Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Random Station: WOODMANSTERNE
London Borough of Croydon
Southern, zone 6
The village of Woodmansterne is in Surrey, but its station lies quarter of a mile inside London, which is how I've managed to randomly select it. Its hinterland covers a slice of the Chipstead Valley west of Coulsdon, and spreads uphill into the borough of Sutton. On the right day it's delightful, and yesterday was the right day. Here are 12 local delights peaking, I think you'll agree, with number nine.
Four from the London borough of Croydon
Nobody would consider building the Tattenham Corner line today, linking leafy estates and green belt, but the commuters of the Surrey fringe (and local estate agents) greatly value its presence. Woodmansterne station sits in the notch of the dry valley between Coulsdon Town and Chipstead, a single island platform accessed via a key community-linking footbridge. It also retains a ticket office opposite the entrance, despite seeing fewer passengers than every single Underground station (although I don't believe it stays open until midnight any more, as the notice outside claims).
The suburbs flanking the hills overlooking the station are more Coulsdon than Woodmansterne. Avenues of half-timbered semis climb steeply to rows of Dulux white detacheds, a bit like Metroland but with proper contours. Ocado and Asda vans ply the slopes. Brightly-blazered children caper home after school. The local nailbar is sandwiched between a bike shop and The Smugglers Inn Free House. The newspaper of choice outside the Londis on Chipstead Valley Road, always a good social indicator, is The Times.
If a website ever claims to have a definitive list of London's Most Hidden Secret Cafes, and doesn't include Mother Kitty's, they are wrong. Potential diners first have to find Rickman Hill Recreation Ground, the last greenspace in Croydon before the road goes private, then think to walk round the blind corner to where the changing rooms used to be. Lara's done up the interior as a vintage cafe and soft play space, named after the adjacent woodland, where parents can soak marshmallows in coffee while their littl'uns romp. As for the "sandwitches" offered on the chalkboard outside, I'm just about willing to believe they were a Hallowe'en treat, never erased.
The Third Surrey Pauper Lunatic Asylum opened on a hill above Coulsdon in 1883, and soon had 2000 patients. As Cane Hill Hospital it survived until the 1990s, after which the buildings were emptied, left to fall into dereliction and then either demolished or lost to arson. Today it's being reborn as Cane Hall Park, a collection of three, four and five bedroom Barratt homes, an ideal stockholder bolthole sweeping down towards Coulsdon South station. The Woodmansterne side is part of the final phase, as yet utility-free, barriered off and covered with piles of sand.
Four from the Surrey borough of Reigate and Banstead
The Midday Sun
Just beyond the rail bridge, this longstanding pub is now a lacklustre eatery from the Hungry House chain. Expect white van drinkers, chip-shovelling families, two-for-one burger Fridays and, if you come on the first Monday in July, a full-on Psychic Experience. The 166 bus used to terminate outside, and still circles round to pull in beside the little wooden shelter, like it's 1970, before continuing on its way.
What a lovely little village Woodmansterne is. Set round a crossroads on a hill, it manages to support a parish church, a primary school and, somehow, a fish and chip shop called the Codfather. It even merits two convenience stores, although the second hand golf club shop is a bit niche, and the wellness clinic has folded. I'm also willing to bet that The Woodman pub is the best local in the catchment area, especially if you're a dog. All this and three Oyster-enabled buses an hour to the proper shops, it's a true Surrey sanctuary.
Woodmansterne village sign
I particularly love the village sign, not your usual heraldic rectangle, but gouged from the wood of a felled tree trunk on the green. The villagers love their open spaces, this being a tiny corner of the much larger Woodmansterne Recreation Ground, opposite a pristine cricket ground, round the corner from the Walcountian Blues Lacrosse Club, the Old Walcountians Rugby Club and the Purley Walcountians Hockey Club. "New members of any standard are afforded a very warm welcome."
Woodmansterne Community Garden
Just past the scout hut, a little wooden gate leads into the haven of a community garden. The Residents' Association, the Women's Institute and a local aggregates company helped put it together. The shrubbery in the formal garden is currently peaking, while the pond looks like it's disgorged its frogs and the orchard awaits autumn. And I mention this not because you ought to visit, but because there are always little treasures to discover when you're out exploring.
Four from the London borough of Sutton
Mayfield Lavender Farm
Hell yes. For nine months a year this is just a big field, but in mid-June it bursts into gorgeous purple, and the cameraphones of the world descend. Only the lavender planted in the central section is on the turn at the moment, but for those who have come to walk, kneel and nestle that's sufficient for a whole gallery of carefully composed selfies. I can't top this post I wrote about the place three years ago, except to say maybe wait a couple more weeks (and if you enter via the public footpath you won't be asked to pay the £2 entrance fee). [12 photos]
Immediately across the road was The Oaks estate, now a municipal park, but originally home to the Earl of Derby. He gave his name to the most famous race at Epsom, and his estate gave its name to the second. You'll not find his mansion here now, the Second World War did for that, but its outline is marked by a white line in the grass beyond the bakehouse. Today's visitors can enjoy a stroll through the walled garden or a cooked breakfast from the Tea Rooms, although the walls of the latter are adorned with pugs in tiaras, so maybe best eat outside.
North of Woodmansterne, 79 semi-detached weatherboarded cottages were built on former lavender fields in 1920 to provide smallholdings and employment for soldiers returned from the war. Somehow they've survived, if mostly no longer used for their original purpose, although some are still occupied by families scraping a living off the land by selling logs, hiring out horses or flogging cuttings from polytunnels. Anyone who's walked London Loop section 6 will have passed by (although for the full-on oppressive Little Woodcote experience you need to take the Telegraph Track to Carshalton).
Sutton's most isolated estate is bolted onto Coulsdon, and named after the farm it replaced. Economically it's going downhill, with the Jack and Jill pub closed unexpectedly last month, and the sole shop left trading in the parade an unbranded convenience store. I headed for Big Wood in the far corner, Sutton's largest wooded area, tempted by the promise of fine views over London. But poor signposting by the entrance almost led me up the drive of a shack with dogs running free, then I met an unaccompanied staffie by the non-exit into a private sports ground, and basically I couldn't get out of Big Wood quickly enough. Mercifully Woodmansterne station was a brief stroll downhill, for a quick getaway.
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Monday, June 18, 2018During excavations for the construction of Bucklersbury House in 1954, an ancient Roman temple was uncovered. Initially archaeologists weren't quite sure what it was, but on the last day of the dig they uncovered a marble head wearing a conical cap, confirmimg that this was a temple to the god Mithras. This being the austere fifties, people queued round the block to see the remains, which were later shifted to the roadside off Queen Victoria Street. And here the temple remained, increasingly unloved, until financial company Bloomberg decided to return it to its original location, several metres beneath their new office block.
The London Mithraeum is the result, a very 21st century take on some 3rd century brickwork, tucked away in a corporate basement in the heart of the City. It opened last November, to another onslaught of visitors, but the initial rush has now died down sufficiently to allow me to walk in off the street rather than having to book ahead. The street you have to walk in off is Walbrook, between Bank and Cannon Street stations, immediately alongside the still-not-yet-finished Waterloo & City line entrance. Entry is free, which is one advantage of the landowner being a rich American corporation.
The reception desk is a tiny lectern - very much like walking into a posh restaurant - where a frothily exuberant guide was waiting to greet me. He didn't even ask if I'd pre-booked, just bubbled about the space and the museum and the art gallery, then offered me a printed guide and a Samsung tablet. He was particularly animated about the art exhibit which currently fills the ground floor space, a bunch of vinyl-plastered walls portraying portmanteau historical facades, which the blurb describes as a "uniquely immersive installation". He led me through it in fifteen seconds flat, which felt sufficient.
The chief ground floor attraction is a Roman Artefact display, incorporating 600 items uncovered during the latest rebuild. The site is particularly rich in Roman remains because it lies beside the lost river Walbrook, which kept the soil moister than most, preserving stuff better. The objects are arranged inside a single glass case, in precise correspondence to the graphic on the tablet handed over earlier. To identify each item just touch what you're interested in, then swipe to read a description of what it is. Coins, brooches, comb, pots, nails, a wooden oar, crucible and tongs, writing tablet, etc, etc. It's very clever, but time consumingly manipulative, so scanning through everything isn't really an option.
In good news, non-visitors can explore exactly the same display at case.londonmithraeum.com. In bad news, the site is optimised for users of tablets and smartphones, so laptop users may end up wishing to throttle the too-clever-by-half website designers.
When you're done, head downstairs (or there's a lift, if you prefer). The lower level is a waiting area to keep visitors semi-occupied before venturing into the Mithraeum proper. A new 'temple experience' begins every 20 minutes, so you might be waiting here for a while. Thankfully there are seats, plus a rolling archaeological commentary delivered by the ubiquitous Joanna Lumley. Three visitors at a time can use a trio of touchscreen terminals to explore more about the history of the dig, and the temple, and the religion behind it. We don't know for certain what rituals were enacted here, but we do know they were for men only, and that initiation into the cult probably involved wine, tattoos and chicken. Little changes.
At the appropriate time, expect to be ushered down some more steps and into a dark rectangular room. A walkway leads all round the perimeter, while a glass-edged platform juts over the centre of the temple at one end. Word of advice, the end of the platform is the best vantage point after the wall of eerie mist descends. Expect a lot of chanting, in Latin, rather than any attempt at explaining what it is you're looking at... and the experience is all the better for it.
Eventually, incrementally, the lights go up, and you can take a walk round the outside. Most of what you're seeing is what was actually dug up back in 1954, then relocated, then returned to whence it came. The main points of interest are a square well in one corner, and a couple of steps leading up to a raised platform where the altar used to be. I've seen more interesting Roman remains in London, to be fair, hence the necessary focus on a theatrical presentation. Indeed the majority of the group I went in with departed the temple space long before the allotted twenty minutes were up.
And the reason the London Mithraeum is a mostly virtual experience is that all the best finds were carted off to the Museum of London. Its director led the original dig, so to see the bust of Mithras in his Phrygian cap you need to visit the museum over near Barbican and head to the back of the Roman gallery. Here too are Minerva and Mercury, and a stunning marble frieze depicting Mithras slaying a bull, which would have formed a focus of worship in the temple. Two heavenly twins stand to either side, the signs of the zodiac spin round the rim, and a scorpion is making a grab for the bull's testicles. What a cult.
But closed on Mondays, sorry.
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Saturday, June 16, 2018Purple is happening.
Yesterday was the Farringdon station Open Day, an opportunity for a few fast-fingered members of the public to descend into the actual station where actual Crossrail trains will be actually running in less than six actual months time. We had to enter down the fire escape. By the time you get here, the escalators should be finished.
This is the western ticket hall. Those escalators lead down from the Thameslink ticket hall, at ground level, while behind the stairs will be a direct connection to platform 4. The diamond pattern on the sloping concrete roof is a nod to the station's close proximity to Hatton Garden. Simon Periton's diamante artwork continues around the walls.
Arriving passengers will be funnelled to the rear of the ticket hall where they'll have to double back to join the escalators down to the platform. The back wall doesn't have diamonds on it, so I fear will be the ideal location for an enormous advertising screen, which nobody heading on or off the escalators would be able to miss.
These three escalators will be the transition between the bespoke Farringdon up top, and the generic Crossrail platforms down below. All the lower levels at the central stations will be looking very much like this, so best get used to it.
This is the central concourse between the platforms. At some stations it'll go all the way along, but here at Farringdon it stops after a couple of side tunnels. Something similar happens up the far end, linking to Barbican tube station, but we weren't allowed that far along.
The central concourse is broad and clear with panelled concrete walls, including a layer above head height with spotty indentations. There are no sharp corners here, only softly contoured curves. Here at Farringdon the signage urges departing passengers to walk down to the second entrance, so that arrivals can pour out through the first.
The totem pole signage is unusual, or at least it is to us now, but expect to see it at every central Crossrail station. The elegant symmetry is perhaps an architectural nod towards classic tube stations like Gants Hill. Directions for incoming passengers are on the pole, and directions for outgoing passengers are on the arms.
And yes, the two Crossrail platforms at Farringdon won't be numbered, they'll be labelled A and B. I've seen exactly the same labelling at Custom House, again with A for eastbound and B for westbound, so I suspect this lettering of platforms may be a cross-Crossrail thing.
All the signs are up, including the roundels on the platform, a Legible London map to guide you towards the correct exit, and the "Way Out" arrows pointing to either Farringdon or Barbican. Even the line diagrams are in place, despite the fact the routes they show won't be fully operational until the end of 2019.
What really struck me was the vivid purple colour, apparently tweaked to match the precise colour of the Queen's outfit when she came to open the line. We've not seen this shade on the tube before, so it really stands out. Look at all these interchange connections that'll be possible for the first time. Look very specifically at Tottenham Court Road. Spotted it?
Intriguingly the line diagrams installed at Farringdon have failed to include the Central line connection at Tottenham Court Road. Have the designers messed up? Or is this a deliberate concealment to discourage passengers from changing trains at Tottenham Court Road and nudge them on to Bond Street instead. I suspect the latter. But be it error or white lie, it's not a good look.
And then there are the platforms. The tracks are hidden behind long glass walls, a bit like the Jubilee line on steroids. Doors will open when the trains arrive, and adverts may or may not appear on the panels inbetween. I think the Next Train Indicators are going along the top.
The platforms are very long, but we were restricted to one end. The fitting out didn't look particularly finished elsewhere, almost as if they'd got our end ready first so it would look good on Open Day. But six months should be long enough to get the remaining walls ready, and all the other stations finished, and the trains tested, and everything, probably. Just don't expect to be getting down Bond Street for an Open Day any time soon. [13 photos]
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Friday, June 15, 2018As London evolves, an increasing number of locations are being recreated as pseudo-public spaces. One of these is the 67 acre development at King's Cross, to the north of the station, where former industrial land is being transformed into a new city quarter. As part of this rebirth the development company are keen to encourage the rest of us to see the new King's Cross as a coherent whole, and to position it on our radar for future activity.
One way they're doing this is by offering a King's Cross DIY Walking Tour, which you can skim through on your smartphone (or download an out-of-date version here). I walked a circuit to see what the places chosen and locations visited might reveal about the future of life and leisure in modern London. To be fair, I think the opening paragraph pretty much gave the game away.
"King’s Cross is an extraordinary piece of London; a diverse and exciting destination with places to work, shop, be entertained and call home."1) King’s Cross Visitor Centre: Behind the closed front door of the so-called visitor centre is a mostly empty foyer, and a receptionist dressed to impress. I bet she hopes visitors have come to enquire about restaurants or property, rather than circling once round the 3D model and walking away with some free literature.
The tour suggested: "Why not grab a coffee or some lunch at Dishoom or Spiritland nextdoor?" Because I've just started a walking tour, that's why... and because a salt beef sandwich with gherkin and English mustard would set me back £9.50.
2) Lewis Cubitt Square: I was promised a piazza which, "in warmer months, hosts evening concerts, festivals and weekend markets". I got an empty rectangle, adjacent to a building site, where a naked toddler ran through the fountains chased by a dog. Despite it being June, no events are scheduled for the rest of the month.
3) Everyman on the Corner: My smartphone led me to a "bespoke-designed, 32 seat cinema", which was shut, with no information whatsoever outside to tell me what might be showing and when.
The tour suggested: "If you don't have time now, pop back and take in the latest hand-picked films from the comfort of a sofa". Of course I don't have time now, this is stop number 3 on a walking tour. Also, I never ever want to go to a cinema where it's the done thing to hail a waitress mid-film to order guacamole and a bottle of prosecco.
4) Lewis Cubitt Park: Modern developers' idea of a "park" appears to be a rectangle of turf between apartments, where those whose balconies face the wrong way can come down and sprawl in appropriate weather.
The tour suggested: "Head up to the viewing platform and take in the view." The view was of a semi-obscured lawn whose outdoor pool has been removed, a lot of towers, and a backlot with some bins. The top of the viewing platform was so quiet that a couple were making out on the decking, wholly unimpressed that an actual viewer had turned up.
5) The Global Generation Skip Garden: That's a garden full of skips, not an outdoor gymnasium of some kind. The skips are brimming with herbs and other plants, and surrounded by a collection of artfully ramshackle buildings. In one, I saw some office types watching a Powerpoint presentation about "co-creation", "fire exits" and "public realm", the poor sods.
The tour suggested: "You can sample delicious food, grown and prepared in the garden." I passed on beetroot soup and a roll for £5, and a lot of salads, but this was the most interesting location so far.
6) Platform Theatre: A niche theatre is part of the cultural offering of any upstart urban destination. This one's attached to Central St Martins nextdoor. Alas, the place was closed, with zero information out front, and it turned out the next events were two weeks away.
7) Handyside Gardens: Passing through a gate, I found a thin sliver of raised beds and play equipment where various local parents were occupying their offspring. I also found the developer's estate agent's window, flogging apartments for scary amounts per week.
The tour suggested: "The historic train shed to the right is now home to a Waitrose store, cookery school and cafe." A deliberate refocusing on commercial activity rather than heritage? That's new King's Cross pretty much summed up.
8) Wharf Road Gardens: This canalside strip, with raised grass beds, has an air of artificiality about it.
The tour suggested: "Watch this video and learn about a brand new part of the King's Cross neighbourhood." This is a new abomination in digitally delivered walking tours - the in-app video which turns out to be a lengthy plug for how fabulous living here would be. Battersea Power Station do exactly the same thing on their app, coincidentally also at stop 8.
The tour also suggested: "While you're here, kick back on the grass with an ice cream from Ruby Violet." Ruby Violet is a £3-per-scoop ice cream vendor. I'm sure it's good stuff, but King's Cross isn't for the financially challenged.
9) House of Illustration: Ah, Quentin Blake's intelligent repository of drawing-related exhibitions. It's £8.25, if you're nipping in.
10) The Lighterman: A canalside pub with a slightly prefabricated feel, and split level balconies to keep the dining crowd separate from mere drinkers. Don't expect to wander inside without being given the once-over by the door staff.
The tour suggested: "If you have time to stop for a bite on your way round, this would be a good moment." Who stops for food halfway round a hour-long walk? This tour seems obsessed with nudging visitors into a restaurant.
11) Canalside Steps: These astroturfed steps have been here ever since the N1C postcode was freshly minted. A lot of people now "take a break and watch the boats go by", many of them students from Central St Martins up top, but rightly popular with everyone else too.
12) Camley Street Natural Park: This is easily the best free thing to do round here, although it predates the King's Cross development, and some of it is currently closed. Maybe that's why the walking tour doesn't want you to visit it, merely see it from the towpath on the other side of the canal, from which there is no direct connection.
13) Gasholder No 8: Ah, the "iconic" wrought iron form of a Victorian gasholder, which the developers were forced to keep so they turned it into a park. Again "park" means a patch of grass, in this case surrounded by benches beneath a shiny canopy, but the overall effect here is pretty impressive. You could do worse than rest awhile.
14) Gasholders London: Except the real reason we've come out this far is to see some flats. The Gasholders development sees three blocks of very expensive apartments each shoehorned inside a cylindrical skeleton, indeed some are already occupied, with self-satisfied residents looking down at you from on high.
The tour suggested: First they autoplayed a minute-long video, in which some architects were quite smug, and then they directed me to the sales website in case I was wealthy enough to be able to afford one of the 145 luxury hutches.
15) The Plimsoll Building: Another shameless plug, this time for a thirteen storey "world class residential experience". Their website says "Contact us if you are interested in buying an investment property, a London pied à terre or a new build apartment you can call home", as a hint to the overall unaffordability.
16) Granary Square: We've been here already, but this time the tour focuses on the 1000 fountains. A security guard will probably be watching should you consider a mild frolic.
17) The Granary Building: Allegedly this old warehouse is "the heart of historic King's Cross", or at least that's what the developers' marketing team would like you to now believe. They have done a bloody good job of renovating it, however, and the art college inside is second to none.
18) Restaurants at Granary Square: The tour's dining obsession continues, namechecking a coffee shop, a tea shop, a bistro, and exactly the same two eateries they plugged back at stop 1. A salt beef sandwich with gherkin and English mustard still costs £9.50.
19) Coal Drops Yard: Expect Time Out and the Evening Standard to simultaneously orgasm when this place opens in October. A new shopping destination is arriving, its focus on fashion, craft and culture, with "a mix of iconic brands and artisan shops". Coal Drops Yard will be vast, and out of your price bracket, targeted more at the Putney and Kensington set, or those with a nearby penthouse to fit out. I expect it to do brilliantly.
The tour confesses: "Designed by Heatherwick Studio, the group responsible for the Olympic Cauldron and London’s new Routemaster buses." Best not mention the Garden Bridge debacle, eh?
20) Gasholders Sales Gallery: Hang on what? We're being directed out of our way, along the canal, to "discuss available apartments" in a glitzy prefab? But if you do yomp out to see it, you'll discover the Sales Gallery is now closed. How long, I wonder, since this online tour was updated?
21) KERB: Likewise, the viewing platform at the top of King's Boulevard, which the tour now urges you to climb, has long been removed. They've also got the wrong location for the twice weekly KERB streetfood market, which is now held three times a week, indeed should we be trusting anything this placemaking tour is trying to say?
22) King's Boulevard: Here we're invited to look beyond the hoardings to see Google's new groundscraper going up. There's still nothing to see.
23) NIKE Central King's Cross: The tour is now shamelessly store-dropping, in the hope that a sleek trainer shop will get your juices flowing.
The tour suggests: "Drop in to receive expert advice for the best products for your running technique and training style." Perhaps you'll walk out with an even more expensive pair, they hope.
24) Pancras Square: A single oak tree marks the entrance to a triangular courtyard with a sloping water feature, surrounded by office blocks, cafes, restaurants and a library. The walls appear to have been deliberately aligned to block out all sunlight, even in mid-June. It's very popular.
25) German Gymnasium: This is a lovely old building, sandwiched between St Pancras and King's Cross - the first purpose-built gymnasium in England. But it's now a D&D restaurant, so going inside's not really an option, especially given you've already eaten two salt beef sandwiches, a bowl of beetroot soup, a bagful of groceries from Waitrose, a £3 scoop of ice cream, plus a full-on burger lunch at the Lighterman.
26) Battle Bridge Place: Here we find IFO (Identified Flying Object), the giant birdcage which lights up in neon colours after dark. Its appearance serves only to highlight how little public art we've been served up earlier in the walk, indeed I was surprised by the overall paucity of the sculptural offering.
27) Great Northern Hotel: The curving frontage of this former railway hotel follows the line of the buried Fleet River, not that the tour mentions this. Instead it suggests you might be interested in the Manhattan-style bar and the fine dining restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk, because that's more target audience.
28) The Western Concourse: And finally, our tour ends inside the freshly-bedazzled concourse of King's Cross station. The spectacular domed roof rightly gets a mention, but the tour of course feels the need to add "a host of new shops, eateries and bars", as well as the queue-clogged tourist magnet that is Platform 9¾.
It probably only takes an hour, the King's Cross Walking Tour, assuming you don't stop to splash out along the way. It's good at leading you round an evolving part of central London, and showing you what's there. But having completed it, what struck me is that it wasn't a walk, it was a two mile-long advert by a development company which needs visitors' cash to thrive and grow. I finished with a chain of ideas for places to eat and drink, plus a sense of what living round here might be like if I had the disposable income, but little sense of joy.
In particular I thought I saw the soul of the emerging New London, a commercial environment hell bent on encouraging consumption, where the only things worth doing cost, and the only places to stop and pause are with a drink in hand. Whilst there's nothing inherently wrong with a shopping and dining experience, indeed it's what an increasing number of Londoners seem to want, King's Cross seems to be at the vanguard of squeezing out everything else until spending's all that's left.
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Thursday, June 14, 2018ENGLISH HERITAGE: Pevensey Castle
Location: Pevensey, East Sussex, BN24 5LE [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar)
Five word summary: where William the Conqueror landed
Time to allow: about an hour
When invading England in 1066, William the Soon-To-Be-Conqueror didn't land at Hastings, he landed at Pevensey Bay. At the time it wasn't the low-lying featureless coastline we see today, it was a proper wiggly bay with inlets and everything. The remains of a Roman fort existed here on a small peninsula poking out from a larger peninsula, where William built a temporary fortification before heading off to whop the English. A stone keep was built inside the Roman walls, and later surrounded by another ring of fortifications for added protection. It's big, and it looks like a proper castle, even if it's no longer particularly close to the sea.
The outer bailey, which resembles a large meadow, is fully accessible and has a public footpath running through it. Only if you walk to the far side, and cross the moat/ditch, do you reach the inner bailey where English Heritage hold sway. The lady in the hut, with the guide books and free samples of strawberry wine, was marvellously informative about the back-history of the castle, possibly because she hadn't had anyone to chat to for a while, but more likely because she was good like that.
You can either wander and look at the walls, or better, take an audio wand and listen to a full history of the place on the way round. It'd be easy to miss the steps by the gatehouse down to the dungeon, a proper miserable darkspace, currently with a flooded floor to add to the grim ambience. A so-called oubliette lurks on the other side, a far worse place to be chained up because it had no steps. Harder to miss are the deep well in the middle, various piles of enormous stone cannonballs, and the Pevensey Gun engineered hereabouts in the reign of Elizabeth I in an attempt to see off the Spanish Armada.
Stepping inside the main towers reveals another surprise - wooden floors installed when the castle was used to station US and Canadian troops during WW2. The south coast again risked being a point of invasion, so it was crucial to have soldiers keeping a watchful eye, just in case. That's why the remains of the Norman keep, long toppled, now have a pill box perched on top. The layers of history at Pevensey are legion... and you can find out more in a small exhibition inside the North Tower.
Trot up to the top, via a newly-installed wooden staircase, to get the best view. The sea is now a mile away, along a strand lined with France-facing houses and Martello towers. The intervening marshes were drained after the river was silted up, in this case deliberately, so sheep now graze where once was sea, and the railway crosses what was originally the head of the bay. It's left the village of Pevensey stranded inland too, its former existence as a port on a small promontory almost impossible to discern.
Pevensey's a charming little village, with an Early English Gothic church that's well worth popping inside. On the main street is an old court house and jail, which doubles up as a small museum in the summer months, but which alas wasn't open when I passed by. A tearoom and a couple of pubs survive, but the antique shop in the quaintest row of cottages recently faded away and is currently up for auction. All the everyday facilities are on the opposite side of the castle, in the village of Westham, so a stream of local residents can often be seen traipsing through the outer bailey between one and the other.
Extra paragraph for readers who only appreciate paragraphs about public transport: Pevensey has two railway stations. One is Pevensey and Westham, which is deep in Westham, and has all the trains. The other is Pevensey Bay, a couple of platforms on the road to the coast, which is a tumbleweed backwater with barely any service at all. It sees five trains towards Hastings every weekday, and four towards Eastbourne, and everything else rushes straight through. Not for nothing is Pevensey Bay one of the dozen least used stations in London and the South East. I timed my trip home carefully, being careful not to get trapped on the wrong side of the level crossing, and spent some time watching the sheep beyond the far fence. I hid from the sun inside the shelter, where I was intrigued to see a sticker "Presented to Pevensey Bay for Five Star Achievement in the Experience Quality Improvement Process 2010", which is good going for an unstaffed halt. I realised the train was definitely going to stop when it reached one end of the platform before the level crossing barriers had descended fully at the other. And I was the sole passenger taking advantage as we pulled away across the marshes, where the Normans landed, right on time.
English Heritage 2018: Apsley House & Wellington Arch, Eltham Palace, Kenilworth Castle, Dover Castle, Wrest Park, Down House, Carisbrooke Castle, Osborne House, Battle Abbey
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Wednesday, June 13, 2018ENGLISH HERITAGE: Battle Abbey
Location: High Street, Battle, East Sussex, TN33 0AD [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar)
Four word summary: 1066 and all that
Time to allow: at least a couple of hours
If Battle Abbey doesn't sound too thrilling, English Heritage have another title for the place - 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield. The most important battle in English history took place here, in the most iconic of years, and you can wander at will across the hill where it all happened. [8 photos]
First off, Hastings is five miles away. The town which grew up where the battle actually took place is called Battle, named after the abbey William the Conqueror founded on the site of his victory. And Battle's lovely, a quaint Sussex town with rising high street, tearooms and quirky shops, if that's your thing. The abbey gatehouse dominates the town centre, with a broad welcoming arch beneath, and maybe a coach party or two streaming through. English Heritage will divest you of your entrance money in the gift shop beyond.
This is a strange site, because at its heart is a fully operational independent school. Battle Abbey School has occupied the Abbot's House since 1912, and these days 360 pupils in smart maroon blazers can be seen walking to lessons, having a kickabout or generally chatting in clusters. I imagine history field trips are easy to organise, for one particular topic at least. Visitors should try ignore the school's presence (unless it's the summer holidays, in which case they may be allowed on a guided tour of the main hall).
The gatehouse itself has been recently refurbished, opening up the upper levels for the first time. Take the vertiginous spiral staircase to the exhibition floors, which are perhaps less enthralling than they ought to be, then clutch the rope handrails and climb further to the roof. The top of the tower is an exhilarating spot, affording an excellent view over the High Street and fields to the north, but alas the main battlefield is shielded by the school and a line of trees.
To one side is the newish Visitor Centre, with the cafe most prominent on the upper floor, and all the history tucked down below. I did consider giving the introductory film a miss, but actually it's very good, with an informative commentary from David Starkey excellent at explaining how and why the day's battle panned out. The lengthy stalemate on Senlac Hill ended only after the Normans pretended to run away, for the second time, and the English broke ranks to charge after them... and were mercilessly cut down.
Next it's time for the battlefield walk (or the accessible shortcut along the terrace if you can't tackle steps, or if the field below is a bit of mudbath). A series of wooden soldiers are dotted along the path, which weaves down to the lily pond at the foot of the hill, then back up the grass on the far side. At present the foxgloves provide a super splash of summer, and the long grass runs deep, covering up the worst of the sheep droppings. There are a lot of sheep droppings.
Anywhere else these 100 acres might be just another patch of English countryside. Instead, picture a Norman army on the attack, and the English holding firm at the top of the slope, and the entire hillside covered with seven thousand bodies after a day of carnage. Had Harold taken up position elsewhere, or the flanks of the hill been more steep, or the stream a little wider, you might not be reading this today. This is landscape dictating history, big time.
The spot where Harold fell, arrowed or otherwise, was memorialised as the high altar of a Benedictine abbey. Apparently King William identified the location himself, so it might well be correct, except that the entire summit of the hill was levelled to make building easier, so the precise location is probably a few metres above ground level. Only a few of the foundations of the abbey remain, with the site of the high altar marked by a stone slab, which tourists cluster round to get their photo taken.
Thankfully a fair sized chunk of ruined monastery exists alongside. At first glance the upstairs dormitory looks like it'll be the most impressive, but that turns out to be long and empty, and the real treasure is the gloomier Novice's Chamber underneath with a perfect vaulted ceiling. Other structures to look out for, generally of later provenance, are a precinct wall, a dairy, a not overly-exciting walled garden, and an impressively oppressive icehouse.
There are more imposing historical sites than 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield. Essentially it's a field below some ruins and a school on a hill. But in terms of what it represents, and how it explains our island story, few locations come close. As another memorial tells it, "this stone has been set in this place to commemorate the fusion of the English and Norman peoples which resulted from the great battle fought here in 1066". Visiting the site reminds us we are a mongrel conquered nation, now proud, but by no means as pure and perfect as many would like to believe.
From 4 June until 24 August, Southeastern are running a special off-peak offer to 13 favoured destinations in East Sussex and Kent. London to Battle is only £20, the same fare as to Hastings, Whitstable, Margate, Broadstairs, Ramsgate and Canterbury. Meanwhile Rochester and Chatham are £5 less, and Sandwich, Deal, Dover and Folkestone £5 more. Check carefully before you book, because my trip was cheaper at the normal price, with a railcard. But there are some cracking summertime destinations on that list, of which Battle is just one.
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