May 27, 2016
It’s a Bank Holiday weekend and thoughts are turning to a day out, so we thought it a good time to take a look at the beautiful village of Lavenham in Suffolk, one of the finest “medieval villages” remaining in England.
While settlement of the village, which is about an hour and 45 minutes north-east of London by car, goes back to before Saxon times (indeed the village apparently takes its name from a Saxon thegn called Lafa) it was in the medieval period that it attained the charming character which is still so evident today.
The village was awarded its market charter in 1257 and it was from this period until about 1530 that its ‘golden years’ occurred, based on its prominent role in the wool trade (in particular the production of sought-after blue broad cloth – ‘Lavenham Blue’) and its location between London and the key ports like Kings Lynn.
It was during this period that its several guildhall were constructed and it was recorded as one of the richest parts of England with some of its most prominent families becoming extremely wealthy, like the De Vere family headed by the Earl of Oxford, and the Spring and Branch families who used their wealth to raise themselves to the nobility.
Lavenham’s decline began in the later 1500s and followed a sharp downturn in the wool trade amid greater competition from Europe. Its fortunes reached a low in the late 18th century before industrialisation in the 19th century revitalised the village somewhat (although nowhere close to the prominence and affluence it once boasted).
Today Lavenham is something of a tourist mecca, boasting an amazing collection of timber-framed buildings – more than 320 of which are listed – mostly dating from between 1450 and 1500.
Central among them is the Guildhall (pictured top), located on the market place, which dates from about 1530, and as well as hosting religious guild activities (its formal name was the Guild of Corpus Christi), has also served as a prison, workhouse, almshouse, and wool store and now houses a National Trust-run museum.
One of the most famous photographed buildings in the town is the Crooked House on High Street (pictured above right), so-called because of the dramatic lean its upper story is on.
There’s also the Little Hall, which, dating from the 14th century, was the wool hall of clothier William Causation and is now home to the Suffolk Preservation Society (open to the public over the warmer months). And among other notable homes is De Vere House, a grade I-listed property (now available to stay in) which still had elements dating back to the Middle Ages (and was the last home in the village to be owned by the Earls of Oxford).
The Church of St Peter and St Paul (pictured below) is also notable – described as “one of the finest parish churches in England”. The current version (there has apparently been a church here since Saxon times) was apparently funded by the 13th Earl of Oxford and wealthy cloth merchants including Thomas Spring III (whose coat of arms appears 32 times on the parapet) to celebrate their safe return from Battle of Bosworth Field where King Henry VII was victorious in 1485.
A couple of interesting notes to finish on. Among the residents in the late 18th century was the London-born Jane Taylor who lived in Shilling Street with her family. Jane and her sister Ann published a collection of poetry which included the poem, The Star, from which the lyrics for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star are taken.
There’s also a John Constable connection – the landscape painter was a student at the Grammar School which opened in Barn Street in 1647.
And, as you might expect in such a well-preserved location, Lavenham has also appeared on the big screen, notably De Vere House as the birthplace of Harry Potter and his mentor Albus Dumbledore.
A charming village to pass a few hours walking around (and, relax in, there’s plenty of pubs and cafes to refresh yourself at afterwards).
September 26, 2015
This striking ruin perched on the shore of Herne Bay in Kent is all that remains of a 12th century church which once stood here, itself constructed on the ruins of a Saxon monastery and, earlier still, a Roman era fort.
The site once faced the now swallowed up Isle of Thanet across a narrow waterway to the east and it was this location which made it a prime spot for the Romans, in the early to middle years of the 3rd century AD, to build one of what became known as Saxon Shore forts, constructed to watch over waterways and resist raiders from across the sea. The square fort – known as Regulbium – featured walls supported by earthen ramparts containing a range of military buildings including a headquarters building at the centre. It’s main entrance was located in the north wall.
The fort ceased to be garrisoned by regular troops by the end of the 4th century and archaeologists have found little sign of any activity there at the start of the next century.
Following the arrival of St Augustine in 597 AD and the conversion of local Saxon kings to Christianity, Egbert, the King of Kent, gave land which included Reculver (Raculf) to one Bassa for the foundation of a church or minster (this has been dated to 669 AD). A monastery was subsequently founded on the site which remained there until the 10th century after which the church, which stood roughly at what was the middle of the Roman fort and which had been enlarged during the Saxon period, became a parish church of Reculver.
Remodelled in the 12th century (from which period the towers date), it was visited by Leland in 1540 who wrote of a stone cross which stood at the entrance to the choir and was carved with painted images of Christ and the 12 Apostles (fragments of the cross are now in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral).
The encroaching sea, meanwhile, continued to move closer and closer to the northern side of the church, seriously so by the end of the 18th century when the vicar persuaded parishioners to demolish the church and build a new one at nearby Hillsborough. Thankfully, while much of the stone from the church was used in the new building, the twin west towers were left standing.
Their value as a landmark was recognised in 1809 when the ruin was bought by Trinity House as a navigation marker. They subsequently strengthened the towers’ foundations to ensure they weren’t undermined any further. Further strengthening measures took place in later years. About half of the Roman fort remains. The site is now managed by English Heritage.
Reculver is a site richly evocative of England’s past with a history going back more than 1,700 years. The remains may only be fragments of what once stood there but they nonetheless tell a myriad of stories.
WHERE: At Reculver, three miles east of Herne Bay (nearest train station is Herne Bay (four miles); WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST:Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/reculver-towers-and-roman-fort/.
August 14, 2015
A series of secret tunnels, built behind the famous White Cliffs of Dover on the orders of former British PM Winston Churchill, have opened to the public for the first time.
More than 50 volunteers along with archaeologists, engineers, mine consultants and a geologist, spent two years excavating and restoring the tunnels which, known as the Fan Bay Deep Shelter, were aimed at housing men manning gun batteries designed to prevent German ships from moving freely in the English Channel.
The shelter, which was personally inspected by Churchill in June, 1941, provided accommodation for four officers and up to 185 men in five bomb-proof chambers for use during bombardments as well as a hospital and a store room. It was originally dug by Royal Engineers from the 172nd Tunnelling Company in just 100 days.
The tunnels, which were decommissioned in the 1950s and then filled in during the 1970s, were discovered after the National Trust bought the land above in 2012. More than 100 tonnes of soil and rubble were removed during the excavation.
Specialist guides now take visitors on 45 minute, torch-lit, hard hat tours into the shelter – the largest of its kind in Dover, taking visitors down the original 125 steps into the tunnels 23 metres below the surface. Inside can be seen graffiti dating from the war which includes the names of men stationed there as well as ditties and drawings. Other personal mementoes include homemade wire hooks, a needle and thread and ammunition.
Back above ground, there are two World War I sound mirrors which were originally designed to give advance warning of approaching aircraft but which had become obsolete when radar technology was invented in 1935 (pictured in action below).
The tunnels complement those which are already open at Dover Castle (managed by English Heritage).
WHERE: Fan Bay Deep Shelter, Langdon Cliffs, Upper Road, Dover (nearest train station is Dover Priory (two miles); WHEN: Guided tours only – from 9.30am daily until 6th September – tours then on weekdays only until 30th September); COST:£10 adults/£5 children (aged 12-16) (free for National Trust members); WEBSITE: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-cliffs-dover.
PICTURE: Top – National Trust/Barry Stewart/; Bottom – National Trust/Crown Copyright.
July 3, 2015
We’ve visited Rochester before but given it’s the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta we thought it would be good to take a more in-depth look at Rochester Castle and the events that took place there after the sealing of the “Great Charter”.
Rochester Castle was first built in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings as a Norman stronghold to control the Medway and the Roman road – Watling Street – which crossed it at that point. There was a Roman-era town on the site and it’s likely the first castle – surrounded by a deep ditch and featuring walls of earth topped with timber – was built within the town’s walls – possibly on the site of the existing castle.
Work on a stone castle was started in the late 1080s by Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester (he also built the first Tower of London), and the castle precincts outer walls still largely follow the line of his original curtain walls. The keep was built by William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was granted the castle by King Henry I in 1127. It remained in the custody of the archbishops until the events of 1215.
Following the sealing of the Magna Carta in May, relations between King John and the barons soured again into outright civil war with the castle declared for the rebels. In October and November, 1215, it was held for some seven weeks by a force of knights – accounts suggest between 95 and 140 – against the forces of King John. These eventually breached the south curtain wall and after the forces of the knights – who were led by William de Albini and Reginald de Cornhill – retreated to the keep, the king ordered his sappers to work.
The miners were successful in undermining the south-west tower which collapsed along with a large section of the keep (the fat of 40 pigs were apparently used to make sure the fire in the mine was hot enough). The defenders nonetheless kept fighting, retreating further into the remains of the keep, until they were eventually forced to surrender when faced with starvation. King John’s fury at their resistance was said to be great but while some of the defenders lost their hands and feet when they were apparently lopped off on his orders after surrendering, he was convinced to spare the holdouts from being hanged on the spot and merely had them imprisoned.
The tower was later rebuilt by King John’s long ruling son, King Henry III, and you can see its distinct round shape (in contrast with the earlier, square towers) when looking at the keep today. (Incidentally, King John’s siege was the castle’s second major siege – the first had taken place in 1088 when the forces of King William II (Rufus) had besieged the castle which was then held by the rebellious Odo, Bishop of Bayeaux, who was involved in an attempt to put William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert, Duke of Normandy, on the throne in place of William (who was the second son). Odo was forced to come to terms and exiled as a result of the siege).
In the hands of the Crown after King John’s siege, the castle was again the site of a siege in 1264 – this time unsuccessful when rebels under the command of Simon de Montfort failed to take it from those of King Henry III (although the garrison was later forced to surrender following events elsewhere).
It was rebuilt and repaired a number of times, including during the reigns of King Edward III and that of King Richard II (during whose reign it was also ransacked in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381). Other kings to visit it over the years included King Henry VII and King Henry VIII.
Already much deteriorated and neglected, in 1610, King James I gave the castle to Sir Anthony Weldon whose family sold off some of the timber and stone to local builders. It survived the Civil War without incident and was used as a public pleasure garden from the 1870s onward before, in 1884, it was sold to the City of Rochester. In 1965 responsibility for its care was given to the Ministry of Public Building and Works. Current managers, English Heritage, took over the site in 1984.
The castle remains an imposing site in Rochester and the outer walls of the keep remain intact even if it’s no more than a shell. Worth the climb to the top simply to take advantage of the spectacular views of the town and cathedral below!
WHERE: Rochester Castle, Rochester, Kent – nearest train station is Rochester (half a mile); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily (until 30th September); COST:£6.20 adults/£3.90 children (aged 5-15) and concessions (free for English Heritage members); WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rochester-castle.
October 3, 2014
Located just outside the town of Dorchester in southern Dorset to the south-west of London, Maiden Castle is the largest extant Iron Age hillfort known to have been built in Britain and among the largest and most complex in all of Europe.
Featuring multiple earthen ramparts (pictured above is the ditch between two of them) – from the top of which you can see spectacular views of the surrounding countryside – and well-defended entrances, it would have once been home to several hundred people. It’s been speculated the name may come from the Celtic word “mai-dun”, meaning a great hill.
Initially built between 800 and 550 BC, the first Iron Age hillfort – built on the site of an earlier Neolithic enclosure with settlement dating back some 6000 years – was enclosed by a single rampart.
In the middle Iron Age, between 550 and 300 BC, it was extended to some 19 hectares or 50 football fields and, apparently densely populated with “round houses” which over time were organised into an increasingly regimented layout, eventually become the pre-eminent settlement in southern Dorset.
In the late Iron Age, the settlement became focused on the eastern end of the fort and with the arrival of the Romans and their establishment of the town of Dorchester (Durnovaria), it was finally abandoned.
Among the features identified within the hillfort’s precincts are well-defended and complex entrances at the western and eastern ends and a large Iron Age cemetery just outside the eastern entrance.
Discovered by Sir Mortimer, the cemetery contained more than 52 burials, some of which held the remains of males with terrible injuries. While Sir Mortimer believed it was a war cemetery created following a battle between the locals and the Roman, it is now thought to have been used as a more general cemetery over a longer period of time.
The remains of a Romano-British temple (pictured above right), dating from the late 4th century AD – about 200 years after the site was abandoned, has also been found inside the hillfort’s boundaries. It consisted of a central room surrounded by a passage with a portico open to the weather. Nearby is what is believed to have been a shrine and a two roomed building thought to have been a priest’s house. A bronze plaque depicting the goddess Minerva has been found on the site, suggesting the temple have been dedicated to her.
The site is managed by English Heritage who have an MP3 audio tour you can download from the website and play on an iPod, smart phone or MP3 player to give an extra dimension to your visit!
WHERE: Maiden Castle, two miles south of Dorchester, off A354, north of bypass or train – two miles from Dorchester South/West; WHEN: Any reasonable time in daylight hours; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/maiden-castle/
For more on Iron Age Britain, check out Barry Cunliffe’s Iron Age Britain (English Heritage).
April 11, 2014
A coastal artillery fort built on the orders of King Henry VIII in light of a threatened Catholic invasion, Walmer Castle on the Kentish coast is officially the residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.
What was a rather functional artillery platform has been embellished significantly in the years since it became the official residence of the Lord Warden in 1708, creating a comfortable home for holders of the title who have included Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the Duke of Wellington and bookseller WH Smith.
The ‘castle’, located about a two hour, 10 minute train journey from London (and then a mile walk from Walmer Station), was constructed in 1539 as one of a string of forts – others include nearby Deal Castle and the long gone Sandown Castle – designed to protect the watery stretch between Goodwin Sands and the coast known as the Downs.
Its low circular design, featuring a central ‘keep’ reached by a drawbridge and surrounded by a curtain wall with four projecting, semi-circular bastions, was influenced by the need to defend against heavy artillery and provide a platform for guns.
Initially garrisoned with ten gunners, four soldiers and two porters under the command of a captain and a lieutenant, Walmer saw little action during Tudor times but was the site of a siege during the Civil War.
Obsolete by the end of the 17th century, it was the Duke of Dorset who was the first Lord Warden (an office created in the thirteenth century to oversee the affairs of the Cinque Ports Confederation, a grouping of five ports including Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich) to use Walmer Castle as a residence, embarking on a renovation and extension of the existing structure.
Further alterations was carried out by successive Lords Warden, the most extensive being those made by the 2nd Earl Granville, Lord Warden between 1865 and 1891, who commissioned architect George Devey to oversee the additions.
The gardens, meanwhile, which are well worth visiting in their own right, were also Granville’s work as well as that of an earlier Lord Warden, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who was Lord Warden between 1792 and 1806.
The Duke of Wellington (Lord Warden between 1829 and 1852) reputedly enjoyed his time staying at the castle – he was even visited by the young Princess Victoria here in 1835 (she later stayed for a month with her family when Queen) and died here on 14th September 1852. His room can still be seen inside – the contents include the armchair he was sitting in when he died (the rooms also include a small museum dedicated to Wellington and another dedicated to William Pitt).
Not all Lords Warden enjoyed the property. Sir Winston Churchill, Lord Warden between 1941 and 1965, never stayed here but Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia and Lord Warden between 1966 and 1978, did and the Queen Mother, Lord Warden between 1978 and 2002, was a regular visitor.
The castle was opened to the public soon after responsibility for it was transferred from the War Office to the Ministry of Works in 1905. It is now under the care of English Heritage and the rooms inside are decorated as they were in the 1930s (it was WH Smith who ensured historic furnishings at Walmer could not be removed). There are even a couple of holiday cottages on site which can now be rented.
WHERE: Walmer Castle, Kingsdown Road, Deal, Kent; WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily (until 6th July); COST: Adults £7.90/Children (5-15 years) £4.70/Concession £7.10; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/walmer-castle-and-gardens/.
May 3, 2013
At roughly 56,000 hectares (about half of which is woodland), the New Forest National Park is the smallest national park in the UK. But it packs a lot into a small space and makes for great daytrip destination from London now that the sun (hopefully) is coming out.
The ‘Nova Foresta’, encompassing a coastal swathe of land located about 65 miles south-west of London, was first designated as a new hunting forest by William the Conqueror in 1079 – indeed, his won, King William II (William Rufus), died there in an apparent hunting accident in 110o (his death is marked by a memorial stone, just off the A31 near Stoney Cross, which tells the story although this is apparently not the site where he actually died).
Later a source of wood for the Royal Navy, the forest gained government protection with the passing of the New Forest Act in 1877. Most the of land is still owned by the Crown whose assets here have been managed by the Forestry Commission since 1923. The forest was designated a national park in 2005.
The journey from London takes about an hour and a half by train – Waterloo to the town of Brockenhurst (buses travel around the forest area including an open top tourist bus). While a car is useful if you want to visit several sites in a single day, traffic can get heavy, particularly if the sun is out.
A good place to start is the New Forest Visitor Centre, located in main town of Lyndhurst, which has plenty of information about the region (including a small museum) and on some terrific walks (included guided walks if you so desire).
A good short walk, starting only a couple of miles out of Lyndhurst, takes in the Knightwood Oak – reputed to be more than 600 year, it’s the largest oak in the forest and boasts a girth of more than 7.5 metres – and the Reptile Centre (inhabitants include adders, the only poisonous snake in the UK) and a walk through some stunning conifers.
One of the highlights of New Forest are the 3,000 free-roaming wild ponies – they can get rather friendly, particularly if you’re having a picnic, and you’re advised not to feed or touch them. They can be seen all over the forest including wandering through some of the villages.
Other attractions in the New Forest include the 26 miles of coastline from where you can get terrific views of the Isle of Wight across the Solent – the coastal village of Buckler’s Hard is also worth stopping by for its maritime history, and car buffs will love the Beaulieu National Motor Museum (complete with the remains of Beaulieu Abbey and the intact Palace House, built in the Abbey gatehouse and home to the Montagu family since 1538), located on land which once housed Beaulieu Abbey (really a day in itself).
There’s also plenty of outdoor activities you can take part in – everything from walking and cycling to horseriding to kayaking.
And if you do decide to stay overnight, there’s plenty of accommodation and the option of camping (designated places only) if you so wish.
For a novel about the forest and its history, check out Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest.
November 9, 2012
This spectacular 14th century moated castle in East Sussex looks every bit the medieval fortress it was built to be. Yet at the same time, Bodiam was built as a residence with the comfort of its residents in mind.
The building of the castle took place in the latter part of the 14th century when in 1385 Sir Edward Dalyngrigge – an influential knight of Sussex – decided to put to use some of the booty he had amassed fighting in France and build the castle on an elevated position overlooking the River Rother – ostensibly to help repel any French who dared to invade (a very real threat – it was only eight years before that Rye had been burned to the ground, see our earlier entry here) – but no doubt also to enhance his own status.
Having obtained royal permission to “crenellate”, Sir Edward, who had obtained the Manor of Bodiam through his wife, set about the construction of the castle which featured rather simple defences including a moat and single perimeter wall studded with four corner round towers and a massive gatehouse (which still contains an original wooden portcullis).
The castle remained in the family until the Wars of the Roses when Sir Thomas Lewknor surrendered the castle to Yorkist forces having himself being attainted for treason by King Richard III for his support of the Lancastrian cause.
But the castle returned to the family after the accession of King Henry VII, eventually passing into the hands of the Earls of Thanet before, in 1644, it was sold to one Nathaniel Powell, a supporter of the Parliamentarian forces in the Civil War, so the then owner – Sir John Tufton, the second earl and a Royalist – could pay fines levied upon him by Parliament.
It is believed that it was after this that the castle was substantially dismantled and by the mid-eighteenth century it was depicted as an ivy-clad ruin.
It then passed through numerous private hands before undergoing some restoration in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was eventually purchased by Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, in 1916. He oversaw extensive restoration work before, on his death in 1925, the property passed into the care of the National Trust. They have since continued the work.
The castle these days is a shell of its former self, but with the outer walls and towers largely intact, is one of the most picturesque in the south of England. And there’s enough of the interior layout remaining to give a good sense of how it once operated as a house and fortress.
There’s also a tea-room and gift shop on site and the Trust regularly hold events there including this and next weekend’s hawking events and the upcoming ‘medieval Christmas’.
Bodiam Castle can be a little hard to reach without a car although you can a train to a nearby station and catch a taxi from there. You can also take a steam train from Tenterden to Bodiam but this only runs on limited days (see the Kent and East Sussex Railway website – www.kesr.org.uk – for more).
October 12, 2012
One of Britain’s most significant pre-historic sites, the small village of Avebury in Wiltshire – to the west of London – sits in the midst of a stunning series of standing stones, the remains of three vast stone circles built around 2,600 BC.
A World Heritage Site, the vast outer circle of stones – which contains two smaller circles of stones and other associated stones – is around 3/4 of a mile in circumference and about 1,115 feet across the middle. It stands inside a three to four metre deep ditch which despite, the millenniums of weathering, still looks impressive to the eye.
It remains a matter of speculation what the purpose of the ditch and the standing stones was, although some have suggested there was a religious purpose in their creation.
The stone circle (pictured) is now managed by the National Trust – see their website for opening times.
Stretching away to the south-east and south-west from the stone circle are two great “avenues” of pairs of stones, known as the West Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues – perhaps the last of what were originally four avenues. West Kennet is by far the best preserved of the two.
It’s worth having a car for there are several other Neolithic sites nearby including the stunning Silbury Hill (pictured below), located almost directly south of Avebury. At around 37 metres high it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe (while you can’t access the site of the hill itself, you can get some stunning views from a carpark). Work on the hill is said to have started at about 2,400 BC but its not known conclusively when it was finished.
Further to the south (1.2 miles from Avebury village) is the West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the longest burial mounds in Britain. Dating from about 3,700 BC, remains of 36 people were placed in here soon after it was first built. The barrow is open for inspection. To the east stands The Sanctuary, once site of a double stone circle.
Back to Avebury village – which was originally founded in Anglo-Saxon times (a Romano-British settlement had stood further to the south) – and here, as well as exploring the stone circles, it’s worth taking the time to visit Avebury Manor.
The manor is the former home of Alexander Keiller, who was responsible for much of the excavation work that took place here in the early 20th century as well as the re-erection of many of the stones, and is also said to have once hosted Queen Anne for a meal. Now a National Trust property, it recently starred in the BBC series, The Manor Reborn. Check the National Trust website for opening times – an admission charge applies.
There’s also a museum, the Alexander-Keiller Museum, which was established by the man himself in 1938 in the manor’s old stable to display some of his finds (it now also includes the threshing barn), and a cafe and National Trust shop.
While it is possible to reach Avebury by public transport, a car can be a good idea to get around to the various sites – particularly if under time constraints.
August 31, 2012
This beautifully preserved medieval town on the East Sussex coast is really worth more than a daytrip – it’s a terrific place to spend a weekend!
But it was in the Middle Ages that, thanks to its position relative to France, it flourished as a port and was eventually given the distinction of being a member of the Cinque Ports Federation (the federation originally included the ports of Hastings, New Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich and was later expanded to include Rye and Winchelsea).
However, the proximity to France also meant the town had an interesting relationship with the French who conducted repeated raids including in 1339 when 52 houses and a mill were burned, and in 1377 when the town was almost completely burnt to the ground and the invaders made off with the bells of St Mary’s Church (dating from 1150, the church is certainly well worth a visit, particularly for the stunning views from the bell tower roof).
Key surviving fortifications including the 14th century The Ypres Tower (originally called Baddings Tower, this 40 foot high structure – pictured right – with three round towers is now home to half the Rye Castle Museum – the other half being in East Street) and Landgate (this was built as part of a series of walls and gates constructed after the devastating 1377 raid) were built to counter this threat and when the French raided again in 1449, they were successfully resisted.
Rye’s location – it now sits at the confluence of the Rother, Tillingham and Brede Rivers – also meant that since its earliest days, it was popular with smugglers despite government efforts to stop them (they did eventually succeed in the early 19th century thanks to customs law reforms and the establishment of a national coastguard service). Among the most famous to frequent the town was the Hawkhurst Gang, who used the Mermaid Inn in the beautiful cobbled Mermaid Street (pictured, below) as one of their bases in the area in the early 18th century (the gang was eventually captured and executed in 1749). The inn apparently may date back as far as the 12th century and has a fascinating history.
Aside from the many Tudor and Georgian homes, notable buildings include the Old Grammar School in High Street (founded in 1636), the Town Hall in Lion Street (1742) and the red brick fronted Lamb House in West Street – once home to authors Henry James and EF Benson and now owned by the National Trust. There’s also a model of the town (complete with sound and light show which gives a great overview of the town’s history) at the Rye Heritage Centre located in an old sail loft on Rye Strand Quay – a good place to visit for information and details of walks and tour options.
Not far from Rye can be seen Camber Castle, a round artillery fort (essentially a glorified gun platform) built by King Henry VIII. It’s now managed by English Heritage and can be visited on tours.
Rye is located about an hour’s journey by car from the M25 and can be reached by train from Charing Cross, London Bridge or Waterloo East or from St Pancras (via Ashford International).
May 18, 2012
Given we’re marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a look at sites of significance to her story located in London, it’s perhaps only fitting that we take a look at the nearest royal residence outside the city.
Windsor, located as close as half an hour by train from London’s Paddington station (or around 50 minutes to an hour from Waterloo), boasts plenty to see including the historic town centre, nearby Eton, great river and country walks and, of course, Legoland. But today our attention will remain on Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world.
There has been a fortress on this site since shortly after the Norman invasion when in about 1080 King William the Conqueror ordered it constructed on a ridge above the river bank as part of a series of defensive fortifications around London. The earth and timber Norman castle was gradually added to over the years – King Henry I (reigned 1100-1135), the first king to live here, added domestic quarters while King Henry II (reigned 1154-1189) built substantial royal apartments transforming the castle into a palace and began replacing the outer timber walls with stone fortifications as well as rebuilding the Norman Keep as the Round Tower (parts of which still date from this period). King Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) built upon and expanded his work.
But it was in the reign of King Edward III (1307-1327) that the castle was expanded enormously. This included the reconstruction of the lower ward including the rebuilding of the chapel, naming it St George’s (although the current chapel dates from the reign of King Edward IV – 1461-1470), and the reconstruction of the upper ward complete with apartments for him and his wife, Queen Phillipa, arranged around courtyards (although some of the work wasn’t completed until the reign of his successor, King Richard II – 1377-1399). It was also during King Edward III’s reign that the castle became the base for the Order of the Garter (which he created in 1348), a role it still fulfills.
Other works were ordered by successive Tudor monarchs including King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Queen Mary I. Parliamentary forces seized the castle during the Civil War (Oliver Cromwell did use it as his headquarters for a time) and Royalists were imprisoned here (King Charles I was in fact buried in a vault beneath St George’s Chapel after his execution having been previously imprisoned here).
The next major additions came in the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685) when the Upper Ward and State Apartments were reconstructed in baroque splendor, the latter complete with splendid murals ceiling paintings by Italian artist Antonio Verro (the murals were later destroyed but some of the ceiling paintings survive).
From the time of King William III (1689-1702), monarchs began spending more time at Hampton Court Palace but the focus returned to Windsor with King George III. He ordered a range of improvements and updates including modernising Frogmore House in the Home Park for his wife Queen Caroline (the property was subsequently used by various royals but no-one currently lives there), but many of these were stopped prematurely due to his illness. His son, King George IV, picked up where his father left off.
In the reign of Queen Victoria, Windsor became the royal family’s principal residence and was visited by heads of state including King Louis Philippe in 1844 and Emperor Napoleon III in 1855. The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, died here on 14th December, 1861.
King Edward VII (1901-1910) and King George V (1910-1936) both had a hand in redecorating the palace and the Queen’s father, King George VI (1936-1952), was living in the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park when he succeeded to the throne.
In more recent times, the castle was the home to the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret, for much of World War II. The castle suffered its greatest setback in recent times in 1992 when a serious fire broke out in the Queen’s Private Chapel which destroyed several rooms including the ceiling of St George’s Hall which dated from the reign of King George IV. Restoration works took five years to complete.
Today the Queen spends many private weekends at the castle while the court is officially in residence here for a month over the Easter period and during Ascot Week in June – it’s at this time that the Garter Day celebrations take place with the installation of new knights.
The Queen also hosts State Visits here with banquets held in St George’s Hall as well as what are known as a ‘sleep and dine’ in which high profile figures are invited to dinner with the Queen before being shown a special display of items from the Royal Library and then spending the night. The Royal Standard flies from the Round Tower when the Queen is in residence.
As well as touring the State Apartments, the Gallery, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (completed in the 1920s for Queen Mary, wife of King George V), and St George’s Chapel, visitors to the castle can experience the Changing of the Guard at 11am every day but Sundays between May and early August (and every second day after that).
WHERE: Windsor (a short walk from either Windsor Central Station or Windsor & Eton Riverside Station); WHEN: 9.45am to 5.15pm until 27th July (times vary after this date – check the website); COST: £17 an adult/£10.20 a child (under 17s – under fives free)/£15.50 concession/£44.75 family (price includes an audio tour); WEBSITE: www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/windsorcastle.
April 13, 2012
We’ve talked about the Medway town of Rochester earlier in the week as part of our Dickens series but it’s also worth talking about this town in Kent in its own right.
While Dickens’ connection with the town is a key part of the reason for its charm, this town, which dates from as far back as Roman times and remained an important centre thanks to its strategic position on the Medway, has plenty more to offer.
Foremost among its attractions are the Norman castle and cathedral. Rochester Castle has its origins in a wooden castle built soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 with the stone defences following soon after.
The tallest Norman keep in England, from which there are spectacular views, was built around 1127 on the order of its then owner, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil. It was about 90 years later, in 1215, when King John laid siege to it during the rebellion of his barons, only taking the castle after a seven week siege when his sappers undermined the south-east tower of the keep (famously it was the fat of 40 pigs which stoked the fire they laid in the tunnels under the tower). The castle was repaired and continued to be used until late medieval times when it fell into disuse and while much of the keep – the highest in England – is now ruined, it remains a stirring sight.
Rochester Cathedral, meanwhile, was first built in Saxon times (there has been a bishop here since 604) although no trace remains of this above ground. The current building, rather, dates from the Norman era – it was consecrated in 1130 in a ceremony attended by King Henry I – and was extensively added to over the following centuries with the completion of the Lady Chapel in 1492 the last major work. Among the most famous bishops here were Bishop Fisher and Bishop Ridley – both of whom died for their faith.
Strolling through the cobbled streets of this historic town, about 30 to 40 minutes from London by train, you’ll also come across the Guildhall Museum, which is housed in the 17th century guildhall and features a range of displays and exhibitions on the history of the Medway including a Dickens discovery room.
Also worth seeing is Eastgate House, the model for Dickens’ Westgate House and now the location of the Swiss chalet in which he wrote, and Restoration House – created from two medieval buildings in the 16th or 17th centuries and the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s home (see our earlier post).
One unmissable gem is the Six Poor Travellers – an atmospheric and well preserved almshouse in the High Street which dates from Elizabethan times and has an amazing backstory which you can explore as you make your way through its narrow rooms.
Part of the charm of Rochester (and for more on Rochester generally visit www.cometorochester.co.uk/visit/index.htm) lies in its close proximity to Chatham and Gillingham and here you’ll find much more to amuse and entertain including Chatham’s Historic Dockyards (see our earlier daytripper on this), Fort Amherst, Britain’s largest Napoleonic fortress, and for those who can’t get enough of Charles Dickens, Dickens World.
Just to the north of Rochester is Upnor Castle, a rare surviving Elizabethan artillery fortress built to defend the fleet at Chatham Dockyard.
April 11, 2012
And so we come to the final in our series celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of author Charles Dickens. This week we thought we’d take a look at a few of the key places you can go for a daytrip from London to find more Dickens-related sites…
• Portsmouth. Dickens was born here on 7th February, 1812, and the modest home in which this took place is now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum (www.charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk). The house featured three furnished rooms and an exhibition room with a display on Dickens’ connections with Portsmouth and memorabilia including the couch on which he died at Gad’s Hill Place. Fans from all over the world will be converged in Portsmouth later this year when the International Dickens Fellowship Bicentenary Conference 2012 is held over 9th to 14th August (www.dickensfellowship.org/Events/annual-conference-2012).
• Chatham and Rochester, Kent. Dickens spent five years of his childhood (from 1817 to 1822) living in Chatham and as a result it and the neighbouring Medway town of Rochester helped to inspire some of the characters and places in some of his most famous works. Restoration House in Rochester, for example, is believed to have been the inspiration for Satis House, where Miss Havisham lived in Great Expectations while Eastgate House (pictured) features as Westgate in both The Pickwick Papers and as the Nun’s House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Until 2004, the house served as the Charles Dickens Centre and interestingly, the Swiss chalet in which Dickens wrote was moved here in the 1960s from Gad’s Hill Place – it can be seen over the fence. The area has celebrated its connections with Dickens with an annual festival every year since 1978 – this year’s takes place on the 8th, 9th and 10th June. See www.medway.gov.uk/leisureandculture/events/dickensfestival.aspx for more. (Late addition: We neglected to mention Dickens World located at Chatham, an interactive experience which recreates nineteenth century England – you can find more about it here www.dickensworld.co.uk).
• Broadstairs, Kent. Dickens first came to stay at this seaside resort in 1837 when he was 25-years-old and already had a reputation on the rise. He repeatedly returned over the next couple of decades. The Dickens House Museum (www.dickensfellowship.org/branches/broadstairs) was once the home of Miss Mary Pearson Strong on whom much of the character of Miss Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield is believed to be based. It features a range of Dickens-related artefacts, including letters he wrote from or about Broadstairs. The Broadstairs Dickens Festival runs from 16th to 22nd June.
• Gad’s Hill Place, Higham, Kent. Dickens died here in 1870 after spending the last 13 years of his life living at the property. It’s now a school (www.gadshill.org) but the ground floor will be open to the public this summer, from 25th July to 19th August, for pre-booked tours of reception rooms and the study where he wrote Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, A Tale of Two Cities and the unfinished novel Edwin Drood. For more information on the tours, see www.dickensmuseum.com/news/gads-hill-place-to-open-to-public/.
This was the last in our series on Charles Dickens – next week we start a new series in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. For more events surrounding the Dickens celebrations both in London and elsewhere, see www.dickens2012.org.
September 16, 2011
The “city of dreaming spires”, Oxford is a delight for the student of historic architecture, boasting an impressive array of medieval and later, classically-inspired, buildings.
Only about an hour from London by train (leave from Paddington Station), Oxford was established as a town in the 9th century and rose to prominence during the medieval period as the location of a prestigious university, an institution which remains synonymous with the city today.
Major development followed the Norman Conquest the castle was constructed, the remains of which were included in a £40 million redevelopment several years ago of the area in which it stands and which now houses the Oxford Castle Unlocked exhibition which looks at some of the key figures in the castle’s past (you can also climb St George’s Tower for some great views over the city).
The university first appears in the 1100s and gradually expanded over the ensuing centuries gradually evolved to encompass the many medieval colleges which can still be seen there today.
Something of a hotbed of activity during the Reformation, Oxford saw the burning of three bishops – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer at a site marked by a memorial in Magdalen Street. Constructed in the 1840s, it was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who drew inspiration from the Eleanor Crosses King Edward I had erected in honor of his deceased wife, Eleanor of Castile, following her death in 1290.
Oxford was also the site of the headquarters of King Charles I during the English Civil War after the king was forced to leave London (the town eventually yielded to parliamentarian forces after a siege in 1646) and was later home to the court of King Charles II after he fled London during the Great Plague of 1665-66.
Canals arrived in the late 18th century and the railways followed. Industrialisation came – in particular, in the 20th century, in the form of a large car manufacturing plant at the suburb of Cowley – and with it an increasingly cosmopolitan population. But at its heart Oxford remains a student city and it’s the students that continue to provide the lively atmosphere in the city centre.
Look for Carfax Tower to get your bearings – formerly the tower of a 14th century church, this lies at the heart of the town and can be climbed for some great views over the surrounding streets. Some of the colleges are also open to the public (see noticeboards outside the colleges for times) – particularly worth visiting is Christ Church which dates from 1524 and, founded by Cardinal Wolsey, was initially known as Cardinal’s College. It features the Tom Tower, home of the bell Great Tom, which was designed by former student Sir Christopher Wren. The college, which is unique in that the college chapel is also a cathedral, is also home to the Christ Church Picture Gallery.
Other colleges of note include the beautiful Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin, it was founded in 1458 – alumni have included writers John Betjeman, CS Lewis and Oscar Wilde), All Souls (founded in 1438 with King Henry VI its co-founder), and Merton College (the oldest of Oxford’s colleges, it was founded in 1264 and is home to Mob Quadrangle, the oldest quadrangle in the university).
Other university buildings which are a must include the Radcliffe Camera – now the reading room of the Bodleian Library, this Baroque rotunda dates from 1748 and was built as a memorial to 18th century physician Dr John Radcliffe, the Sheldonian Theatre – another of Wren’s designs, it was built in the 1660s as the university’s principal assembly room, and St Mary the Virgin Church – the official church of the university, the present building partly dates from the 13th century and boasts terrific views from the tower.
Make sure you also take the time to wander through the water meadows along the River Cherwell (there are also punt rides) and walk along the River Thames, known as the Isis as it passes through Oxford. Keep an eye out also for the ‘Bridge of Sighs’, similar in design to the Venetian landmark, it spans New College Lane and joins two sections of Hertford College.
Other sites in Oxford include the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Considered of the UK’s best, the original Ashmolean was the first purpose built museum in England, opening in 1683. It now houses treasures include art and antiquities with the late ninth century Alfred Jewel, said to have been made for King Alfred the Great, among its prized objects. Other museums include the Pitt Rivers Museum which cares for the university’s collection of anthropology and world archaeology and includes exhibits brought back to Britain by explorer Captain James Cook.
Take the time also to wander through the covered market off high street which has some interesting shops selling everything from clothes to fresh food and flowers and gifts. Fans of Inspector Morse, meanwhile, may also enjoy seeing some of the sites of particular significance in the TV series – there’s an interactive online map here.
A vibrant city redolent with history, Oxford remains of England’s jewels. Perfect as a day-trip destination from London.
July 22, 2011
It’s summer and that means, fingers crossed that the weather holds, Londoners start looking for the beach. One of the easiest to access coastal resorts – just an hour on the train – is the East Sussex town of Brighton.
Its history dates back to before the Doomsday Book and by medieval times, the town – previously known as Brighthelmstone – was prosperous enough to become a target to French raiders who burnt it down during a raid in 1514.
Yet much of what we now know as Brighton dates from the late 18th century when the town was transformed into a fashionable seaside resort. But before we get to that, there’s a couple of notable survivors from earlier days worth mentioning.
First up is the 14th century St Nicholas’ Church which, although considerably altered in later years, still contains a Norman font and has several graves of interest in the churchyard including that of Captain Nicholas Tattersall who carried King Charles II to France in his boat in 1651, as well as those of Phoebe Hessel, famed for having served 17 years in the army during the 1700s disguised as a man, Sake Dene Mohomed who first brought Turkish baths to Brighton and Amon Wilds, a famed Regency architect and builder.
And for a feel of what the medieval streetscape may have been like, head to the central shopping area known as The Lanes which still follows the medieval street pattern (although the shops date from later period) and which, boasting a range of interesting shops, is well worth spending some time poking about in.
While Brighton had gradually been establishing a reputation as a sea bathing resort in the years prior to 1783, in that year the town’s profile received a valuable boost when the Prince Regent (later King George IV) visited the town. So taken with it was he that not only did he make repeat visits, he also constructed the magnificently opulent Royal Pavilion (pictured) – completed in 1822 and designed by John Nash – which still stands as one of the town’s foremost attractions.
The property, which Queen Victoria sold to the town in 1850 for the grand price of £53,000, boasts a series of exquisitely decorated chambers inspired by exotic ‘oriental’ themes. A 10 year, £10 million restoration project was completed in 1991.
Other properties in the town dating from a similar era include the Brighton Dome, which, completed in 1808, was originally the stables for the Prince Regent (back in the day when the Royal Pavilion was simply a farmhouse – in fact, it’s said that it was that fact people commented that the Prince’s horses were better accommodated than the man himself which helped spur him to build the Royal Pavilion). These days it’s the town’s main landmark entertainment venue and contains a concert hall and theatre.
Another property of the era is the Western Pavilion which feature a large Indian dome in reference to those of the Royal Pavilion and was built by Amon Henry Wilds, son of the architect Amon Wilds and a partner in his architectural practice, in 1831 as a residence. It stands next to the Gothic house built by his father, and another architect, Charles Busby, in the 1820s.
The arrival of the railway in 1841 further opened up the town to Londoners which in itself led to the construction of numerous waterfront hotels (the most famous of which is the Grand Hotel, built in 1864 and the scene of a 1984 IRA bombing aimed at killing then PM Margaret Thatcher).
The boom also saw three piers built running out off the foreshore – the Chain Pier (built in 1823 and destroyed by a storm in 1896), the West Pier (constructed in 1866, the derelict remains of which stand starkly in the waters off the town today after it was closed in 1975), and the Palace Pier (constructed in 1899, it is now hosts a lively funfair and, since 2000, has been formally known as Brighton Pier).
The late 1800s also saw the founding the Booth Museum (1874) by naturalist and collector Edward Thomas Booth (located in Dyke Road, it is now known as the Booth Museum of Natural History) and Volk’s Electric Railway which opened in 1883 and is now the ‘world’s oldest operating electric railway’, still running daily trains between Brighton Pier and Black Rock near the Marina.
Brighton, now part of the City of Brighton & Hove, remains a popular beach resort for Londoners, both for its beach and its nightlife, so on a warm day be prepared to fight the crowds.
Among the town’s other, more recent, attractions are the Sea Life Centre on the waterfront, home to more than 150 creatures including sharks and rays, the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in the city’s ‘cultural quarter’ near the Royal Pavilion, and the Brighton Fishing Museum, also located on the waterfront, it traces the story of the town’s fishing community.
Visit Brighton has a range of maps and walks to help you explore the city. Visit www.visitbrighton.com for more information.
February 8, 2011
An ancient town with a history of settlement that goes back to the Romans, St Albans is these days known not only for its Roman ruins but as the home of Britain’s longest cathedral (and one of the country’s oldest pubs!)
Settled by the Romans and known then as Verulamium, St Albans was Britain’s second largest Roman settlement after London. Destroyed in the Boadicean rebellion, of 60-61 AD, it was rebuilt but declined after the Romans withdrew in 410 before gradually regaining prominence in the later Saxon and then early medieval ages.
The town, which had been known by the Saxon name Verlamchester after the Romans left, was subsequently named St Albans after the Christian martyr Alban who was believed to be executed by the Romans sometime in the 3rd century for his faith and whose shrine was attracting increasing interest from pilgrims.
The town, which continued to attract pilgrims through the medieval period, subsequently played an important role during the Wars of the Roses – with two battle fought there – but wasn’t directly affected by the later English Civil War. These days, given its location only some 22 miles north of London, it’s easy to reach by car or rail.
As might be expected given it’s prominence during the Roman era, St Albans today boasts a plethora of Roman ruins including the excavated remains of a former theatre on the town’s outskirts (it suggested this could have had seating for as many as 7,000 spectators, most of the town’s then population) as well as what’s left of the Roman wall and an exposed hypocaust and mosaic floor now located in a purpose-built building in the middle of Verulamium Park. On the edge of the park, which covers much of what was the Roman town, there’s also a terrific museum (the Verulamium Museum) with artefacts from the period as well as reconstructed rooms.
Towering over the town is another reminder of the city’s past – the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (pictured). Completed in about 1115, it has the longest nave of any cathedral in England and also hosts St Alban’s Shrine – a rare survivor dating from 1308, it still contains some of the martyr’s remains.
The only other piece of the abbey which survives from medieval times is the Great Gatehouse which dates from the 1360s and has served, among other things, as the town gaol. The grounds around the cathedral are these days pleasant parklands -among the graves is that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury (and former Bishop of St Albans), Robert Runcie.
Other medieval survivors in the town are the Clock Tower – built between 1403-1412, it’s one of only two “curfew towers” left in the country (you can now climb it for a great view of the surrounding area), and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, believed by some to be England’s oldest surviving pub. Not far from here is Sopwell Nunnery, actually the remains of a Tudor mansion built in around 1560 by Sir Richard Lee on the site of what was a nunnery.
The town’s history is also on show in the Museum of St Albans which stands in Hatfield Road opposite the Marlborough Almshouses, built as a gift from Sarah, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough.
The tourist information centre, housed in the Georgian-era Town Hall, has a mini visitor guide which provides a walk through the town, taking in many of its historic sites – perfect if you’ve only got a day to spend there!
November 9, 2010
Once a pivotal player in ensuring the UK’s navy remained on top at sea, the Historic Dockyard in Chatham has been involved in preparing ships involved in some of history’s greatest naval engagements – everything from England’s defeats of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Located 35 miles south-east of London on the River Medway, these days the dockyard plays host to tourists rather than hundreds of craftsmen who once worked there, eager to gain an insight into its rich history (as well as two film crews for movies and TV series).
While the history of the dockyard on its present site goes back to the 1600s, most of the surviving buildings date from between 1700 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, during which time the Chatham Dockyard built and launched 125 ships including Nelson’s Victory (which can now be found at Portsmouth).
The dockyard officially closed in 1984 and is now under the care of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.
Attractions these days are many and range from the chance to ramble over historic warships permanently docked there – these include the sloop, the HMS Gannet – launched in 1878 it served as an anti-slaver and later as a training ship, the HMS Cavalier – launched in 1944, it was one of 96 emergency destroyers built during the Second World War and, having served in various places around the world until being ‘paid off’ in 1972, is now preserved as a memorial, and the last vessel built for the Royal Navy there, the Oberon class submarine HMS Ocelot – launched in 1962.
Other features include the Wooden Walls of England – an interactive walk-through looking at what life was like aboard England’s timber-hulled vessels of the mid-1700s, No 1 Smithery which now houses the maritime model collections of the National Maritime Museum and the Imperial War Museum as well as paintings and other artefacts, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s collection of historic lifeboats and The Royal Dockyard Museum which houses a large range of artefacts.
Also well worth a visit is the still working Victorian Ropery. Its curmudeonly attendants who provide a fascinating insight in what life was like for those formerly employed there and you can see how rope is still made in the 346 metre long rope house which, when constructed, was the longest brick building in Europe.
There’s also a cafe on site and a range of other odd artefacts at various locations – including the railway carriage used by Lord Kitchener in Sudan in 3 Slip – The Big Space – as well as the historic buildings of the dockyard itself.
There’s certainly more than can be seen in a day but thankfully all tickets are valid for a year.
WHERE: Chatham, Kent (nearest railway station is Chatham). For detailed driving instructions see website; WHEN: Open everyday until 12th December from 10am-4pm (check for times after that); COST: £15 an adult/£12.50 concessions/£10.50 children (aged five to 15 years)/£42.50 for a family; WEBSITE: www.thedockyard.co.uk
October 12, 2010
Last weekend, the clash of weapons could once more be heard on the field below the abbey ruins as about 350 re-enactors gathered as they do every year close to the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October and fought it out all over again (pictured above). Yes, King Harold and the English army were defeated (again!), but there’s always hope for next year!
And while you’ll now have to wait a year to see the re-enactment played out once more, given its location only an hour-and-a-half from London by train, the abbey ruins and battlefield site are a great site for a daytrip.
The abbey itself was built soon after the Battle of Hastings on what was then known as Senlac Hill and although it has been suggested Duke William of Normandy (aka William the Conqueror or William the Bastard) made a vow before the battle to build the abbey should God grant him victory, it is believed he ordered the abbey’s construction as both a memorial to the dead and a public act of penance.
The building work began within a few years of the fight with the high altar to be placed on the site where King Harold had fallen. The church was used from about 1076 onwards but was officially consecrated in 1094 in the presence of King William himself.
Quickly becoming one of the country’s wealthiest religious houses (thanks largely to gifts from the king), it housed monks of the Benedictine order until, in the mid-1500s, the monks left as part of Henry VIII’s suppression of religious houses and the property was granted to the king’s friend Sir Anthony Browne.
His descendant, the sixth Viscount Montague, later sold it to the Webster family in 1721 and it remained a family home and later also housed a school (the Battle Abbey School which still occupies part of the site). In 1976, it was bought by the government with the aid of funds from Americans.
Not too much now remains of the original abbey – some ground floor chambers once used by novices still stand in what was the dormitory range (and feature incredible vaulted ceilings), the west range around the cloister still stands (now in use as part of Battle Abbey School) and the foundations of the chapter house are still there.
The church itself is no longer existant but the site of the high altar, where King Harold died, is now marked with a memorial stone which, when we visited was laden with memorial wreathes.
Of particular significance is the Great Gatehouse – the current structure dates from 1338 and is said to be one of the finest monastic gateways still surviving in Britain. It now contains an exhibition on the abbey’s history. There’s also a cafe on the site.
Below the abbey lies the rest of the battlefield site and while remains from the battle have never been found, English Heritage provide audio guides on which events from the day are reconstructed as you follow a path around the field.
The surrounding market town of Battle – dominated by the abbey gatehouse – is also well worth a look – it’s attractions include Yesterday’s World, a museum in a 15th century Wealden Hall House which contains memorabilia about life in the Victoria era through to the 1970s. The town also lies on the 1066 Country Walk, which runs from Pevensey to Rye and retraces the steps of King William’s army after they landed in England.
WHERE: High Street, Battle, East Sussex (trains run from Charing Cross to Battle station); WHEN: 10am to 4pm to March 31st (open to 6pm from April to September) ; COST: Free for English Heritage members or £7 adults/£6 concessions/£3.50 children/£17.50 a family ; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/1066