Tag Archives: Sussex

Route 1066

Pevensey high street at dawn, viewed through the gates of the old ruined castle

Today in case you didn’t have it marked on your calendar, is the 946th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, that seminal point in English history when the French Duke William II of Normandy defeated King Harold II in a bloody battle on Senlac Hill here in Sussex and, as William the Conqueror, claimed the English throne for himself. It was also the last successful invasion of Britain.

Although the battle became known to history as the Battle of Hastings the actual fighting took place about six miles inland near a town that is called, rather appropriately, Battle. One of the many nice things I like about cycling around here is the easy proximity you have to all the gaudy old knights-in-armour history that Britain has so much of, and indeed one of my favourite early morning loops takes me along what I like to think of as Route 1066. I start off heading west along the coast over to Bexhill and then across the marshes to the ruined Roman Age fortress at Pevensey where William assembled his army after he landed, on the 28th of September 1066.

It was a great spot for a landing, for this was a wild and lonely coast of tidal marshes and swampy streams and Pevensey itself in those days was an island (the suffix ‘ey’ means ‘island’ in Old Norse). The Roman ruins – which were ruins even in William’s time – provided some means of security while William marshalled his troops and prepared them for the boggy inland march to confront Harolds hastily assembled forces somewhere up in the weald.

Although the sea has long since retreated from this stretch of the Sussex coast, it is pleasingly easy to imagine the landscape as it must have been in those days, a shallow inlet surrounded by tidal marsh with the low, irregular line of hills rising off to the north. This old geography never fails to intrigue me, as I pedal across here, thinking that all this was a few metres deep when William sailed his armada in here, imagining the voices in the great primal stillness of the 11th century coast and picturing the ancient fortress as a ruin on an island.

After I touch base with the ruined castle I head inland, following on my bicycle a similar route to that which William’s mounted knights and foot soldiers took up towards the wooded heights where Harold’s army was waiting. There is a footpath you can follow that better approximates the route. It is a very pretty, well-marked hike, rambling fifteen miles from Pevensey Castle across country to Senlac Hill, and the imposing 11th century Battle Abbey that William caused to be built on the battlefield to commemorate the thousands of lives that were lost to his ambition.

Being greedy for miles I go a slightly more circuitous way on my bicycle, travelling along the sunken old lanes through the woods, and approach the battlefield from the direction Harold’s troops must have when they came south to confront the Norman invaders.

It is a beautiful ride, my Route 1066, especially in the early hours of the morning with the mists still rising and the low-angled sunshine coming down through the branches. With luck and good timing the morning sun will be glowing on the red sandstone walls of the Abbey by the time I pedal up Battle’s narrow high street, with 25 miles under my wheels by then and the enjoyable prospect of another eight miles’ ride through pretty lanes in the Sussex countryside to get myself back home again.

If you are in the neighbourhood and care to give this route a spin, here’s a few directions which, with the assistance of Google Maps, should give you an idea: from the Hastings train station (or the one at St Leonards-Warrior Square) make your way dow to the seafront and head west, following the cycle path along the promenade to Bexhill. (There is a two-mile stretch from the end of the nicely paved promenade along the coast to Bexhill which is pretty rough, but it is the only ‘bad’ bit on the route’) From Bexhill continue along the seafront towards Cooden Beach, and from there take the narrow lane (which turns off to your left just before the Cooden railway platform) and westward across the marshes to the Pevensey roundabout. I like to call in at Pevensey (first road to your left on the roundabout) and see the castle – about half a mile off. Then back to the roundabout and head inland, towards and through Wartling and on to Herstmonceaux. From there my best description might be to get you to look at Google maps and link Herstmonceaux, Bodle Street Green Brightling, and Battle (via Netherfield Hill Rd) If you are coming down from London you can catch the train home from Battle – otherwise return to Hastings via the lanes through Catsfield and Crowhurst)

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In Darkest Sussex

Today was one of those inspirationally fine mornings, the sort we haven’t had nearly enough of this summer here in England, and so acting on a fair-weather impulse I veered inland when I went out for my ride and headed up into the Weald.

The term Weald, in case you’re not familiar with it, comes from an Old English word meaning ‘forest’, and back in the day the swathe of mediaeval forest separating Hastings from London, just sixty miles to the north, was about as dense and impenetrable as you could hope – or not hope – to find. In fact, until the railroads arrived in Victorian days most of the people who came to Hastings came here came by sea. Once the railroads arrived Hastings became a fashionable seaside resort, and the forests and ancient villages scattered up through the Weald were seen more as something beautiful and rustic and desirable – Kipling, for example, had his home down this way, a beautiful old manor house called Bateman’s which was (and is) located near a pretty little village called Burwash. And it was to Burwash I was heading this morning, following an old favourite route of mine that I haven’t taken for at least a year, up through Battle, Netherfield and Brightling, along narrow palsied lanes that meander through the woodlands.

I’ll have to do this more often. I’d forgotten how beautiful it is up this way. One of the things I like best about cycling in Sussex is that once you get off the main roads and disappear down its narrow tunnels of leaves, you feel as though you’ve stepped out of the 21st century and into some more picturesque era that you can frame in any way you please and with whatever takes your fancy; you’re off in a quaint old English world of your own making – one that’s coloured by your own idle fancies, the books you read, the paintings you’ve seen, the images you’ve formed in your mind. There is nothing quite like England for this sort of thing.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have ridden my bicycle in a great many pretty places around the world. I have rich memories of riding through the wild mountainous northern-style woods as a kid in New Hampshire, and later as an adult riding through the Ardennes in Belgium, the Black Forest in Germany and the Vienna Woods in Austria, but none of them has ever – not even my much-loved and fondly recalled New England – touched me in quite the same lyrical manner as my rides along these old sunken lanes and storybook forests in the Sussex Weald.

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