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 perfectvaulted 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.