An interview with Terry Philpot, author of Secret Lewes

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Terry Philpot

As Lewes is my home town there was so much that I wanted to learn about its history and architecture, of the historical figures who formed it or passed through it. When I read Secret Lewes by Terry Philpot, my wish came true – it is an absolute treasure trove of historical insight and all the places that I pass on a daily basis came alive with incredible stories from hundreds of years ago.

Although Terry himself is not from Lewes, he knew of the town before Amberley Publishing approached him about writing a book for their Secret… series. He recognises how fortunate he was “that someone would want me to do what I would happily do as a pastime”. From reading Secret Lewes, it is quite clear that Terry found writing it a happy task. His enthusiasm for details and for uncovering extraordinary facts about the town is infectious.

Terry is busy writing his next book but he very kindly found a spare few minutes for The Lewes Home.

Tell us a little about yourself

For the purposes of writing, I suppose my most important characteristic is curiosity – who? what? where? when? And I’d apply that to people, great and unknown, buildings, places; almost anything. If you find out something that interests or surprises you, it’s likely to interest or surprise others – and the writer’s job is to tell that story, large or small, as best he or she can.

What did you do before working as a journalist/author?

It is what I have always done, full time at least. I have sat (and do sit) on boards of charities and even had a hand in founding one. I worked for short periods of time in a community project in Massachusetts and in a school in a village in South Africa. I lived with a teacher and her family – probably the most unusual few weeks of my life and one where I learned far more than I ever gave back. I’d make that same latter claim, too, about Massachusetts.

What is your favourite room in your own home and why?

The study, a working place, true, but where I am surrounded by books, photographs of people who mean something to me, pictures that have been given as presents and have personal resonance, and the odd postcard I have picked up to remind me of a visit. This makes it sound that I am in some vast, light-filled domain – I am not: I am rather squashed in!

What makes Lewes so special for you?

Lewes has always attracted me because of its architecture, its history, and the variety of people who have been associated with it. Having written the book, I am even more taken with the physical environment, having spent I do not know how long walking the streets and twittens. For example, everyone knows about Tom Paine, but how many know about the George Washington and John Harvard connections or of Paines contemporary, James Iredell, a justice of Washingtons Supreme Court? That four such significant people in the history of the USA – admittedly in varying degrees – should have so small a town (and smaller then) in common is incredible.

Lewes has examples of architecture throughout history. Is there a particular period of architectural history that you personally love? Why?

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The Round House, Pipe Passage, Lewes

That’s not an easy question! Lewes is not big enough to have swathes of different architectural styles. What it has is varied but scattered about. So I think I’d have to say that I am taken with the mathematical tiles, which it shares with Brighton, and the twittens (which it also shares elsewhere including, again, Brighton).

 By the very nature of the scattered styles a walk through Lewes is to encounter over short distances a cavalcade of history – from the origins of those twittens to the Battle of Lewes; from the ravages of the Reformation with the Priory to the Lewes where Paine worked, walked and debated and the Irish rebels of 1914 were incarcerated. And that is only to scratch the surface.

Are there any particular houses in Lewes that interest you, or that you fell in love with whilst spending time here? Can you explain why?

I am spoiled for choice. I knew of Virginia Woolfs Round House in Pipe Passage (I saw it first 25 years ago, on a guided walk) and charming as it is, that is added to by the odd fact of her never having lived there.

I also tried to imagine Edward Perry Warren and his little community of aesthetes in Lewes House, a task made easier by walking up Church Lane and looking at the lovely garden and by that gate what was his studio. To stand in the ruins of St Pancras Priory, like all such places, is to imagine the life of prayer, devotion, hospitality, community, and self-sufficiency of centuries that came to an end only with Thomas Cromwell in 1537.

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Lewes House. Image by Lewes District Council

It really is a joy to hear Terry discuss Lewes, and he is so right – the buildings tell a story of Lewes’ history – to walk alongside them and in the footsteps of so many great people and significant events in our history is thrilling. Terry’s enthusiasm for Lewes has only led to my own love of the town being intensified.

For now, Terry must get back to his study to continue writing another book for the Amberley Secret … series as well as to work on his own ideas that he is keen to share with the world.

If you want to know the amazing stories concealed within the twittens and historical buildings of Lewes, then order Secret Lewes here

 

 

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