecture in a style that became common in the 19th-century British Raj. It is now a Grade I listed building.
The Prince of Wales hired architect John Nash to transform the retreat he had first enjoyed into a villa then known as Marine Pavilion. Since Queen Victoria sold the palace to Brighton, it has been a public attraction. Visitors can explore elegant rooms within the palace, while an exhibition of Regency costume reflects the fashion and style of the period.
5. Monk’s House
Monk’s House is a 16th-century weatherboarded cottage in Rodmell, 3 miles south of Lewes in Sussex. The house is known as the home of author and Bloomsbury Set member Virginia Woolf and her husband, the editor and socialist activist, Leonard Woolf.
Monk’s House is today owned by the National Trust and is a historic house and museum open to visitors. A highlight of any visit must include Virginia’s writing lodge at the bottom of the garden with views of Mount Caburn.
6. Bodiam Castle
Perhaps one of Britain’s most picturesque castles, Bodiam Castle in East Sussex was built in the 14th century as a grand medieval stronghold. Though ruined during the English Civil War, it was partly restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is now a popular tourist attraction operated by the National Trust.
7. Lewes Priory
Before it was systematically destroyed in November 1537 on the order of Henry VIII, Lewes Priory was among the wealthiest monasteries in England. It was founded in the 11th century by William de Warenne and his wife Gundrada on the site of a Saxon church. During the Battle of Lewes in 1264 it was occupied by troops of Henry III.
The remains of Lewes Priory, whose church was the largest in Sussex, greater even than Chichester cathedral, are today set in public grounds known as Priory Park. They include neo-medieval buildings, a folly tower and a cottage built from Priory stone. A herb garden contains medicinal plants that likely would have been in the original, while a metal sculpture commemorates the Battle of Lewes.
8. Beachy Head
Located in East Sussex, Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain. A landmark of the English coast, it rises 162m above sea level and offers views towards the south east coast of Dungeness in the east and the Isle of Wight in the west. Its closest town is Eastbourne.
Beachy Head has been witness to conflicts including the Anglo-Dutch War and World War One. It was an important radar site during the Cold War while the decommissioned Belle Tout Lighthouse constructed in 1831 is now used as a bed-and-breakfast and teahouse.
9. Long Man of Wilmington
The Long Man of Wilmington is a distinctive hill figure in East Sussex, 6 miles northwest of Eastbourne. The 72-metre tall figure holds two staves, though its features may originally have been more detailed. Though it had long been thought to have been made in the Iron Age or earlier, archaeological investigation has suggested likely early modern origins.
It is a scheduled monument, like the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, though since 1969 the figure has been constituted from painted breeze blocks. The Long Man Morris Men dance beneath the Long Man on May Day, while it has also hosted neo-pagan rituals. The site is free to access, though the Long Man is visible from many miles away.
Nestled within the beautiful Sussex South Downs, Charleston is the historic home of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, along with Vanessa’s 3 children Quentin, Julian and Angelica. The farmhouse, dating back to the 16th century, gained its reputation during the 20th century as the hub of the Bloomsbury Set – a largely queer group of modernist artists, writers and thinkers.
Today, both the farmhouse and gardens at Charleston are managed by the Charleston Trust and are open to the public.