The Building Materials of Lewes, by Marcus Taylor

An article based on a talk given by Marcus Taylor for the Friends of Lewes in February 2021.

Printable version pdf [8.8 MB]

 

This subject has complex and interwoven strands of chronology, geology and social history:  I have decided to follow chronology, in the main, from materials first used through later arrivals. By way of illustration, I have selected photographs both contemporary and historic as examples from the many that are possible. Please click on the photographs to enlarge.

 

Timber

Most early construction in Lewes and elsewhere started by using materials that were easy to work with and close at hand, so the first domestic buildings were made of wood.

The first home builders in Lewes will have drawn on the plentiful supply of wood from the great forest of Andredsweald, which made travel northwards across it from Lewes difficult. But it came within a few miles of the town and oak and other durable timber would not have been too hard to access.

There is only limited visual evidence of wooden frame buildings in the town today, though many of the older ones have a wooden framework, now hidden and often now sitting on a flint or brick base. There are some good examples on Southover High Street:

Anne of Cleves House 1975, and timbers
Anne of Cleves House, Lewes, 1975, and Anne of Cleves House timbers (click to enlarge)

Anne of Cleves House, a near-compendium of building materials in one place, still has much timberwork in evidence – this shot above is looking through the arch into the garden behind.

Timbers are also found on these adjacent houses at the top of Potters Lane:

Timbers on Potters Lane, and Southover High Street, Lewes
Timbers on Potters Lane, and Southover High Street, Lewes

Some are even older: The Old Forge near the Swan Inn was built as a three-bay open hall house with a crown post roof around 1460.

The Fifteenth Century bookshop at the top of Keere Street is perhaps the best-known example – shown here in a 1971 photograph when it had blackened beams:

Fifteenth Century Bookshop, LewesFifteenth Century Bookshop, Lewes

No. 74 High Street, at the top of St Martin’s Lane, with a jetted or overhanging upper storey of timber was once part of the Stewards’ Inn of the Barony of Lewes and bears the date 1330. It is probably the oldest surviving residence in Lewes:

Number 74 High Street, LewesNumber 74 High Street, Lewes

 

Local Options

By the time of the Norman invasion more durable materials were also in use. The geology of the South East offers a wide range, but in Lewes the realistic local choices boiled down to soft and porous chalk or hard to work but tough flints – and there was an abundance of both.

In the 1070s the choices William de Warenne made as work was begun on the castle show this well: a mound, indeed two of them, composed of huge blocks of chalk, but a keep faced with flints held together with lime mortar.

Lime mortar has been around for thousands of years: calcium carbonates are baked and the resulting lime is mixed with fine-grained aggregates and water. It can be remarkably durable if it is not too exposed.

We might think of chalk as being a little-used building material for obvious reasons and we see little evidence of it, but many basements were formed cheaply of large chalk blocks.

Even the tower of Southover Church, built apparently of brick in the early eighteenth century, is actually formed of chalk blocks with a brick cladding. The chalk is now only really seen at the point where the archway from the porch cuts through the tower wall. Sometimes in winter driving rain penetrates to the point that the chalk is saturated and puddles form on the porch floor.

Some walls which remain in the under-crofts of Lewes Priory are made entirely of chalk.

Southover Church 1850s print, and chalk blocks in tower
Southover Church 1850s print, and chalk blocks in tower

Flint occurs in a number of places in southern England and is found as layers of nodules in sedimentary rocks, primarily chalk. Without becoming too technical, it is a mineral related to quartz and is rich in silica, which over time took over the voids in the sediments once occupied by living creatures – the shapes are thus varied and irregular. It is a very tough material and though difficult to work with had been mined for almost 5,000 years – as at Grimes Graves in Norfolk – though initially it was mined mainly for its ability to create sharp-edge tools and create a vital kindling spark.

In Lewes flint is to be found in a number of forms:

Field flints, and knapped uncoursed flint
Field flints, and knapped uncoursed flint

Field flints (at left) have not been broken or ‘knapped’, but being irregular are not really obviously suitable for construction. Once knapped, (at right) the shiny, usually dark interior revealed is as hard and resistant a building material as any. It can be found roughly arranged, as here, on Cockshut Road or in organised courses as on the front of the castle Barbican.

Coursed flintsCoursed flints on Lewes Castle Barbican

Later it is squared off as well – as can be found on several of the buildings making up the Old Grammar School on the upper High Street and, perhaps most notably, this fine work on the street-facing side of St Michael’s Church, which dates from 1748.

Work of this quality was time consuming, even at a time when labour was cheap… Tough and weather-resistant stuff.

Flint in St Michael's Church Lewes, and squared off flints
Flint on St. Michael’s Church, Lewes, and squared off flints

Built in the last decade, Depot Cinema includes both field flints on the roof and knapped flints on the side wall of the Studio.

Depot Cinema flint roof and wall, LewesDepot Cinema flint roof and wall, Lewes

Courtesy of the remarkable skills of Flintman, David Smith, and his team, it has perhaps the only knapped and squared flint ceiling in the world over the cinema entrance. I decided not to take a close-up photograph of this piece of craftsmanship: if you have already seen it, you will know how exceptional it is; if you haven’t, I encourage you to go and see for yourself – just look up as you enter!

In Sun Street is a house with flint beach cobbles forming the front wall: these rounded ‘eggs’ of flint were probably brought up by barge from Newhaven beach, where longshore drift, west to east, ensures a constant supply.

Flint beach cobbled house wall on Sun Street, LewesFlint beach cobbled house wall on Sun Street, Lewes

When used as “infill” within a timbered framing or on its own, a mixture of flints and rough-cut stone and chalk rubble can be found, mixed with mortar.

This is at its worst in the crumbling jumble of materials known as Bungaroosh, found predominantly in the older parts of Brighton and Hove, and in a few locations in Lewes, mainly out of sight!

Most of the ancient twittens of Lewes are bounded by flint walls, the condition of which needs careful monitoring and skilled repair. This is Paine’s Twitten at left.

Paine's Twitten, and Church end pillarPaine’s Twitten, and Church end pillar

However, a lime mortar, chalk and flints mixture can be very vulnerable to erosion, especially of the freeze-thaw variety, where the propensity of porous rocks to hold water can result, on freezing, in explosive damage.  This happened around a decade ago to the remains of the pillar at the entrance to Cockshut Road, on right above, which once marked the far north-western corner of the Priory site. The interior of it had long been exposed, as its facing stones had been removed. A week of heavy December rain was followed by a night when the temperature dropped to minus 9C. Chalk and mortar crumbled and flints fell out into the road. Repairs involved rebuilding new mortar around stainless steel rods to hold it in place.

 

Stone

At Lewes Priory, where construction began in the 1080s and continued one way and another for over 400 years, the difficulty finding good local materials was addressed by importing dressed stone.

Caen stone ashlar blocks at Lewes Priory, and Southover Church pillarsCaen stone ashlar blocks at Lewes Priory, and Southover Church pillars

These ashlar blocks, at left above, mainly of finely-grained, creamy-coloured oolitic limestone from around Caen in Normandy, could be brought in by sea-going barges right alongside the Priory site on the Cockshut stream. The most significant parts of the priory buildings were faced with this dressed stone around a thick and structurally weak mix of local materials. Exterior walls of lesser buildings were flint-faced.  At right, pillars still to be seen in Southover Church date from around 1120, when it was the priory’s hospitium or guest house.

Lewes Priory buttressAfter the dissolution of the Priory in 1538 most of the valuable Caen stone was removed from the site:  this is clear in the photograph (left), where the dressed facing stone of the buttress has been partially removed – but only as far up as a man standing on the back of a cart could reach!

Southover Grange a couple of hundred yards away, built in the 1570s, was among the destinations for some of this quality stone, below. As was the front of Dial House in the lower High Street and Firle Place also features Caen stone and one may draw ones’ own conclusions as to its origin…. I couldn’t possibly comment…

Lewes Priory buttress

 

Southover Grange, and Dial House, Lewes
Southover Grange, and Dial House, Lewes

Blocks of Caen stone can also be found randomly in many a Lewes wall, as here on the left, on Southover High Street, only a hundred metres from the Priory.

However, at Lewes Priory, other stone was also used: here in a remnant of the great Priory gateway, beside the eastern end of Southover Church, a heavily-eroded block of stone shows it to be full of fossils – not Caen stone and certainly not local.

Southover High Street wall, and Lewes Priory gateway
Southover High Street wall, and Lewes Priory gateway

Other types of stone were available fairly locally:  the eroded dome or anticline of South East England offers complex geology, with beds of Greensand and other sandstones as well within reach.

There are instances of the use of greensand to be found – on the castle Barbican, at left, it is used for detailing and structural stability around the arrow-slits, for the projecting corbels high up and around the main archway.

And to the right in more detail – the more eroded row of larger and slightly greenish stones in between other sandstones.

Lewes Castle Barbican, and its Greensand arch
Lewes Castle Barbican, and its Greensand arch

It is also to be found around the entrance to Southover Church, where the reason it has not been more widely used is apparent – it weathers badly and leaves a crumbly surface, as evidenced on the side of Westgate House on the upper High Street too.

Greensand stones in Southover
Greensand stones in Southover

The silty sandstones of the High Weald are less-used for construction and are now mainly used in landscaping and as aggregates.

Between the bands of harder rock are clays: Gault clay – a fossil-rich siltstone in a thick layer under the Greensand – and Wealden clays. These have local variations in colour and chemistry and will shortly bring us to the ubiquitous bricks and tiles.

But first, we should note the non-local stone, brought in for significant public buildings, like the County Courts building and Newcastle House, previously County Hall, on the upper High Street, below at left. The former railway station on Friars’ Walk, and the vast Tabernacle Chapel in what is now the pedestrian precinct were both classical buildings demolished in the 1960s.

Lewes Crown Court, and Turkish Baths
Lewes Crown Court, and Turkish Baths

Another import was Quarr Stone from the Isle of Wight, which was used as a decorative feature stone on the pilasters of the Victorian Turkish Baths in Friars’ Walk, above at right. However, it has not worn that well and recently required replacement pieces.

Lewes has been spared banks and office blocks clad in huge sheets of polished marble and similar alien materials, as are often found in the central business districts of many large cities.

Real stone lent itself to being carved and here are two examples – an old doorway header in Castle Ditch Lane, featuring a Tudor Rose in each corner (left) and the arch above the doorway of Blaker’s tower on the Priory Park, built as a viewing platform in 1855 using discarded stones from the ruined Priory.

Castle Ditch Lane archway, and Lewes Priory gazebo arch
Castle Ditch Lane archway, and Lewes Priory gazebo arch

 

Clay, brick, and tiles

Sussex bricks and tiles are varied in their chemistry and colour and, according to their production process, range from the familiar terra cotta red to creamy ochre, in a number of locations, including the impressive Priory Crescent in Southover and blue-grey: a surface effect which is achieved in the kiln or brick-stack. Note that, where chipped, the natural reddish colour of baked clay underneath is still evident.  (These two examples can be found within a hundred metres of each other on Southover High Street.)

Cream bricks, blue bricks
Cream bricks, and blue bricks

This choice of colours led architects – and before them, builders – to develop a palette of contrasting detail, which abounds in the town.

It is to be found in terraced houses in East Street (left) and on some of the grander houses on Southover High Street (right).

Red and grey bricks, East Street Lewes, and contrasting bricks on Southover High StreetRed and grey bricks, East Street Lewes, and contrasting bricks on Southover High Street

Here it is again in Waterloo Place. It is worth noting that when a block of flats was added opposite in the 1980s, (on right) the District Council architect retained but reversed the pattern, this time using darker detailing.

Contrasting bricks in Waterloo Place, Lewes, and flats opposite
Contrasting bricks in Waterloo Place, Lewes, and flats opposite

Its prevalence on Friars Walk and Lansdown Place led the architects and developers of the Premier Inn, after some considerable persuasion, I might add, to emulate this in their revised designs.

Contrasting bricks on Premier Inn, LewesContrasting bricks on Premier Inn, Lewes

Of course plain red bricks are still to be found in abundance too – as at the Market Tower, built in 1792, (below left) and on the front added to the Town Hall, opened in 1893 (right).

Red bricks on Market Tower, and Lewes Town HallRed bricks on Market Tower, and Lewes Town Hall

Also the Old Library on Albion Street (left) and Fitzroy House (right), all enduring nineteenth century work.

Red bricks on Old Library, and Fitzroy House, LewesRed bricks on Old Library, and Fitztroy House, Lewes

In the 1980s a tawny-coloured brick was used for the relatively short-lived Magistrates’ Courts Building. Remember that? This was taken soon after it opened and before it was ‘softened’ a bit by trees and time.

Lewes Magistrates' CourtsLewes Magistrates’ Courts

Bricks were so readily available that they have been extensively used as pavers, for example in Pipe Passage and in English’s Passage off Cliffe High Street (left).

Sometimes, the variety of bricks available gives rise to purely decorative work, as here, high up on the front of the Freemasons’ Hall near St Michael’s church (right).

Brick pavers in English's Passage, and decorative brick work at Freemasons' Hall, LewesBrick pavers in English’s Passage, and decorative brick work at Freemasons’ Hall, Lewes

As the fashion to hide old timber framing took hold, adding a brick wall at the front was seen only to waste space and make the pavement narrower, so the mathematical tile was developed. It is not unique to Lewes, but is found here more than elsewhere.

Thin wooden laths carry nailed-on wedge-shaped tiles often with a suspiciously slim sliver of mortar – no more than grouting really – designed to resemble courses of brickwork.

Mathematical TilesMathematical tiles

That it sometimes fails to convince is because these are usually all headers (the ends of bricks), requiring half-tiles to start a row, and because the edges are a big giveaway: corners have to be concealed – in the case of Bartholomew House, at left, in the Castle Precincts, with a wooden strip and on Westgate House, at left, with fake corner “stones”, which are in fact of hardwood – knock them for yourself and hear the hollow sound.

On both these houses the lack of lintels or arches over the windows is another crucial clue. Elsewhere on the upper High Street a direct side-by-side comparison of real and ‘fake’ bricks tells its own story.

Mathematical tiles on Bartholomew House, Westgate House quoins, and tiles against bricks, Lewes
Mathematical tiles on Bartholomew House (left), Westgate House quoins (centre), tiles against real bricks, Lewes

However, some significant buildings in Lewes feature mathematical tiles but not as a result of covering up an unfashionable timber framing: both the Friends’ Meeting House in Friars’ Walk in 1784 and the end walls of the Jireh Chapel in Malling Street in 1805 were designed from the outset to feature them.

Whilst many mathematical tiles are red, (213 High Street is perhaps the prime example) others are cream, made from Gault clay, and a number of frontages are of glazed black tiles – on Bartholomew House, as we have just seen, on here at left on Western Road opposite St Anne’s church. On Market Street, at right, they shine almost silver as they reflect the sun on an autumn morning for example.  This shiny black finish was achieved by the application of a lead-based powder to the bricks before firing. Elsewhere, other mathematical tiles have sadly been painted over.

Mathematical tiles on Western Road and Market Street, LewesMathematical tiles on Western Road and Market Street, Lewes

Occasionally, ordinary glazed ceramic tiles feature – as here on the front of what was once the Red, White & Blue public house in Friars’ Walk, fairly recently painstakingly uncovered by the owner, (left) and also on a bookshop doorway in the upper High Street (right).

Glazed ceramic tiles on Friars' Walk and Lewes High Street
Glazed ceramic tiles on Friars’ Walk and Lewes High Street

Tile-hanging is traditional in much of East Sussex and Kent, whether it is plain or fancy.

It was popular because it was both practical – it weather-proofed the house, was cosmetic – and it was thought to give a more “modern” appearance.

The tiles with a semi-circular lower edge are ingenious in that they reduce the weight, whilst still covering the gap between the tiles below and produce a ‘scallop’ effect.

I cannot resist using this photograph of Cliffe High Street from Jim Franks’ collection taken mainly in the 1970s… some of us still think of this fine building as Elphick’s!

Tile hanging, plain, fancy, and Elphick's, Lewes
Tile hanging, plain, fancy, and at Elphick’s, Lewes

These examples are both on Southover High Street: at left a wholly tiled front, and at right at the top of St James Street, The Red House is only partially tiled above rendered brick.

Red tile hanging on Southover High Street
Red tile hanging on Southover High Street

 

Roofs

Red clay roof tiles are still the most common – this cluster below is opposite the Crown Court – but other materials deserve a mention:

Red clay roof tiles on Lewes High StreetRed clay roof tiles on Lewes High Street

Horsham stone – a coarse sandstone found in thin layers near Wealden clay – appears in slabs on roofs such as this house on Southover High Street, on part of Anne of Cleves House roof and on much of Southover Grange. It is carefully graded, so the largest, thickest and heaviest slabs are placed low down near the eaves, where the walls help support them, with tile-sized, thinner pieces near the ridge of the roof.

Horsham stone slates on Southover High StreetHorsham stone slates on Southover High Street

The coming of the railway in the mid-nineteenth century made it easier to bring slate in from North Wales and the twentieth century saw the development of a number of composite materials, introducing still greater variety.  The side of No 1 Cliffe High Street, adjacent to Cliffe Bridge, looks like it is hung with slates, but I understand these are of an asbestos compound, a lighter but look-alike material.

Wooden roofs still feature occasionally, as in the shingles on the spire of St Anne’s church at the top of the High Street: once of local oak, I believe that these are now of imported cedar.

 

Finishes

Many homeowners become discontented with the appearance of their houses over time: fashion and the appearance of new materials have led to changes, some of which have become permanent. Rendering offered protection against the elements and led to many houses hiding evidence of their structure with a smooth coating.

Here is the lower part of St Nicholas Lane. Originally these house fronts may have been lime-washed, but as technology introduced longer lasting and more durable finishes, such as Sandtex masonry paints and similar, a range of colours was possible, as below, in the narrowest part of the High Street.

Painted rendered house fronts on St Nicholas Lane, LewesPainted rendered house fronts on St Nicholas Lane, Lewes

Painted rendered house fronts on Lewes High StreetPainted rendered house fronts on Lewes High Street

Of course, it needs repainting – I have lost count of the number of times the side walls of the Star Gallery has been redone: here they are at it recently. It fronts onto Fisher Street with the poorest air quality in the area and in close proximity to heavy traffic, so it is hardly surprising that regular refreshment is necessary.

Painting render at Star Gallery, LewesPainting render at Star Gallery, Lewes

Pebble-dash as a finish has a somewhat chequered history – indeed all added finishes with direct contact sometimes conceal as much as they protect and can contribute to issues such as undetected damp. However, rendering was considered cheap and in theory at least could both hide and offer protection, though not always successfully.

Pebbledash, and damaged render, Lewes
Pebbledash, and damaged render, Lewes

Pebble dash on St Michael's church tower, and painted in Sun Street, LewesPebbledash is found here, at left, on the round Tower of St Michael’s church.  In the raw state, its durability is questionable and repairs are often detectable – can you see the outline of an earlier porch low down here?

This finish, also to be found on many a 1950s council house, can perhaps be best appreciated when freshly painted, as on the right in Sun Street.

Pebble dash on St Michael’s church tower, and painted in Sun Street, Lewes

 

Metal

Today some buildings still hide their basic structure: when the Chapter House, a community room with toilets (at left), was added behind the tower of Southover Church in 2010 it was decided to make it a steel frame building (at right) with split oak cladding on a brick base.

Building regulations required that the steel girders needed concrete foundations 6 metres deep: when the ground was cleared to the level of the existing church floor in preparation, the extent of the foundations of the chalk and brick tower, standing since 1714, were revealed to be just 18 inches deep!

Southover Church Chapter House exterior, and steel girders
Southover Church Chapter House exterior, and steel girders

By the mid-nineteeth century, both iron and later steel were in common use and Every’s Phoenix ironworks did so much more than produce drain-heads and manhole covers for which they were famous.  Their early catalogues show the cast iron pillars and canopy, still there today, in the present railway station, opened in 1889.

Cast iron pillars at Lewes railway stationCast iron pillars at Lewes railway station

This was the subject of a long and thorough restoration in the past decade. It is a Listed building, with all the limitations that creates, but the extensive work was completed without interfering with rail services or access for passengers.

Cast iron, Lewes railway stationCast iron, Lewes railway station

Between Tesco and Homebase off Brooks Road the skeletal steel framework of a new development of 41 living units and 10 work-places has been emerging in recent months, some 78 feet high, no doubt standing on piles driven deep into the alluvium and gravels of the Ouse floodplain….

Steel framework, Brooks Road development, LewesSteel framework, Brooks Road development, Lewes

Wood, which was where we started, has not been abandoned, but has become one of a wide range of cladding materials.

Shiplap planking or the similar weatherboard is common across the South East and can be seen on the left here in Sun Street. Occasionally plastic cladding imitates planking – not always wholly successfully – as on the right at Church End on Cockshut Road, built in the 1970s.

Shiplap planking in Sun Street, and plastic cladding on Cockshut Road, LewesShiplap planking in Sun Street, and plastic cladding on Cockshut Road, Lewes

The urge to decorate and adorn properties was and remains strong.

One manufactured material that can be found in several places in Lewes is Coade Stone: First marketed in the 1770s, Coade stone was a remarkable new building material, named after its inventor, Eleanor Coade. Using a recipe which was not fully understood until the 1990s, its makers claimed to have produced the first ever ‘artificial stone’.  But it wasn’t – it was a form of ceramic which had been baked for days. Tough and hard-wearing, it offered new opportunities for fine-detailed decoration.

In Lewes it features (left to right) in classical relief panels above what is now the Crown Court, in the heads above windows on the Victorian frontage of the Town Hall and in doorway features on houses on Friars’ Walk and Southover High Street, amongst others.

Coad Stone in Lewes at Crown Court, Town Hall, and Friars' Walk
Coad Stone in Lewes at Crown Court, Town Hall, and Friars’ Walk

Terracotta at Brewers Arms, LewesTerracotta is also in evidence, as in this, one of a fine pair of plaques adorning the front of the Brewers Arms.

Other materials have been brought in to meet particular needs: no local stone is tough enough for kerbstones, so granite slabs, probably from Cornwall, are used – below left, on Friars’ Walk.

Durable as it is, even granite was no match for the tanks that passed through Lewes High Street during World War II, leaving scars from their tracks which endure today – below right.

Terracotta at Brewers Arms, Lewes

 

Granite slab kerbstones on Friars' Walk, and Lewes High Street kerb damage
Granite slab kerbstones on Friars’ Walk, and Lewes High Street kerb damage

So there we have it: the buildings of Lewes, old and new, feature a huge range of materials. From the earliest hovel to the currently unfinished apartment block, construction has been guided first by the availability and cost of materials then by changing fashions and technological innovation.

We are truly fortunate that we live in a town with hundreds of buildings that are now Listed, ensuring that the rich variety we enjoy is less likely to be swept away on a whim, as was often the case in earlier times. However constant watchfulness is necessary.

View South from Lewes Castle KeepView south from Lewes Castle Keep, 1971

Almost all these photographs are my own, but I have also gratefully drawn on the slide collections of Jim Franks and John Houghton, gifted to the Friends of Lewes and which are now in the Keep at Falmer.

I hope this flood of images and rapid run-through has whetted your interest, maybe even shown you something new and made you want to go and see for yourself.

Marcus Taylor, March 2021