Worthing vs Lewes – what makes small towns tick?

What makes towns tick? I’ve been visiting a lot of town centres on the quest to fill empty shops. Why is Lewes such a lovely place to spend time, while Worthing feels a bit of a wasteland?

It’s more than just built environment, although has something to do with it. Yes, Lewes has lots of history, beautiful old buildings, and is wrapped around some very curvaceous hills which makes the whole place feel exciting. But Worthing has plenty of nice buildings too, especially around the fringes of the town centre – Warwick Street and Brighton Road, Montague Place and Liverpool Terrace, even the bottom end of South Street and the Royal Arcade. There’s lots of lovely Deco and Art Moderne, some quirky Victorian, a bit of eccentric Edwardian, and even some quite chunky, urban Brutalism that I like.

But still, something’s missing. Partly, it’s the quality of shop fronts and shop fittings. In Lewes, the shops feel as though they’ve been there a hundred years without significant change – things feel old, and loved, and trusted – like heirlooms passed from father to son.

I visited a jewellers in Lewes, using a carefully, conscientuously converted butcher’s shop – he was proud of the marks the meat cleaver had left in the floor, and had made his work benches out of timber, blown down in the 87 gale, cut from trees that used to belong to Winston Churchill.

In Worthing too many shop fronts are cheap, and plastic, and the insides of many shops lack character. If it doesn’t feel like the shopkeepers love their own property, it’s hard for us as customers to feel much affection I think. There are exceptions – Pestle & Mortar in Portland Place could have been there fifty years, and Bookstack’s bonkers furniture collection makes it feel lived in.

But more importantly, it’s about stories. If you’ve lived in a town long enough, the place is alive with narrative. In Worthing, where my family have been for generations, I can tell you stories about my dad’s old record shop and where he used to sit selling IT; his father’s time working in an electricity showroom or guarding the gasworks against the IRA in the 1930s; the plots of land his father and grandfather owned, sold to The Corporation.

But sadly, Worthing’s shops don’t carry the same history. I’m sure only a handful remain from my childhood. Where are Bentalls, Gamleys and Allans the stationers? What happened to Optimus Books, Kinch & Lack for school uniform, even Woolworths and Sussex Stationers? Faced with a lack of continuity, it’s hard to love a place – it becomes a collection of retail units, not a tangled mess of shops and stories.

Lewes wears its history proudly, like an eccentric old uncle in waistcoat and pocket watch; and like the old uncle, it will tell you great stories if you ask.

Towns like Worthing need to rediscover that sense of place, the special corners, the stories and songs that weave a town together to make a community.

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