4. In the Footsteps of 1066
We said a reluctant goodbye to Canterbury and started the day's adventures which were mind blowing. First on our list of stops was Dover Castle. Dover Castle was the first of our English Heritage sites and like the big dork that I am I was super excited to pick up our Overseas Visitors Pass. The pass we chose would give us free access to over 100 English Heritage Sites for 16 days. We intended to make good use of this card, since we put ourselves on a strict budget and English Heritage also happens to be the stewards of so many amazing historic places we already planned on visiting.
Dover Castle sits strategically on the white chalk cliffs overlooking the English Channel. Although there may have been an Iron Age fort on the site, what we know for sure is the Roman's came to Britain in AD 43 and sometime in the first century built a lighthouse or Pharos at the heart of the present Dover Castle. Amazingly this lighthouse still stands- and you can touch it! Being from a small town in California that wasn't founded until 1913 my mind is blown any time I've had the opportunity to be in the presence of or touch such an ancient structure. I'm always drawn to putting my hands on ancient things. I want to touch the same stone that someone else touched a millennia ago, so we went right up to the Pharos and laid our palms on it. I looked up at the towering octagonal structure and felt the rough stone under my fingers. The bottom 4 layers are the original Roman Pharos, with the top of the structure being an early 15th century restoration.
Next to the ancient lighthouse is a Saxon church, St. Mary in Castro, dated to AD 1000 which sits on the site of an even earlier church. The current structure, still serving the local community and Dover Garrison was heavily restored in the 19th century after being allowed to fall into decay over it's centuries of use. It's hard to imagine this building being just a shell when you look at the intricate mosaic tile work, modern day pews and bright stained glass windows. The day was so bright and sunny that the colors in the stained glass windows were blindingly vibrant against the stonework. A beautifully colored stained glass window can entrance you and we spent a good bit of time just staring up at them.
We left the church and walked up the 13th century earth bank to look over the town of Dover below. Unfortunately for us it was a really hazy day so we couldn't see France, but on a clear day you can see Cap Blanc Nez, a chalk cliff located between Calais and Boulogne in France. It was a hot and windy Bank Holiday Monday and while the castle was busy, we were alone leaning on the stone curtain wall. It was peaceful up there and I was reluctant to leave that area but also that Great tower was beckoning.
Seven days after William the Conqueror prevailed at the Battle of Hastings he arrived at Dover and burned the town to the ground (a little excessive don't you think, Great Grandaddy?). He remained in Dover for 8 days and added to the fortifications at Dover Castle before moving on to Canterbury. The majority of what we see of today's Dover Castle is actually not from the time of William the Conqueror though, we owe his great grandson Henry II (yes, the same Henry from the previous post, responsible for the death of Thomas a Becket) for what we saw before us. If you enter the Castle bailey from the south like we did you walk through the barbican of the Palace Gate. Before you is the square magnificence of the Great Tower. Built in a style reminiscent of The White Tower at the Tower of London, it's a nod to Henry's Norman heritage. The tower is a lofty building that dominates everything around it. We entered just across from Arthur's Hall which leads you past a bread oven and into the main storerooms which are currently set up as kitchens. We immediately went up a spiral staircase to the roof of the Tower. Let me tell you, those stairs were brutal! They just kept going, up and up! I think my heart rate was well over the optimum rate- not to mention the broken toe! Going up wasn't too bad but coming down was a wee bit of private torture. I had to step aside a lot to let the people behind us pass. I also felt the need to announce to each person I let pass us, that I had a broken toe- my ego wouldn't let them go along without knowing that I had a reason to hobble like a centenarian. Once at the top, we had lovely 360 degree views of the surrounding area but my goodness it was windy! I can't even imagine what it's like on a stormy day up there.
Confession time and I blame it on jetlag- somwhere up on that roof we lost our wits and didn't see the rest of the keep. Eeeeee, yes I said it! We walked back down the spiral staircase without realizing that you can see the other floors of the tower. How on earth we missed something as big as that, I just don't know. Seriously, I blame it on hunger, sleep deprivation, and also my excitement about our next destination. I think we were in such a hurry to both eat, and get to the Battlefield at Hastings that our brains just stopped seeing the things at Dover Castle. Sorry Dover Castle, I didn't give you your due respect! Whoops!
We bid Dover Castle adieu and drove down into the town itself. We parked in a lot behind St. Mary's Church and walked to the waterfront. On our way to the waterfront we tried to eat at The Eight Bells but were turned away as they had closed the kitchens to accommodate a very large tour group who had come in just before us. Don't tell a hungry lady that she can't eat, she'll delete all photos of your pub and surrounding areas in a moment of hangry rage, that *might* have happened and it *might* be the reason why I don't have photos from the town of Dover. We ended up eating at the Waterfront Cafe, which was just okay, but had such a lovey view. I think I'm giving the impression that I didn't like Dover or was somehow unimpressed but really I think it was just extreme tiredness. Also my broken toe was so angry at this point- all of the walking around and stair climbing at Dover Castle had me really distracted. I wanted to save my little toe for Hastings, so I was reticent to explore Dover too much. Poor Dover was sacrificed so that I could still have a toe to walk around Hastings on.
We got back on the road for what should have been a 90 minute drive from Dover to the town of Battle where the battlefield at Hastings is located. Spoiler alert: the Battle of Hastings was not fought in Hastings but 7 miles away where the town of Battle sprung up around the Abbey and battlefield. We punched our destination in our GPS unit and hit the road. I got the brilliant idea to veer off the route the GPS had chosen for us and take the scenic route posted on signs on the road. I learned years ago on a trip to Ireland to be weary of the scenic route, but apparently I have amnesia because we did it. The A259, while lovely to look at, was a nightmare. Again, I conveniently forgot that it was a Bank Holiday Monday and that the entire population of England decided to come down to the Sussex coast for a day at the beach! The traffic was truly terrible. Stop and go for almost the entire way. Our trusty GPS informed us that we had several spots on our route that were highlighted "red" meaning stopped or heavy traffic. Do you know what the cause of this insane traffic was? A crosswalk. One solitary crosswalk caused nearly 10 miles of stopped traffic that inched along. We finally got to the seaside town of Dymchurch and saw the instrument of our torture. Waves of beach goers crossed the street in herds, with no breaks for cars to get through. It was maddening. Modern life breaking through our 1066 quest and not helping my impatience to get to Battle.
After 3 hours, we finally made it to Battle! I truly could barely contain my excitement by finally being able to see the battlefield where history was made!
14 October 1066 and William, Duke of Normany is advancing toward King Harold and his exhausted army. Harold and his men had just fought off the advances of the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, killing him and sending his defeated army back to Norway. William had landed on English shores 2 weeks earlier, at a very opportune time- Harold was still in the North and had to hastily get his army south. Harold's men, fresh off a battle and a grueling 190 mile march south, met William's invading army of experienced cavalry and bowmen. Harold's army had well trained troops with terrifying two-handed battleaxes, but William had crossbows and mounted soldiers, with the benefit of rest.
With a toot of the horn the battle commenced at 9am, both armies in sight of each other. The English appeared to have the advantage over the Normans, their camp was at the top of a ridge (where the Abbey now stands) which the Normans would have to climb, facing the raining arrows of Harold's bowmen. The English stood behind a shield wall, shoulder to shoulder with their backs to dense forest. All they needed to do was stand their ground and let the arrows do their job on the invading army. So, what happened to change their advantage? Some of William's men, thinking he had been killed began to retreat. The English decided to break ranks and chase the fleeing men. This gave William a chance to successfully counter attack and begin to cut down some of the English. Apparently this became a tactic that day- pretend to flee to draw the English out and then re-group to attack.
The English stood their ground for 9 hours after the battle began, until dusk fell and William went in for one final attack. King Harold was killed in this final assault, reportedly with an arrow through his eye that pierced his brain. Leaderless, his remaining men fled and were cut down by the Norman army. A victorious William ordered that an Abbey be built on the site of his conquest to both mark the triumphant ocassion but also as penance for the blood that was spilt. Tradition holds that the high altar was built over the spot where King Harold was slain. This was the first place I sought out.
Battle Abbey now sits in ruin, (thanks to, you guessed it, Henry VIII) so it's layout wasn't immediately recognizable. I had no idea where to start to find the high altar so instead we started with the battlefield itself. I can't fully explain what it felt like to stand there and look upon such an important place, just a few months shy of 952 years later. Almost a thousand years my friends- try to wrap your head around that!! It's so amazing that all of this information has survived almost a millenia and this California girl can fly 5000 miles and stand there staring at it.
I have conflicting feelings about William the Conqueror. He was the catalyst for so much change in the Church, aristocracy, culture and language that affects not only the English but the Western world to this day, but he was also an aggressive invader with no legal claim to the throne who ended native Anglo-Saxon rule. He forged ties to France (still a close English ally), while severing England's ties to Scandanavia. He ordered the completion of the Domesday Book, a thorough survey of 11th century England- invaluable to modern historians and historical economists. Oh, and he was also my 27th Great Grandfather, sooo I wouldn't be here if he hadn't invaded dear old Blighty. I've got a personal stake in his victory over King Harold. Part of me was standing there looking out at the battlefield rooting for the English and then I had to remind myself that in my world the results of that day were the preferred outcome.
Daniel and I have discussed how strange it was to look out over this tranquil field with countryside as far as the eye could see, knowing that it was the site of such a bloody and historic battle. I'm not sure what I was expecting to see, it is a field after all so what else would it look like? I do know that I wasn't expecting to see sheep roaming freely over the battlefield. I think that is what made it kind of surreal for me. It was such a pastoral scene, so peaceful. Seeing as the Abbey was built as part of William's atonement for the violence and death that day, I think that helped with the feeling of peace- knowing that it was transformed into a holy place, meant to help those souls find rest.
We left the field in that moment to explore the ruins of the Abbey. I was still on a quest to find the high altar and burial place of King Harold. We entered through the Novices' Chamber (video can be found on my Instagram profile @cheerupoldbean), with beautiful vaulted ceilings. It was so peaceful standing in that room. You could hear the birdsong clearly and a subtle breeze was moving the ivy that had grown through some of the empty windows. We moved along up some stairs to another room. The Common Room looks similar to the Novices' Chamber. Same beautiful vaulted ceilings and Sussex marble columns greet you in the Common Room.
Then we made our way to the vast dormitory on the second level (or First Floor in England. In the UK the floor at ground level is called the Ground Floor, which we in the US would call the First Floor. So, what we in the US would call the Second Story or Second Floor is called the First Floor in England.) What was once a room full of beds and warm fires is now devoid of a roof- and where there were once tiles there is now gravel crunching under your feet. It's eerie and a bit sad to stand in this exposed space thinking back to it's original purpose, so long gone you can't even hear the echoes.
We left that space because we spied the most unexpected treat below- an ice cream vender. Yep, there was a lovely ice cream vender right there on the grounds of Battle Abbey under the shade of a big tree. Ice cream is one of my favorite things in life which I deny myself, except for special occasions AND vacation! I won't say no to ice cream while on vacation. Extremely pleased with my ice cream choice we walked off towards the monument that I had been seeking all day. Finally before us was the marker erected in 1903 to mark the spot where the high altar once stood, which also marks the spot where King Harold was slain. You see, before this moment, I didn't know the Abbey itself no longer existed. I was still looking for the ruined building, searching for the high altar to still be intact- so I was taken aback as we marched through the grass, with ice cream in hand to see this monument out in the open with no clear sign that the Abbey had once stood there. Oh, but wait... What's this? That isn't the monument marking the spot where Harold was slain? Oh yes, friends I only found out AFTER I'd gotten home that I had walked past the stone plaque marking the spot where King Harold fell. I blame the ice cream lady! When I found out what the stone actually looked like and realized that it was nothing like the monument I had seen, I studied photos of it and noticed the tree that the ice cream lady had been under. It's very near the unassuming plaque on the ground that isn't too dissimilar to the sandy colored dirt around it. Walking to her detoured us away from the spot!! And not only that, I'd stopped to take a photo of our ice cream cones and just peeking out behind Daniel's cone is THE PLAQUE. Moral of this story...don't eat ice cream- it is sent to distract you from what is important in life, lol! So, you scrumptious Magnum bar are the reason I walked right past the very thing I had come to see, but you were delicious so I forgive you. (Actually I'm lying, I'm still not over it).
Next on our list before we left Battle Abbey to find a place to stay for the night was to head back down to the battlefield. By this point my toe was in agony and I was limping pretty badly. I knew I didn't have it in me to walk the battlefield path that circles the perimeter of the field. I can't tell you how disappointed I was in that moment (remember I didn't know I'd walked past the Harold plaque yet, I still thought the French monument erected in 1903 was what I was after, and yes, I thought it was weird that it was erected in 1903- I'd just assumed it had replaced an earlier marker). I had wanted to walk that perimeter battlefield path so badly- for on that pathway stand wooden sculptures of Norman and English soldiers. These life sized sculptures are amazing to see in person. I knew I couldn't walk the entire path but I couldn't leave without having seen at least one up close and personal! Through the fence we went, dodging piles of sheep dung and then even the sheep themselves to get to the Norman bowman kneeling in the field. There was an awful lot of limping involved to see this and internal swearing, both at the pain and the fact that it was hindering me from doing something I came so far to do. Sometimes you just have to admit defeat though. I was content with my bowman and resigned to the situation. And ready for a bath...in a deep bathtub...with oils...and a chocolate bar.