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. http://www.hastingsjack.co.uk
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 thewhitehousehastings.co.uk.
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 visit1066country.com
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney