Guide to East Sussex: 1066 Country

Herstmonceux Castle. Credit: Creative Commons
Herstmonceux Castle. Credit: Creative Commons

1066 country, the corner of East Sussex where a battle famously reshaped the nation, boasts a classically beautiful English landscape infused with an epic sense of history

When you are surrounded by countryside and coastal reaches so abundant with the historical evidence of the past thousand years, it’s impossible to imagine how this island may have evolved had Harold Godwinson, later to become Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king, won a resounding victory at the battle of Hastings on the 14 October 1066, a date since etched into the national consciousness.A landscape of moated castles, steam railways and seaside towns with pleasure piers and steep-cobbled streets, this is 1066 country. Scenes overlayed through the passing centuries that today survive in composite to create the archetypal image of England. An England which, nearly a millennium ago, had its fate decided here in this beautiful coastal pocket of East Sussex, where an invasion force successfully landed on these shores and won a famous victory, forged a new nation and forever changed the course of this island’s history.

As it was, the day and the crown belonged to William, Duke of Normandy.

It was doubtless, in his view, just compensation. Firstly, for the broken oath of fealty made to him by Harold two years earlier, and secondly, for allegedly being promised the throne by the previous king, Edward the Confessor as he had no heir.

Thankfully the area today, ringing with the history of events born from perceived betrayals and false promises, never disappoints.

It offers its visitors a myriad of famous historic sites and crumbling fairytale ruins of ancient castles. Immaculate country houses set in Arcadian gardens are scattered across a backdrop of rolling fields and woodlands intersected with steep-banked lanes that weave their way through tiny hamlets and charming villages. To the south lies the region’s coastal stretch, encompassing the towns of Bexhill, Hastings and Rye, cradled to the west by the chalky bolster of the South Downs. This is soon to become a national park and bracing walks along gorse-lined ridges provide sweeping sea views to rival those of the buzzards and sparrow-hawks riding lazy circles in the thermals above.

Along the coast, William made Hastings his base of operations before marching his army inland. Seventeen days later he finally encountered the serried ranks of Harold’s Anglo-Saxons commanding the ridge of Senlac Hill. It was here that Harold so famously met his demise, allegedly shot in the eye by a Norman arrow. It is also here that ruins still survive of the Abbey that William erected in thanks to God on the site of his most famous victory, the high-altar said to be positioned above the very spot where Harold fell. Today, the thriving rural town is known simply as Battle. Its mainly Georgian high-street offers a wealth of shops, pubs and restaurants and runs down to a square in front of the Abbey, now managed by English Heritage.Most of us will dimly remember, from history classes that may seem as distant as the epic events which unfolded here, Hastings was in fact neither the location where Harold and William’s forces met nor where the invading Norman army landed, their beachhead being some 12 miles west at Pevensey Bay. Today, the village of Pevensey makes for a charming visit after you have roamed the ruins of Pevensey Castle, originally a fort dating from the Roman era, improved with a new gateway and inner bailey by Robert de Mortain, William’s half-brother. Once set against the waters of the Channel and reinstated 500 years later for defence against the Spanish Armada, its picturesque ivy-covered walls now stand on a prominent headland half a mile back from the retreated sea.

Although Hastings may not have been the actual site of conflict, its history is no less rich and fascinating. This Victorian seaside town provides visitors with a profusion of simple pleasures, from fish-and-chip shops to a beach complete with a handsome pier proclaimed ‘peerless’ in the pun that hyped its opening in 1872.

The Old Town quarter, east of the pier, is an area with a somewhat Bohemian air. It is dotted with a plethora of tiny shops selling antiques, second-hand curios and vintage treasures along picturesquely winding streets and paved passageways. These streets have made a broader impact recently after forming the backdrop for the popular TV drama Foyle’s War.

The shingle beach here, known as The Stade (an old Saxon term meaning ‘landing place’), has a character all of its own. Here the candy-striped deckchairs are replaced by the last boats of what remains the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in Europe.

A fleet has put out to sea from here everyday for the last thousand years, bringing back a delicious sustainable catch ranging from crab to Dover sole. Much of this is sold immediately from beachfront stalls centred around the unique net huts whose three-storey wooden-boarded sides provide the beach’s defining characteristic.

Include a visit to the fascinating catacombs of The Smuggler’s Caves, along with the town’s Shipwreck and Coastal Heritage Centre, which offers intriguing exhibits and accounts of sunken ships dating from Roman times to the Second World War.Also, bear in mind that one of the best times to visit Hastings is during the town’s September food and wine festival, when the fruits of thesea can be appreciated, too.

As a town that fuses an ancient sea-faring past with the classic attractions of the British seaside, Hasting proves the perfect jumping-in point for exploring the rest of this coastal stretch. To the west lies Bexhill-on-Sea, a town that remains the embodiment of an elegant Victorian seafront resort.

The crowning glory of its shoreline is the De La Warr Pavilion, a grade-one listed modernist masterpiece of the Art Deco era. Rendered in ocean-going curves of glass behind tiers of balconies, the building is now a centre for the contemporary arts, housing gallery spaces and terrace cafes as well as hosting concerts by musicians from across the globe.

To the other side of Hastings, in complete contrast, lies the picture-perfect medieval fishing port of Rye. Now fed by river from the retreated sea, Rye’s maritime maze of steep, cobbled streets flanked by a stunning mixed architecture of Georgian and half-timbered Tudor façades have scarcely changed in centuries.

You can easily imagine the lives of the many literary residents who for a while called this town home. From Edith Wharton and even H G Wells, to possibly Rye’s most celebrated expatriate, the American author Henry James, who wrote Wings Of A Dove and The Golden Bowl during his time living in Lamb House, the stunning 18th-century property still to be found at the top of West Street.

It’s easy to lose hours roaming around the gradients of Rye beguiled by its natural charm. However, when the hill climbing finally takes its toll the perfect antidote lies just a couple of miles away at nearby Camber Sands. Here the cobbles and shingle that define the beaches of the south-east coast finally give way to a beautiful broad tract of unspoilt sandy beach and sheltering dunes.

Beguiling as this coast may be, neither the region’s beauty or its history diminishes as you journey inland. While Rye may have had its adopted son in Henry James, one of the country’s most passionately patriotic literary exponents also made his home in the countryside of this special part of East Sussex, where he composed this most appropriate piece of poetry:

England’s on the anvil – hear the hammers ring –
Clanging from the Severn to the Tyne!
Never was a blacksmith like our Norman King,
England’s being hammered, hammered, hammered into line

So goes the first verse of The Anvil, a poem in praise of the forging of a unified English nation under the governance of William The Conqueror, written by an author born nearly 800 years later, in 1865 – Rudyard Kipling. His family home of Bateman’s, situated here just outside the delightful village of Burwash, is now owned by the National Trust and remains the essence of the pastoral idyll safely hidden at the heart of the Empire.

Another example of a truly spectacular moated castle can be found at Herstmonceux, situated just few miles north west of Hastings. Constructed in 1441, Herstmonceux Castle became the temporary home to the Royal Greenwich Observatory shortly after the Second World War in a bid to avoid London’s increasing light pollution. The observatory moved again, this time to Cambridge in 1990, yet the legacy of itssix working telescopes survives, with three still open for guided evening observations.The perfect solution to enjoying the countryside at the heart of this region, in a manner that Kipling would surely have approved, is a journey on the Kent and Sussex Steam Railway. As the country’s finest example of a light rural railway, you can even dine during your journey in restored Pullman Cars, drinking in the view through a gentle puff of steam as the line wends through the unspoilt Rother Valley to terminate at Bodiam, the location of one of England’s true ‘fairytale’ castles. Bodiam Castle, with its beautifully preserved and spectacularly turreted quadrangular walls, built in 1385 and still entirely surrounded by a broad moat, provides an image that has become the personification of an English medieval castle.

With a 26-inch Thompson reflector telescope such as the one housed at Herstmonceux, you wonder if Harold would have been able to see what was in store for this island, long before that fateful arrow found its mark in his eye. But it is impossible to imagine how different 1066 Country would have been, had the tables been so easily turned on that momentous day.

One thing, however, that would doubtless have remained the same is the timeless beauty of this rural landscape – but whether this region would still contain one of its most recent Gallic-influenced attractions, the profusion of small vineyards that have sprung up in recent years among the hop fields, we can only guess.