Category Archives: England

THE BATTLES OF HASTINGS – morris men and motor men

It’s all happening in Hastings on a May Bank Holiday weekend. The Old Town has been invaded by morris men, brandishing sticks and handkerchiefs, while the beachfront has been claimed by the motor men – thousands of motorcyclists on their annual rally.

Fortunately any competition is very good humoured, and the only serious battle is to see which group can make more noise. The morris dancers open up with a volley of drums, fiddles and accordions, backed by the jingling bells strapped to their calves. The bikies counter-attack with deep-throated revving of 500cc motors, and get the better of the early skirmishes.

It may be just as loud, but it’s far less bloody than the other battle I’ve been learning about over the past few days. Any Englishman knows there are only two dates that matter in history: 1966 – England wins football World Cup, and 1066 – Battle of Hastings.

The nation-changing events of the latter took place in what is now the little tourist town of Battle, a short train ride north of Hastings. History is important around Battle, and they’ve done an excellent job of turning it into entertainment and tourist dollars, pounds and euros.

In Yesterday’s World, a museum squeezed into an old building with a maze of tiny staircases, I browsed through replicas of shops from the Victorian era to the 1970’s. Here the grocer scoops sugar and flour into paper bags, the ironmonger sells ‘Star Grenade’ glass fire extinguishers to lob onto unwanted blazes, and the chemist, a surplus waxwork of Margaret Thatcher, grinds potions with a pestle and mortar. In Queen Victoria’s throne room we can see replicas of various crown jewels, while a rather robotic computer-animated queen addresses us from a video screen. We are quite amused.

Friendly, knowledgeable staff at the Battle Museum directed me to dinosaur bones and Roman pottery, but I particularly liked ‘Britain’s oldest guy’, a 19th century Guy Fawkes effigy considered too well made to chuck on the bonfire, and the smock worn by Battle’s last gas-lighter, Mr Anderson, when he played marbles every Good Friday. You make your own fun in a small town.  

But Battle’s real drawcard for visitors is an unremarkable grassy slope on which England’s destiny was changed in a single day.

The museum attached to the 1066 Battlefield and Abbey filled me in on the details of the story. We probably studied it at school, but maybe I was sick that day. Edward the Confessor promised the English crown to both Harold and William of Normandy, but forgot to tell the boys to play nicely together. When Harold claimed the throne, William loaded a 7,000 strong army onto boats and sailed over from France. Harold, fresh from repelling some troublesome Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, marched south to tell the frog-eaters to get back where they came from.

A short film in the museum showed a re-enactment of the battle, while in the adjoining room an Australian family tested the weight of the armour and weapons of the rival Norman and English armies. They were heavy. It would have been no picnic marching with them, let alone doing any fighting.

Outside on that grassy slope I listened as the audio guide vividly described the ebb and flow of the decisive battle. The Normans charged Harold’s troops perched on the hill and were repeatedly repelled. We already knew that William eventually conquered and that Harold was shot in the eye (this detail is now disputed by some historians) but joining a group of French tourists walking around in the peace and the sunshine gave me a feeling for the tragic, senseless carnage of that day.

In a field you could stroll across in ten minutes, 7000 men died in a few hours. This was in a country of a mere 1.5 million, in the days when a large town had perhaps 2500 inhabitants. When it was over, William was crowned king and England became French.

In the museum, I chatted to guide Nasser about the significance of the Norman conquest. ‘It makes me wonder whether there is really such a thing as a true Englishman,’ he told me. ‘How can one say, “Ï am  proud to be English”, when you are really partly French?’ I found it an interesting question, especially coming from a young Englishman who was more than partly Ugandan.

The spectacular castles around this part of Sussex, like Pevensey, Herstmonceux and Bodiam are a huge attraction for tourists. They stage battle re-enactments and host ye olde English mediaeval fayres. Preserving English history is big business.

The morris men and their fellow enthusiasts have come to Hastings to keep alive the very English tradition of Jack in the Green. Dressed as black-faced chimney sweeps or leafy green bogies (‘part man, part bush, part alcohol’), they dance up the steep hill and celebrate the end of winter by ritually slaying their ‘Jack ’ in the ruins of Hastings’ Norman castle.

Visiting French high school students give me Gallic shrugs when I ask them, admittedly in barely adequate French, if they know what it’s all about. They’re more interested in the gleaming Ducattis, Yamahas and Harley Davidsons throbbing along Marine East Parade.

But at the end of the day, bogies and bikies share the pubs, and the French are made to feel welcome. England has room for all sorts of people now.

The writer was a guest of 1066 Country Tourism.


Jack in the Green is celebrated in Hastings every May bank holiday weekend.

Getting there: The train to Hastings from London Charing Cross takes about 90 minutes and costs GBP29.60.

Staying there: The White House, Hastings offers B&B from GBP70/90 single/double. See

Further information: Entry to the 1066 Battlefield and Abbey costs GBP6.70 (including audio guide), to Yesterday’s World GBP7.  Entry to Battle Museum is GBP1. For other accommodation and attractions in the area see

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under England, Travel, Travel- Europe

BRITISH LIBRARY, LONDON – Sir John Ritblat Gallery

Proofreaders looking for errors?

It’s inspiring for a humble hack to read the polished work of great writers.

But it can also be intimidating, so I also enjoy seeing how geniuses sometimes struggle.

I love reading their rough drafts, spotting the false starts, the wrong turns, the indecision and the writer’s block, as well as the flashes of brilliance. They are on display, warts and all, in the British Library.

There are over 150 million items in the library, including what must surely be the world’s greatest collection of manuscripts from the most illustrious scribes and composers of all time. Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mozart, Beethoven, Lennon and McCartney are all there, waiting for us to enjoy their little mistakes and eccentricities.

In 1998, after years of delay and budget overruns, the library moved into smart new premises, with the towers of St Pancras Station peering over its roof. Eduardo Paolozzi’s large statue ‘Newton: after William Blake’, squats in the forecourt, playing with geometric dividers.

Newton statue

There’s a queue forming well before the opening time, so we hop across for a coffee at the Last Word Café, as a mixed bunch – students, bearded academic-looking types, and a few tourists – line up at the doors. Many have their noses buried in books.

At 9.30 the doors open and in we go. Shakespeare’s statue looks down to welcome us and information boards advertise exhibitions on Darwin and ‘The Sound and the

Fury’, archival recordings of great and memorable speeches. We listen to Winston Churchill promising to fight on the beaches, Martin Luther King having a dream, and Gwyneth Paltrow tearfully thanking the world for her Oscar.

Inside it was all a bit of blur…

But we’ve really come here for the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. In the glass cases under dim light, we pore over the illuminated manuscripts of the Lindisfarne Gospels, ancient religious texts from the Indian and Arab world, and copies of the Gutenberg Bible of 1450, the first book to be printed in England.

Star attraction of the collection is a parchment copy of the Magna Carta. It rates a special alcove all to itself, though I confess I don’t entirely understand its significance. I know it was a breakthrough when King John, under duress from the barons, acknowledged that the monarch, like his people, was subject to the law, but I believe he repudiated the document soon after.

More accessible and appealing to me are the handwritten drafts by writers and composers I know and love. Jane Austen was already writing very well as a teenager. A story written for her sister is displayed next to her draft of ‘Persuasion’. I’m encouraged to see that she edited far more as she grew older, losing the certainty of youth.

Other great works also began life as stop/start affairs. Thomas Hardy wrote ‘The Daughter of the d’Urbervilles’ in his notebook, then deleted his first two words and inserted ‘Tess’. William Wordsworth and Joseph Conrad had plenty of second thoughts. Playwright Harold Pinter apparently got bored with typing ‘pause’. Pinteresque pauses turned up so frequently that he just typed ‘p’ between his speeches; then amended them with litres of red ink.

Through audio headphones I hear Lawrence Olivier and Stanley Holloway perform the graveyard scene from Hamlet. W.B.Yeats reads his own poetry, almost singing it in his musical Irish accent, and James Joyce gives Finnegan’s Wake similar treatment.

There are Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, letters from Florence Nightingale, Newton and Charles Darwin, and Captain Soame Jenyns’ eyewitness account of the charge of the Light Brigade. The logbook of Nelson’s flagship, Victory, is next to one of Captain James Cook’s journals, (Cook also scrubbed out many lines he was unhappy with).

For heart-wrenching stuff, nothing beats Captain Scott’s diary from his fatal Antarctic expedition. It lies open at the poignant final page, ending, ‘For God’s sake, take care of our people.’

Douglas Haig wrote an inspiring call to arms to his troops in his Special Order of the Day in April 1918. He first included the sentence, ‘But be of good cheer, the British Empire must win in the end.’ Then he crossed that out. Too hollow perhaps, in view of the carnage, or was he having doubts about the outcome?

Opposite the writers’ displays are the original scores of famous composers. Even Mozart, I’m pleased to report, occasionally blotted his copybook, and Beethoven was a particularly messy worker. His violin sonata has phrases cross-hatched out violently, as if Ludwig was determined to ensure that nobody should ever see what stupid ideas he’d considered.

A group of French students cluster round the glass case dedicated to Beatles drafts. There are the lyrics of Michelle, penned by Paul McCartney on an envelope. A Hard Day’s Night is scrawled on the back of John Lennon’s birthday card for his son Julian.

My favourite is the sheet of paper with the words to ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’
Although it went on to be their breakthrough single in America, it seems that Paul was initially not confident that he and John had just written a hit. At the bottom of the page he’s scrawled a mock teacher’s note – ‘3/10. See me’.

I love Edward Elgar’s efforts. After two lines of music, he begins to doodle a series of comic faces on the staff, and interposes a line… ‘Waiting for 3rd symphony’. That’s what I like to see – someone getting really stuck and chucking it in.

Braced by the knowledge that great artists are also human beings, I risk humiliation by typing my own name into the library’s catalogue. Out of 150 million items, is it asking too much for them to have just one of my books there? They have seven. Phew! Hey, maybe they’d like to display my ancient floppy discs?


Getting there: The British Library is opposite St Pancras underground station.

Staying there: Numerous London accommodation options are on

Further information: Entry to the British Library is free. More information about the permanent collection and special exhibitions is on the website


Filed under England, Travel, Travel- Europe

DORSET, ENGLAND – cycling round Thomas Hardy country

I took a pushbike on the Piddle Pedal to Puddletown and Tolpuddle. It was almost worth doing just for the sound of that sentence, but cycling round Dorset had other things going for it. This quiet rural area may be less well known than, say, the Cotswolds, but it’s just as beautiful and has no crowds, madding or otherwise.

This is classic English countryside, where hedgerows divide lush fields from shady lanes, grey stone churches nestle in sleepy thatched villages, small birds sing from bushes and briars, and beech foliage and oak boughs inspire us to try our hand at poetry. Dappled light filters through the forest onto a tapestry of bluebells and history. This is Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.

Holly from Cycloan in Dorchester supplied me with maps, suggested an itinerary and rented me a Giant Boulder mountainbike. It looked macho enough to ride over an avalanche, but fortunately I never met anything so challenging. I wheeled it nervously across busy London Rd, lugged it through a gate into a field and hardly saw a car for the rest of the day. The cycling route was well signposted and rated easy. Anybody with legs could do it. I even met a disabled cyclist riding a hand-cranked recumbent bike.

The route started out along a bridle way beside the babbling Piddle. It’s just a stream, but I found it hard not to smirk whenever its name was mentioned. Undergraduate humour seemed to be a recurring theme in Dorset. A famous attraction of these parts is the Cerne Abbas Giant, an ancient figure carved into a hillside. He’s huge, naked and, um, very pleased to see people. Surely he was created by the lads during a big night on the mead several centuries ago.

East of Dorchester I rode into true Thomas Hardy territory. The thatched cottage where the poet and novelist was born and began writing is now open to the public, thanks to the National Trust. It’s simply furnished in nineteenth century style, and visitors are encouraged to sit in the great man’s bedroom, gaze out over the pretty garden and soak up the atmosphere that led Hardy to write Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. His ashes now lie in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, but his heart is buried beside the church in nearby Stinsford, where he and his family were parishioners.

The sun broke through as I bounced along forest trails and into Puddletown. ‘No puddles in Puddletown today,’ called a cheery local, giving me the impression that he’d used the line before.

Then it was a short roll down the road to Tolpuddle, where a modest (and free!) museum ensures that the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs won’t be forgotten. In 1834 six farm workers dared to discuss collective action to protect their miserable wages. They were tried on trumped up charges and transported to Australia. The outcry that followed led to their pardons, and continued as the union movement gathered unstoppable momentum. A rally held here each July attracts thousands from around the country.

My bike’s suspension was doing its job, so my backside felt up to branching off the Piddle Pedal onto the longer Ride of the Desert King. The title had nothing to do with the terrain. England’s land was as green and pleasant as ever, but now I was heading for Clouds Hill, the country retreat of T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. The little house was closed and, though sometimes open to visitors, I’d heard there’s not a lot to see inside.

A warning sign appeared by the roadside: ‘Tank Training Area’. I was approaching Bovington army camp, where Lawrence was stationed when he had his fatal motorcycle accident. Bike v. tank is unfair competition, so I turned back into the forest, following signs to the village of Moreton. Lawrence’s mortal remains were buried there, and an elderly bus party had come to visit them. His grave was unremarkable, but St Nicholas church in Moreton had to be one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen, with its unpretentious square tower and a real surprise inside.

There was no stained glass. Instead, the arched windows, point-engraved by Dorset artist Laurence Whistler, were of clear glass, letting light flood in, and allowing us to see the trees and sky beyond. Dawn French’s Vicar of Dibley would have felt right at home here, though the views may have distracted attention from even her most brilliant sermon.

In the charming Moreton tea rooms I ate field mushrooms on toast, smothered in Dorset Blue Vinny cheese sauce, while the clear-eyed Lawrence, looking remarkably like Peter O’Toole, stared from photos on the walls. Then this Desert King mounted his trusty steed and rode on with the wind at his back and canola blooming yellow by the path.

I dropped off my bike back in Dorchester, the handsome, solid county town Hardy used as a model for his fictional Casterbridge, and in the Dorset County Museum found an excellent collection of Hardy memorabilia and a replica of his study.

All in all, it had been a great day, and I’d earned a drink. Both Hardy and Lawrence were regulars at the Kings Arms Hotel, a fine old coaching inn near the museum. There was an ale on tap named after a local watercourse. I tried to keep a straight face as I ordered it:‘A pint of Piddle, please.’

The writer was assisted by Dorset and New Forest Tourism Partnership.


Getting there: Trains to Dorchester from London Waterloo take just three hours and cost from GBP17 one way.

Staying there: The Kings Arms, Dorchester, has rooms from GBP85. For other options see

Further information: Bike hire from GBP12.50 per day from Hardy’s cottage entry is GBP3.50. Dorset County Museum entry GBP6.50. For other activities, see

First published -Sun-Herald, Sydney

Leave a comment

Filed under Cycle touring, Cycling, England, Literary history, Travel, Travel- Europe