Saturday 15th October 2005
Because of the suspension of some train services from Kew over the weekend, I had to take a roundabout route to Victoria station near where I had to join the “1066” tour – and to make sure I made the necessary and, for me, unfamiliar connections, this meant rising at 5:00 on Saturday morning. Fortunately the wait between connections was shorter than I had somewhat pessimistically estimated and I arrived at Victoria in sufficient time to indulge in a “full English breakfast” to sustain me for the day. Little did I realise then that it would have to!
The morning was chilly and very foggy but had the promise of being a fine day – which it lived up to “in spades” if that’s the correct use of that phrase. The so-called “executive-style” coach proved to be more stylish than comfortable (the pitch of the seat was literally “coach” class and, as one part of my anatomy kept reminding me, the seat itself, hard) but as there were only 22 of us we were able to spread ourselves out a bit. Not, says he hastily, that that softened the seat one whit!
Our guide, Julian, engaged by “English Heritage” specifically for this tour, was outstanding – knowledgeable, as I expected, about English History and English battles in particular, but without a hint of didacticism that, given his museum background, I hadn’t. There, I knew I’d be able to work that into a conversation one day. But what engaged all of us, I’m sure, was his enthusiasm for his subject, easy conversational style and wry sense of humour. The coach left on time at 8:45 and after negotiating his way through the horrendous traffic via Pimlico and Chelsea, the driver delivered us at Pevensey where, after a reviving cup of coffee (also, so-called) at a local pub we had a tour of Pevensey Castle.
Then off to Battle – the village that grew up close to where the battle itself was fought – rather than Hastings after which the battle is named. We arrived there at about 1:30 and, as the battle re-enactment wasn’t scheduled until 3:00, we had the choice of having lunch in the village or entering the heritage site to watch demonstrations, view the exhibits and get ourselves settled in the viewing area that had been set aside for us. Julian warned us that, although the area would be clearly marked, we might later be joined by young “Saxon” interlopers looking for a grandstand view of proceedings.
I alone opted to go and find where the viewing area was and, if necessary, stake my claim. And wasn’t I glad I did? There was an area which would accommodate 30 or so, loosely roped off with quite small signs indicating that it was reserved for the English Heritage “1066” Tour Group.
There was no seating other than on the ground. In the belief that the area would probably be sited in a strategically located spot for viewing the re-enactment, I staked my claim as close to the barrier as space and some of those young – and not so young – “Saxon” interlopers would allow.
Having done that, there was no way that I was going to leave “my spot” to get lunch. Nor was I about to seek assistance in having the area cleared – even if I had been able to find anybody who might have had anything to do with running the event! I had no intention of being put in the stocks – or whatever else might have been in store for such “heroism”.
Perhaps because of the milling crowds, only one other from the group found the area and successfully negotiated a small holding. At about 2:30, what I took to be an official of some sort made a half-hearted attempt to move the interlopers who now filled almost all of the available space. Needless to say, she failed and, as if bowing to the inevitable, took down the “reserved” signs.
English Heritage’s failure to meet an important tour “inclusion” was, in my view, totally unprofessional – a view more vociferously shared later by those in the tour group who had to find whatever vantage point they could amongst a very large crowd indeed.
That failure, even when combined with the discomfort of sitting on the somewhat uneven ground for nearly three hours, was not sufficient to spoil my enjoyment of what really was a great day.
In the hour and a half leading up to the re-enactment itself, we were entertained with demonstrations of broadsword fighting, bowmanship and falconry. Each in its own way was excellent, and the skills of the bowmen, in particular, were impressive; though I have to say that the Taronga Park Zoo falconry demonstration I watched with Carol earlier in the year, would have drawn a standing ovation at Battle.
Everyone involved in these demonstrations – and in the re-enactment – wore what we were assured was the dress of the time. Their dress – and that of any number of other “players” who just mingled with the appreciative crowd – added to the reality of the experience.
Then it was time for that re-enactment – one day after its 939th anniversary.
The scene was set by another patently knowledgeable commentator who “talked us through” the battle itself – filling in the background to it, the resources available to each of the protagonists, the topography of the battlefield and then describing what was happening at each stage.
The battle itself lasted all day and involved something of the order of 8000 men on each side. The re-enactment lasted about an hour and involving, as it did, about 200 on each side, required more than a little imagination.
That’s not a criticism, just recognition of the reality.
Similarly, given the OH&S requirements, the re-enactment could not do justice – if that’s the right word – to the bloodiness of such an encounter. Having said that, the earnest attempt to recreate (albeit in miniature) the telling moments of a battle was successful. You know you’re in England when the crowd – at the risk of being non-PC – of all shades, boos William’s troops battle-cry of “Normandie, Normandie”!
Being relatively well placed, I was able to get a few photos; but I have to say they suffer more than a little from being taken at arm’s length above my head. And yes you’re right I wasn’t game to stand up to take them.
After King Harold was despatched (though there now seems to be considerable doubt as to whether it was from an “arrer” in the eye) William was declared “the winner – again to “boos” – and the dead and dying in the field responded, miraculously, to a resurrection call.
After which the two “armies” paraded – as they would have at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne or wherever.
More boos for the Normans and cheers for the defeated Saxons. Nationalism is still alive and well and lives in England – as much as anywhere else, I suspect. But, as is the case at a concert that really engages an audience, there was a real reluctance to break the “spell’!
We spent another 45 minutes or so with Julian exploring the ruins of Battle Abbey, built by William, supposedly in atonement not only for the deaths at Battle but also for those of the bloody campaigns he led later to subjugate the Saxons.
A fitting conclusion to a day on which, for me, history wore a real and human face.
As Julian was staying in Battle to “do” Pevensey Castle and Battle Abbey for Sunday’s local tour, the Events Manager for English Heritage joined us for the coach trip back to London. I’d be surprised if, in hindsight, she wished she hadn’t. And I don’t think she helped her case by saying that when she checked the area at midday, the seats that had been ordered were in place, but that when she checked later, they had been “taken”!
In any event I had no need to comment on the debacle of the “dedicated” viewing area. My feelings were more than adequately expressed by at least three couples, one of which had come to UK specifically for this tour. Heads could – and should – roll!
Once back in London, it was a reverse three station change trip from which I arrived at my Kew home at about 9:00. A long day, but I wouldn’t have missed it for “quids”!
Sunday 16th October 2005
Today was a rest, regroup and repack day for my return to my Manchester “home” with Roger and Denise. The time in London has been just great – and I’ve still a heap of things I’d like to do when next I’m here – but there’s still plenty to be seen and done elsewhere.