In the way of holidays, it seems a lifetime ago now, but I have been thinking recently about the holiday we had in late August this year in the Sussex town of Lewes. We have visited Lewes many times now, but this year we stayed in an AirBnB place in an area that was relatively unfamiliar to us. I have been thinking about the place a lot since we got back home, and about what influences the atmosphere of a place.
We kind of hate where we live now, and have done for a while. It is noisy at all times of day and night, with busy roads, litter everywhere from a local ’express’ supermarket, speeding drivers, people driving cars and motorbikes who have deliberately removed the silencer from their exhausts, you name it…
It’s a stressful and un-restful place, and it makes you feel embattled and defensive. Don’t get me wrong, we are incredibly lucky to have a roof over our heads — so many people don’t even have that. But this location is gradually taking its toll on us, and we are looking to move. In the meantime, we like — as a respite — to find quiet places to stay on holiday. Lewes is a lovely medium-sized town, which nestles in between the beautiful chalk downlands of the South Downs National Park. The town is busy, but the core has densely packed older buildings, so if you take a walk down one of the many old pedestrian alleyways between these houses (known locally as ’twittens’), you quickly find yourself in quiet residential streets. From anywhere in the town, you can see the green hills towering above, and it is very easy to reach one of the many footpaths providing access to the Downs. Add to that its long history of rebelliousness and independence (the motto of Sussex is famously “We wunt be druv”), the place is pretty much the ideal combination of town and country, as far as I am concerned.
The street we stayed in got me thinking about the elements that make for a friendly, restful and livable environment. It was an extremely narrow street. There were Victorian terraced houses on one side, and then an old flint wall on the other. The houses faced a strip of mature allotments with some lovely old fruit trees, and then an area of public green space, surrounded by trees. The road was so narrow that residents had to park with their drivers’ side wing mirrors folded, and with the car parked a matter of a few centimetres from the wall. Even then, anyone driving past these cars has to mount the narrow pavement (sidewalk for US readers) with two wheels to crawl carefully along the road. We even discovered that they have special, skinny bin trucks to service the road (and presumably other similarly narrow streets). For these reasons, it’s an ‘access only’ road: a one-way street where motorised access is only permitted for those who live there or for deliveries to those houses.
That sounds — and I am sure, is — a bit inconvenient, but there is a wonderful trade-off. It means that the road is quiet and safe, and so it is actually pleasant to sit out on your front step or in your front yard, and to chat to your neighbours or pass the time of day with those walking down the street. The lack of traffic and a convenient twitten leading off the road near one end to take you to the high street means that pedestrians use the road as a short-cut to walk into town, which makes it feel lively, but in a quiet, friendly, human-scale way.
I can’t remember the last time I was in a place where people routinely sit outside their houses and chat with others, or seemingly bump into friends and acquaintances while walking around the town. It made for a wonderful atmosphere.
Now we just need to find somewhere like that to live..