Discover the enchanting castles, cathedrals and stately homes of Sussex – and their intriguing connections to the royal family, past and present.
The Sussex towns of Arundel and Lewes are both home to lively communities, charming shops and historic buildings. Both are crowned by magnificent castles. And both have fascinating contemporary or historic links to the British royal family.
Arundel, and Arundel Castle, has been the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk and their ancestors for almost 1,000 years and the family has long been close to the monarch – although that intimacy hasn’t always paid off… The 3rd Duke of Norfolk only escaped the death penalty when Henry VIII died the night before his execution. Since then, the relationship has rallied and, as Britain’s most senior peer, the 18th Duke of Norfolk organises major state ceremonies, including Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and King Charles III’s coronation.
Twenty-five miles (40km) to the east, Lewes was the site of one of the most decisive battles in English history; in 1264, the Battle of Lewes resulted in the capture of Henry III during the Second Barons’ War. In the 16th century, Henry VIII bestowed one of the town’s buildings on his fourth wife. Later that century, during the reign of Mary I, 17 Protestants were burned at the stake here – an event the town still commemorates every Bonfire Night (5 November).
Getting around: The centres of both Arundel and Lewes are compact and pretty, making them pleasant to explore on foot. The quickest way to travel between the towns is by road (35 mins), so a hire car or taxi is your best bet. Alternatively, you can travel by train, with a couple of changes (1 hour 45 mins).
Day 1: Fairy-tale Arundel
The pretty market town of Arundel jostles with galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants beneath a skyline that rises and falls with spires, battlements and a hotchpotch of historic buildings.
Towering above the town, Arundel Castle is everything a castle should be. It has medieval towers, a portcullis and a drawbridge as well as Victorian bathrooms, rare paintings and a Regency library. Views from the castle keep unfurl over the town’s chimneypots, along the River Arun and across the countryside to the coast. As you wander through the grand halls, state rooms and glorious gardens, look out for clanking suits of armour, towering four-poster beds and damage from the Civil War. (Open April-October.)
A short and pleasant walk from the castle is Arundel Cathedral, commissioned by the 15th Duke of Norfolk. It’s a beautiful building to admire from the outside but, if it’s open, slip inside to admire the organ and rose window beneath the soaring vaulted ceiling.
From there, stroll to Arundel Museum, patronaged by the Duke of Norfolk, to discover more about the town’s history and people. Exhibits range from locally found flint hand axes to model ships – Arundel was an important inland port until the arrival of the railways. (Open daily.)
Before you head to your accommodation for the night, browse Arundel’s independent shops. You’ll find antiques, pitch-perfect vintage clothing and quirky boutiques.
Eat & Sleep: The pretty streets of Arundel and Lewes are packed with cafes, restaurants and bars. Take your pick! On Arundel High Street, Sample some of the finest grapes from England’s wine country with a guided tasting flight at Digby Fine English. If hops are more your thing, head to Harvey’s Brewery Shop, in front of the Georgian brewhouse in the heart of Lewes. Harvey’s has been brewing since the time of George III, making it the oldest independent brewery in Sussex.
Between Arundel Castle and Lewes Castle, spend the night in another castle! Queen Elizabeth II stayed at 900-year-old Amberley Castle when she was a little girl and the castle was owned by the Emmett family, in 1945. Nowadays, it’s a luxurious hotel. Behind the curtain wall and portcullis are 19 richly furnished bedrooms, tennis courts, a croquet lawn and 12 acres of formal gardens. The restaurant, in rooms that dates to the 12th century, is excellent. If you can, take afternoon tea here, too.
Day 2: Free-spirited Lewes
Lewes is significantly bigger than Arundel, but just as charming and easy to explore on foot, despite the hills. Explore tiny twittens (a Sussex word for alleyways), ancient churches and a bustling town centre that straddles the River Ouse.
This place is rich in history and wears its reputation for rebellion proudly – something you’ll experience first-hand if you’re here on Bonfire Night when the streets fill with locals bearing flaming crosses and tar barrels. Lewes bonfire night is a real draw and attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Start by climbing the steep, zig-zap steps up to Lewes Castle. These 1,000-year-old ruins offer the best views of the medieval streets tangled below. The adjoining museum tells the town’s fascinating story. (Open daily.)
A 10-minute walk take you to Anne of Cleves House, a 15th-century timber-framed house given to Henry VIII’s fourth wife as part of her divorce settlement (although she never lived here). Peek into life in the Tudor era as you wander through the kitchen and gardens planted in the Tudor fashion. (Open for pre-booked visits year-round and general visits spring to late autumn.)
While away the rest of the day dipping into Lewes’s independent shops or people watching from one of the characterful cafes. Or, for a glimpse into a completely different way of life, make the journey to Charleston, an extraordinary country house 7 miles (11km) east of Lewes. It was the home and studio of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and a meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group, some of the 20th century’s most radical creatives. The house itself is a living, breathing work of art – every surface is exquisitely decorated – and it continues to inspire through a buzzing programme of exhibitions, workshops and talks. Charleston is in Firle, which is where Camilla, the Queen Consort was baptised. (Open Wed-Sun.)
Looking for more royal inspiration?
Check out our other regal itineraries
Whether you’re looking for ways to celebrate the Coronation of The King and The Queen Consort or if you’re just feeling inspired to spend a few days exploring Sussex, we’ve got plenty of regal highlights to make sure you have a trip you’ll remember forever!