East Sussex has long been a bohemian idyll replete with beaches, pretty villages and some of the UK’s best indie shops, pubs and eateries.

Ever since sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell laid down roots at Rodmell and Firle respectively, surrounded by a coterie of the Bloomsbury set’s most fashionable and forward-thinking members, East Sussex has attracted bohemians in their droves. Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden immortalised the rolling landscape in their beautiful paintings and, later, the likes of Nick Cave forewent the delights of London in favour of the hippest seaside city in the country: Brighton. From the anarchic Lewes bonfire night to the refined Glyndebourne Festival, it is an enchantingly beautiful and historic place blessed with a pervasive wildness of spirit.

It is, as one might imagine for so rich a community of artists, writers and aesthetes, total heaven for those who love stylish independent shopping and eating. This is our guide.

Picture credits: Chris Mitchell/ Unsplash; Kai Bossom/ Unsplash

Shops



Freight HHG




Freight HHG, in the beautiful market town of Lewes which William Morris once described as ‘a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalky hills’, should top every design and interiors enthusiast’s must-visit list. Minimal without teetering into austerity, it is run by the excellent mother-daughter duo, Helene and Adele Adamczewski, who design everything that they sell, every item of which is manufactured scrupulously fairly and in the UK. Specialising in sublime simplicity of form allied with the highest standards of functionality, there isn’t a thing in this shop we wouldn’t want in our house – from the perfect serving trays to the cast iron griddle pans to the carbon steel knives. And then there’s the clothes… Pure joy. Explore the collection here.


Much Ado Books





This award-winning bookshop stocks a medley of tomes both antiquarian and new, all alongside other sundry treasures. There are excellent writer events, a by-post service – and after you’re done, do meander through this unbelievably beautiful village. It’s one of the very prettiest in Sussex. Explore the online shop here.


Closet & Botts




If you’re after a retail therapy hit, once you’ve raided the delights of Freight, do cross the road and wander into Closet & Botts where there are plenty more to be had. One of the prettiest shops we know anywhere, it is stuffed full of antique and reproduction homeware – alongside a small selection of vintage-style clothes – all furnished thanks to owners Harriet and Chloe’s extensive tours around French flea markets. But despite the Gallic influences – which are undoubtedly strong – the greatest aesthetic inspiration surely comes from down the road at Charleston Farmhouse. If you love the Bloomsbury style and are keen to recreate it in your home, there is nowhere finer to shop than this. Shop the collection here.


Charleston Shop




That is, unless you’re buying straight from the horse’s mouth, which you can do if you drive along the road to Firle and make direct for Charleston Farmhouse’s excellent on-site shop. It features much in the way of fabrics, wallpapers and lampshades, some of which are designed by Cressida Bell, granddaughter of Vanessa, others of which are the original designs. If we could, we’d buy it all. Shop the collection here.


Tidy Street Stores




‘A little corner shop by the sea’ is, on the one hand, an accurate description of Tidy Street Stores. On the other hand, it totally belies what an absolute gem this Brighton independent is. Stocking a great edit of clothes and accessories, there are unusual labels aplenty and an arty vibe throughout. We could spend hours here. Shop the collection here.


Fleurie Gallery




Fleurie, which is housed in the medley of shops under the old Needlemakers building’s roof, exudes charm, thanks in large part to owner Vicky who is one of the most delightful people you’ll ever meet. Lovers of vintage clothes will be in heaven perusing the rails of carefully edited high street and designer labels. There is no jumble sail quality to the pre-loved clothes here; all are in great condition, beautifully presented and refreshed frequently – and sold at extremely reasonable prices. There is also a capsule collection of Dress Smith designs (rather more expensive but exceptionally chic and artsy workwear) alongside pottery and jewellery. Explore the Instagram page here.


From Victoria




A couple of years ago, From Victoria upgraded its spaces from a sweet but diminutive shop within the Old Needlemakers’ rabbit warren to its own premises on the high street. And hallelujah that it did. We adore its selection of unusual house plants, rattan furniture and jewellery. Explore the Instagram page here.


Pretty Eccentric




Do you long for vintage tea dresses but in modern sizes? Make a beeline for Pretty Eccentric in Brighton’s Lanes, which is awash with 1920s-, 30s- and 40s-style frocks that go up to a size 18. Fun.


AG Hendy & Co




Alastair Hendy’s homeware shop in Hastings Old Town is the stuff of dreams – if your dreams are constructed of stylishly utilitarian below-stairs aesthetics. Ours are, and consequently, we couldn’t adore his profusion of enamelware or feather dusters any more than we already do. Do check the website or call up to see if the ever-capable Hendy is cooking on the day you plan to visit. If he is, book a table. It’s guaranteed to be delicious, whatever he’s rustling up.


No 1




For a mix of very fine antiques, beautifully presented rare vintage finds and a French country aesthetic, No 1 – found just on the bridge at Cliffe – is gorgeous if expensive. Somewhat akin style-wise – albeit on a much smaller scale – to Petersham Nurseries, this is a wonderful place to browse. Explore the website here.


Warp And Weft




Hastings Old Town has a great wealth of independent shops, all just a meander from the sea front. Warp And Weft is one of our favourites, its handmade clothes and accessories presented so beautifully that to step inside feels like walking into a particularly wonderful tailor of yesteryear. Heaven. Explore the website here.


Marchand Sons




This Lewes-based artisan paint company has the full force of the founder’s considerable personality behind it. They say, ‘When visiting the many paint and DIY stores and choosing colours for customers, [Simon] couldn't bear to see yet another colour name evoking the past with some spurious bullshit about Napoleons pantry... or Marie Antoinette's boudoir... then finally having to quote a colour name that sounded like sugary deserts, or a description of a mawkish sunset, names that stuck sickly in the throat. Being quite a contrarian, he wanted to resist the dictatorial force-feeding of paint companies extolling the virtues and questionable taste of the gaudy Victorians and Edwardians - and, god forbid, the louche 'Romans'. Do we all live in stately homes, Citadels and pavilions with drawing rooms or loggias overlooking olive groves? No, we don't.’Simon helps his customers to make decisions at his paint bar, where he’ll make up a shade just for you. Plus, the paint is natural, uses local materials and is completely beautiful. As he says, ‘Taste is simply confident decision-making.’ We love him. Explore the website here.


Leadbetter And Good




Gift shops rarely make our selections, chiefly because they often stock the same old stuff. Not so Leadbetter And Good – named after the lead characters in The Good Life. We love its beautiful artisan-made cards, its felt stuffed toys, its excellent selection of coffee table books and its hand-crafted soaps and bath salts. Explore the website here.


AS Apothecary




This small-batch distillery uses foraged-for ingredients from East Sussex, Scotland and Cyprus. If those locations sound somewhat specific, we can vouch for the fact that whatever the proprietors are unearthing, it works. The products look and smell gorgeous – and include the best hand sanitizer we’ve found anywhere. If you’re in the neighbourhood and fancy some serious relaxation, there is a treatment room for massages too. Explore the website here.


Things To Do



Charleston Farmhouse




It would be a travesty to come to this neck of the woods and not pay a visit to the house was home, studio and canvas to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, as well as so many of their intellectual and convention-defying friends. If you are not moved to go home and immediately start daubing painterly motifs on your fireplaces and walls, you’re made of stronger stuff than us. Explore the website here.


Monk’s House




If you’re feeling inspired by a trip to Charleston and have left wanting more, you are in luck. For just down the road in Rodmell is the National Trust-run Monk’s House, the former home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Similar in sensibility, it has the most heavenly English country garden with astonishing views, as well as being in possession of the loveliest mint-green sitting room we ever saw in our lives. Explore the website here.


The Depot




Back in 2018, a cinema-loving denizen of Lewes by the name of Robert Senior gifted his hometown a cinema, elevating its cultural life by several notches in one extremely generous gesture. It remains the nicest cinema we’ve ever visited, with a café that you actually want to visit and architectural merit that most others movie houses could only dream of. Go for a film or just have a cocktail out on the lawn in summer. It’s one of the town’s liveliest meeting spots – and the coffee and cake is pretty great too. Explore the website here.


Sheffield Park




This glorious National Trust-owned property is all about the garden, which features four lakes, plenty of glades and some wooded areas. Don’t miss the spectacular Pulham Falls, or the dazzling Palm Walk – you’ll be sure to work up a hearty appetite just in time for a big slab off coffee and walnut cake in the tearoom. Find out more here.


Bateman’s




'That's She! The Only She! Make an honest woman of her - quick!' Those were Rudyard Kipling’s words when he first clapped eyes on Bateman’s, the 17th-century house set on the Sussex Weald, with its deep mullioned windows and plethora of oak beams. We always love peering into writer’s rooms and Kipling’s does not disappoint (neither does his resplendent garden, nor the muted gold wallpaper of the dining room). Find out more here.


Lewes Castle




Towering over the streets of the market town of Lewes is its castle, which was built in 1066 by William de Warenne. Undertake the steep climb up these old stones to be rewarded with spectacular views across the town and the South Downs. And if you’re keen to do a whole historic trail of Lewes, do also pop into the Anne of Cleves House, a vertiginous wander down the steep Keere Street, to meander through the medieval rooms of what formed part of the divorce settlement of one of Henry VIII’s luckier wives. Find out more here.


Pells Pool





The oldest freshwater outdoor swimming pool in the country, Pells was built in 1860. It has, ever since, been delighting the people of East Sussex, with its refreshing – if unheated – waters. Find out more here.


Camber Sands




Unlike most of the beaches along this coastline, Camber Sands features a golden sandy shoreline and tufty sand dunes as opposed to the usual shingle. Despite its understandable popularity in the summer months, happily it remains unspoiled. The perfect place for a dip, a walk and a sunbathe. Find out more here.


Lamb House




If you’re visiting this pocket of the world, it would a shame not to spend a day in Rye, one of the famous Cinq Ports, with its cobbled streets, picturesque charm and the achingly beautiful Mermaid Street. Fans of Mapp and Lucia will revel in discerning exactly which house EF Benson based his characters’ much-fought over homes upon. Indeed, no literary sleuth should neglect to visit Lamb House, a Georgian red-brick fronted house that was once home to both Benson and Henry James (separately, we should add). The garden is a blissful spot for a cup of tea in the shade on a summer’s day. Find out more here.


Glyndebourne




From May through to the end of August, people dressed in black tie and wielding picnic hampers disembark the train at Lewes. Their destination? A few miles down the road to the village of Glynde and, specifically, Glyndebourne Festival of world-class opera. Whether you come for the music or you’re in it simply for the glorious and champagne-fuelled picnic in the grounds of this Jacobethan manor you’re ever likely to have (we won’t judge or tell), this is one of the UK’s best loved summer fixtures for a reason. Find out more here.


MEating and Drinking



Caccia And Tails




Launched in tiny premises in Lewes in 2018, Caccia and Tails deservedly fast gained a reputation for its take-away pasta dishes and its exceedingly indulgent macaroni fries. It is now operational at Charleston Farmhouse, too; we’re just itching for the day that it opens a full restaurant. Explore the website here.


The Ram Inn




We know few more perfect country pubs than The Ram Inn at Firle, itself the exemplar of the English village, all nestled in the shadow of Firle Beacon. The most picturesque of settings, much of the produce comes from a stone’s throw away at the Firle Estate. We adore the open fires in winter and the convivial tables out front in summer. Explore the website here.


The Crown, Hastings




There are plenty of reasons to visit Hastings Old Town, from the seaside to the Jerwood Gallery to the funicular that creeps reassuringly steadily up the cliff side. But even if you did nothing else, lunch at The Crown – run by Tess and Andrew Swann – would make the trip worth it alone. An independent free house, it serves, quite simply, the best pub food we’ve ever eaten. From the poshest fish finger sandwiches to freshly baked bread with whipped butter to fish so fresh it practically winks at you to the most moreish puddings in town, it’s no wonder it is covered in industry awards. Explore the website here.


The Salt Room




Brighton is blessed with so many brilliant restaurants, it’s hard to narrow the choice down (though honourable mentions go to Cin Cin, Riddle and Finns, Petit Pois and Isaac At; all excellent). We have a particular soft spot for The Salt Room. It’s right on the sea front. It’s airy and beautiful. It welcomes children. And the seafood is just spectacular. If you have a sweet tooth, its Salt Room Sweets platter is extraordinary. Explore the website here.


Fork




Lewes, despite its many assets, has for years lacked a really great restaurant. All that changed, however, with this year’s brand-new opening: Fork. Described as a neighbourhood restaurant, its brunches and lunch and dinner menus are fresh and seasonal – as devised by its head chef, who comes straight from Robin Gill’s much-acclaimed The Dairy. Explore the website here.


The Griffin




As pub gardens go, they don’t come much better than The Griffin’s in Fletching. With expansive views over the Downs, the food is equally glorious (if on the pricier side for pub fare). It’s little wonder that it is covered in awards – plus, as a 16th-century coaching inn, it’s packed full of character. Explore the website here.


Flint Owl




If you happen to wander down School Hill in Lewes at lunchtime, you’re likely to come across a queue snaking along the pavement. And little wonder, because the good folk of Lewes know that the Flint Owl bakery serves up the best bread in town, along with great sandwiches and cakes. Nab a much-coveted table, or take away your baked goods and wander down to eat them in the beautiful Southover Grange gardens. Top tip: Flint Owl supplies many of the best restaurants in East Sussex; if a pub, café or restaurant serves its bread, take it as a good sign. Explore the website here.


The Patch




The Patch – named after its lovely and very knowledgeable proprietor – may be small but it is mighty. A beer café, it stocks a rotating range of often local brews and ales, alongside very good pintxos to soak it all up. It also does a mean breakfast for the morning after. Explore the website here.


Beak Brewery




The Beak Brewery was founded by Dan Tapper when he moved to Lewes in 2018. In three short years, he’s not only begun to supply the best pubs and restaurants in the area, but even founded his own tap room – bag a table for one of the hottest pews in town. Explore the website here.


Beanstalk Café




The Beanstalk Café is a somewhat hard-to-find legend among Sussex locals. But do persist; it is worth it. Situated in pretty Firle, it is pure charm. Tea dresses may not be actually required but if you have one knocking about, there’s no more perfect place on earth to wear it. Follow on Instagram here.


Hoof




Carnivores take note: Hoof in Rye does burgers better than any chain we can think of. And, in winter, it’s the perfect place to refuel while cosying up by the large open fire. One plea to its proprietors: please open in more East Sussex locations. We’ll be forever grateful. Explore the website here.

Stay



The Ram Inn




If you’ve made it to The Ram Inn for dinner, why not go the whole hog and bed down here for the night? There are five rooms, all of which are cosy and fresh. And a stroll in the nearby Firle Place or a trek up Firle Beacon will work off an indulgent breakfast admirably. Explore the website here.


The Star




Alex and Olga Polizzi really, really know how to create hotels that people want to spend time in, walking the line between style and comfort with the self-assurance of seasoned acrobats. This summer, they have added a third property to their existing pair (the sublime Hotel Endsleigh and Hotel Tresanton), this time a little further east in Alfriston in the form of thirty-bedroomed The Star. As a 15th-century inn, it has great bones. The Polizzis’ makeover plays up its character while injecting style and great luxurious comfort. We could stay and stay and stay. Explore the website here.


Blue Door Barns




Do you fancy a spot of luxury self-catering? Behold Blue Door Barns, a series of rustic rooms and cabins within sixteenth-century barns that ooze charm. Delicious breakfast is served in the morning – and if you’d like to really unwind, book a pampering session in its treatment room. Explore the website here.


Hawthbush Farm




Choose between the Cowshed or the Granary if you’re coming to stay at the blissfully tranquil Hawthbush Farm with a group. If you’re travelling solo or a deux, we are obsessed by the idea of a couple of peaceful nights in the shepherd hut, whose interior has been designed by another wonderful Sussex-dweller, block printer and designer, Molly Mahon. Explore the website here.


The George In Rye




When Hollywood stars hit Rye – and it seems to happen more often than you might imagine – it is invariably to The George In Rye that they repair for the night. Dating to 1575, it even has its own Georgian ballroom. They, like us, however, most likely come for the beautifully appointed rooms, the impeccable service and the excellent restaurant (do try the baked oysters). Explore the website here.


The Laindons Guest House




If the words ‘guest’ and ‘house’ conjure to mind peeling wallpaper and stale interiors, think again. Hastings Old Town is home to The Laindons, a fresh and breezy place to bed down for the night run by Karen and Malcom Twist, a duo of ex-hairdressers who, simply, do everything beautifully. Explore the website here.

By Nancy Alsop
June 2021

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