Battle, East Sussex: 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield

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I’m feeling quite proud of myself this week (well, a month ago by the time I got around to publishing this), because I managed to get a record six (!) posts written (hopefully with no effect on the quality).  I know you can’t tell as much, because I stagger them out to make up for the lean weeks, but just picture me furiously typing away all week, trying to get my entire Somerset trip written up, followed by this day trip to Sussex (actually, maybe don’t picture me writing, since I’m usually wearing pajamas and my ratty old bathrobe, and my hair is a wreck).  It’s a Friday as I write this, so I am taking some satisfaction in finishing up my backlog with this post on Battle.

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The Battle of Hastings is something of a misnomer, as the fighting actually took place a good few miles inland, in what is now the town of Battle (which was obviously named post-battle; it sure would have been weirdly coincidental otherwise).  Lest you think they just found a random field and labelled it as the battle site in a money-making endeavour (as the cynic in me would be inclined to believe), there is a sort of proof (despite the fact that no relics of the battle have ever been found here) in the fact that William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, to give him his other, funnier title) founded an abbey here only 5 years after the battle took place, and ordered the altar of the church to be placed right over the spot where Harold died.  Nowadays, the Abbey is in ruins, and the entire area has been turned into a fenced-in, bona-fide (said in Phil Hartman’s voice, as Lyle Lanley trying to sell Springfield on a monorail) tourist attraction courtesy of English Heritage (hey, at least it makes a change from the National Trust).

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Obviously, an attraction of this magnitude is going to cost you (around 9 quid, depending on whether you Gift Aid or not), unless you just squeaked in before your English Heritage membership expired, like I did.  I was offered a free audio guide, so I took it, but I have to confess that I didn’t listen to it at all, so for once I probably can’t bitch about the lack of signage, as it was my own fault for not taking advantage of the audio tour (but I still will, because I much prefer reading to listening).

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My boyfriend and I first ventured over to the visitor centre, which despite being recently redone, was still quite meh.  A few posters, and a film I didn’t watch because I didn’t want to commit to sitting there for fifteen minutes.  There were a few weapons you could pick up, and a bit of information about the Normans and Anglo-Saxons (I’m intrigued by Charles the Simple), but that was about it.  The building also holds the underwhelming tearoom (with no products made using Battle honey in sight, despite the website’s promises) and the only toilets on the property, as far as I can tell, so if you have to go even a little, best to take advantage before you find yourself at the far end of the battlefield (I feel like somebody’s mother saying that, but it’s a lesson I learned the hard way).

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And onward to the battlefield, which offered the options of a short walk overlooking it, or a longer walk all the way around it, which maybe took twenty minutes, including stopping to read the signs and take pictures.  The few signs scattered around had corresponding numbers you could enter into the dreaded audio guide, but the biggest attraction here was the sheep.  Lots of sheep, and most importantly, lots of lambs; adorable lambs, which was nice, because the battlefield wasn’t so much to look at otherwise.

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The ruins of the abbey, on the other hand, were quite impressive. There wasn’t anything left inside the abbey (save for the arches), and the first floor was missing, but the interior structures were still more or less intact, and you could climb your way through them.  Because the abbey was built on a hill, there were steps between the successive levels, but the upper floor was still on a flat surface because they staggered the heights of the ceilings below. Pretty clever on the part of those medieval monks (there was also a drainage chute outside the abbey that I’d like to believe was a poo chute, but it probably wasn’t since they had a purpose-built “reredorter” and all).

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The monastery was dissolved in the 16th century, of course, due to Henry VIII and his jerkish whims, so if you take that into consideration, it’s incredible how much of it is still intact.  The altar was one of the casualties, although there is still a spot marking where it was (and by extension, where Harold was meant to have died), so you can simply stand on it, or if you want to be more morbid, you could probably lie down and pretend you’d been shot in the head with an arrow, a la Harold. (The building behind me in the picture is connected with the site, but it is now a school, and you are not allowed inside.)

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The abbey site was turned into part of a country estate after the so-called “Suppression,” so there are some later additions installed by the wealthy owners (despite some jerk-heir akin to Horace Walpole’s ass-hat descendant selling a bunch of crap to pay off his gambling debts).  That hobbit hole looking thing is actually an ice house, and looks cooler from the outside than in (does that count as a pun? Literally speaking, temperature-wise, of course it’s cooler on the inside, but it is just a dank hole that you have to duck your head to get near), and the other building is the dairy; sadly, sans cow leg table.

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There was also a Victorian walled garden built by the Duchess of Cleveland, which looked pretty dead inside when I visited (in April, so something should have been in bloom), and some kind of monument, I guess to commemorate Harold’s death or maybe the battle?  It was hard to tell as it was written in French (so maybe not marking Harold’s death after all).  Speaking of walls, there is also a wall walk you can take back up to the main building – once used for defensive purposes, it now sadly only offers views of Battle without the opportunity to pour boiling oil on the townspeople’s heads.

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Heading back up towards the entrance, which is based inside the gatehouse, we mounted the steep and uneven staircase up to one of the towers that houses the Gatehouse Museum, which had clearly not been renovated when the visitor’s centre had.  This was probably a good thing, as the signs was pleasingly old-fashioned still, and I was slightly amused by the fact that most of it included a French translation (given what happened here and all, but then again, to the victor go the spoils, right?).

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There were some neat hidey-holes you could poke your head into here, if you were so inclined (and were willing to squeeze through the narrow doorways).  We discovered this garderobe hiding in one of them, with the toilet carefully roped off (probably because you might be tempted to use it rather than trek down to the visitor’s centre).

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If you can get past the fact that you are essentially paying to look at a field exactly like ones that can be seen all over the English countryside for free, than I guess Battle isn’t too terrible.  Honestly, I was glad we managed to get in on the membership card, as I don’t think it was worth 9 pounds.  I really did like the ruins of the abbey, but the visitor’s centre was straight-up lame, and everything else was just ok (and the battlefield was just a field, although not having been to many battlefields in my day, aside from WWI sites in Belgium, I don’t have much to compare it to).  I don’t know, I suppose it is a site of historic importance (since it did change the entire course of British history), which is really the main reason it might be worth seeing –  not because of what it offers today.  2.5/5.

 

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5 comments

  1. You made me think of the book “1066 and all that” (it’s a parody of English history) for the first time in years. I’ve just been to my shelves and am amazed to find I still have it – purchased June 1978 apparently. A trip down memory lane there.

    1. I own 1066 and All That too (though it’s at my parents’ house somewhere…)! I bought mine probably a decade ago after it was recommended to me by an Anglophile history professor when I was an undergrad. I actually thought about referencing it in the title, but I didn’t know if anyone would get it. I should have known better!

      1. Absolutely, not just Anabel! My dad adored 1066 And All That and often read extracts to my sister and me when we were very little — he’d laugh himself into an apoplexy, eyes streaming, and we’d never get what the punchline was. It’s because we didn’t know the actual facts at that point, from which the book so delightfully diverts. It’s taken me 50 years but now I love it.

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