Forget flying. This is truly the year of the staycation
The plan was to go to Krakow. But then Iceland's volcanic ash cloud put paid to that. Would the green hills around Hastings make for a poor second choice? Not at all
I should be in Krakow. But geology had other plans. The cloud from Iceland stopped me getting to Poland's second city – a frustration I shared with Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel, who were all trying to attend the funeral of Poland's President Lech Kaczynski. But for me, at least, it had a silver lining. The volcano brought chaos to the world, but it also brought me to Hastings.
My new volcano-induced travel checklist is liberating. Don't bother to check-in online 24 hours before you fly. Don't worry about leaving your passport at home. Don't pack the Imodium. Don't set the alarm clock for an unearthly start. Don't allow adequate time to clear security at the airport. And above all? Don't worry about "Acts of God".
And so, it comes to pass that within two hours of leaving home, without having to submit to the indignities of modern air travel, I am standing on the edge of a sloping Sussex meadow dotted with mighty oaks. This is the most famous battlefield in English history.
English Heritage has turned the Victorian gatehouse at the back of Battle Abbey into a holiday cottage. I am staying on the field of battle where a kingdom was won and lost on 14 October 1066. Bathed in creamy spring sunshine, the view from the cottage seems bucolic. But the fate of a nation was decided here. Down there the Norman and Anglo-Saxon armies clashed, bone and sinew were slashed. Thousands died. Tonight, I will be sleeping among their ghosts.
Do battlefields ever look like they should? This one looks like English parkland. The meadow falls away to a hollow where a couple of small ponds are rippling. It is surprisingly compact – maybe eight football pitches worth. It's an easy stroll. The green baize surface is broken up by hedgerows, which glint with flashes of gold gorse. Ducks and geese patrol the ponds, a herd of cows and a solitary scrawny pony wander in the early evening sun. The last of the visitors clutching their audio guides have left and I am alone.
Strangely, almost nothing has been recovered from the site of the battle – no arrowheads, no bones or fragments of chain-mail. Only the occasional information boards planted by English Heritage offer any clue to the carnage that was wrought here. "The fighting is ferocious," says one. "Above the clash of weapons, there rise fierce battle cries and the groans of the injured and dying." The blood curdling illustrations on the board, though, are at odds with the serried ranks of daffodils gently swaying in the breeze directly in front.
The cottage is also almost too civilised for its environs. The interior is in subtle neutral shades, the furniture is also understated and designer modern, and it is lavishly equipped with appliances. The basic and not-so basic provisions (I loved the scones, jam and crème fraiche) waiting for you on arrival, are a nice touch. A more important touch is the attentiveness when the hot water packs up on Day Two; the managers are mortified and spend their weekend chivvying plumbers and electricians to fix it.
During the night, if the wraiths of fallen warriors do indeed float up to the cottage for a spot of the old paranormal activity, I am so snug I couldn't care less and sleep through like a babe.
A friend has recommended a pub in nearby Icklesham. The name itself seems to have escaped from a Russell Brand monologue – Lickle Wickle Icklesham. It has a telegenic Teletubby windmill, owned apparently by Paul McCartney. The Queens Head, also on a hilltop, has sweeping views down the Brede Valley from its gardens. It is popular with the beer crowd and won an award for best pub from Camra (the Campaign for Real Ale) last year. I can only guess that the judges did not eat here.
The pub is full and the kitchen is under pressure but that's no excuse for this kind of throwback to the worst Seventies pub grub – it's the kind of food they used to serve in a basket, though a bin would be more apt. The mushroom soup is a bland paste with the texture and appeal of wallpaper adhesive, and my minted lamb chops, surely an easy pub staple, are served up as desiccated scraps of leather on the bone. This lamb has died twice – and the second time it was murdered. I return to Battle to look over the remains of the abbey that William built under orders from the Pope to make amends for all the killing his conquest involved. Little remains of the original Romanesque church – a few stones in the ground mark out the altar, which is said to commemorate the spot where King Harold fell. There is no way of authenticating this claim, and there is also some doubt as to whether Harold was actually killed by an arrow to the eye as famously depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. No matter – all history is a fabric woven from fact and myth. And this history has become an industry.
The audio guide that takes visitors around the site is intoned by a fruity thespian voice. He asks you to begin the tour by keying in a number. "We've chosen a number that I think you will find easy to remember," he says with a barely concealed smirk. "It's 1066."
Hastings Borough Council is marketing the whole area to tourists as "1066 Country" and extends the brand to such diverse attractions as Camber Sands, the Kent and East Sussex Railway, Bodiam Castle, and the Stade fishing beach in Hastings. The Stade (which means "landing place" in Saxon) pre-dates the Norman Conquest and its tall black-tarred wooden sheds, used for storing fishing paraphernalia, are an eye-catching feature of the Hastings seafront. The Stade is still used by Europe's largest beach-launched fishing fleet. So, finding the best fish and chips should be easy.
The queue building up outside The Life Boat chippie suggests this may be the place. The couple behind me are having a domestic. I am guessing they're retired – but despite his years the man's grey hair is gelled up in spikes. Do punks retire? His partner is making no attempt to keep their quarrel private, snapping at him loudly. "What do you mean you don't want fish and chips? We moved here 10 years ago so we could eat fish and chips on the beach," she hisses. "So – now it's not good enough?" He mutters something into his collar. But she isn't listening. "Well I'm paying, so if you don't like it, fuck off."
After that – the fish and chips had better be sensational. They are. Served on traditional faux-wood-grain formica-topped tables, as they should be, the portions are not only huge but the batter (and it is the batter that matters) is crisp, crunchy and mouth filling. The shop is owned by Iranians and fittingly, here in 1066 country, it's a benign foreign invasion that is serving up the best of British.
From the shop, I see the bickering couple across the road in a bus shelter tucking into their fish and chips, using their fingers and eating out of paper. All passion spent – they are a picture of well-fed contentment.
Slowed down by the meal, I head up the beach past the gaudy amusements and arcades. I take the newly reopened East Hill Cliff Railway up to the Hastings Country Park. The Victorian "railway" is basically a large room that shuttles up and down the near vertical cliff overlooking the Stade. From the top I set off on a five-mile cliff-top walk to Fairlight. The sea below is lit up with wave-top sparklers.
On a perfect spring day this has to be one of the most glorious walks in Britain. The gorse is a flood of bright yellow colour; wild garlic flowers and primroses also add to the festival. There is a light breeze blowing in, and the blazing sun is not hot enough to become enervating. Children and dogs frolic with their families but soon the numbers thin and I am almost alone.
In the undergrowth the birds are chirping with a manic intensity – the irresistible force of life seems to be breaking out all around me after the trials of winter. I spot a blackcap, denuded of cover in the still barren branches, warbling its heart out. The grass by the side of the path rustles and a diamond-patterned adder slithers slowly at first, then more urgently as it realises it is being watched, and disappears into deeper cover.
But the great arc above is unfamiliar. It is so blue it appears to be mocking nature itself. Where is the fug from that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano? There isn't a cloud to be seen but there is something else that is unnerving me. And then it hits me – there isn't a single contrail in the huge sky.
How to get there
English Heritage (0870 333 1187; english-heritage.org.uk/holiday cottage) offers a three-night stay at South Lodge, which sleeps four, plus a cot, starting at £347.
The Life Boat, 14 East Parade (01424 420388); 1066 Country (1066.com).
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