When I first moved into a studio in the Star Brewery on Castle Ditch Lane I was intrigued by what was going on behind all the closed doors. Occasional glimpses of a silversmith’s workbench or a beautiful artwork-in-progress, the heady solvent fumes and plaster dust piqued my curiosity. There’s a hum of creative energy about the place, and it has a long history.
Now a veritable rabbit warren of studio spaces, from 1740-1977 the building was one of Lewes’ seven working breweries serving the town’s 70 pubs (now there’s just Harvey’s and around 20 pubs). It was saved from demolition in 1984 by a group of local residents who raised money to buy and convert it into viable studio spaces for people who otherwise couldn’t afford to rent a workspace. Some of the current tenants helped build the breezeblock walls that divide up the vast space.
The original focus on small, creative businesses and makers continues and the Brewery is now home to a diverse range of people, including a clothing designer, illustrators, guitar makers, a potter, artists, writers, jewellers, architects, sculptors and bookbinders. There are three entrances (causing much confusion for the couriers you often find wandering the corridors), one of which leads to the Martyrs’ art gallery. Climb the stairs and you’ll pass an old pump crankshaft that was used to draw water from the well in the basement. At the top of the first flight there’s a mysterious cupboard and a large studio, home to David Graham Framers.
David has worked in the Brewery since 1988. When he took on his first, very makeshift, studio it was essentially a building site, with a bucket in the cellar for a loo and ladders to get between the different floors. He runs his picture framing business from a big studio with a loophole window through which hops and barley were winched inside. In each of the rooms here you’ll see old brickwork, gnarled beams and strange metal cogs and wheels, all echoes of the building’s working history. You can imagine the yeast-sweet smell of malt, the heat and clanking of the sack hoist that still juts from the outside wall. There’s even a tunnel (now blocked off) where barrels would be rolled underground to an off-licence in what is now Langton’s hairdresser’s on Fisher Street.
Carry on up more stairs and you’ll find illustrator Liz Temperley, founder of Blank Inside Design. Liz took on her first ever workspace here three years ago. Graduating from a glorified cupboard, her current studio is light and airy. She loves the building’s “history, the character, the quirkiness and the friendliness”.
Further along the wonky-floored corridor is sculptor Amelia Rowcroft’s studio, a space filled with heads and figures. Amelia tells me, “I was drawn here by the amazing light in my studio, and the fact that it’s conveniently right in the centre of town.”
The Brewery is steeped in stories, like the rumour of French soldiers being imprisoned here during the Napleonic Wars, or the glassblower whose artistry with molten glass drew crowds of onlookers. A building that used to provide intoxication now offers inspiration for the many makers and artists who have found a place here.