#163;100 Holidays: One in the eye for Harold

17th July 1998 at 01:00
The Bayeux Tapestry and I go back a long way. I can still remember in a primary school history lesson copying one of the battle scenes, pencils and felt-tip pens following the curves of the horses' necks and the tight loops of the Norman invaders' chain mail.

Even before the national curriculum, most children must have seen edited highlights - Harold getting hit by an arrow, Halley's comet overhead or the Normans disembarking at Pevensey. It's the great icon of its age, the most important surviving contemporary image of the Norman conquerors.

So it's rather strange to be standing in front of the real thing, seeing the great embroidered drama-documentary of the Battle of Hastings through adult eyes. The first surprise is its scale - an impressive 70 metres long.

The next surprise is its condition; for a piece of embroidery that's more than 900-years-old, its state of preservation verges on the miraculous. I had fears that it might be a rather dowdy spectacle, with spidery figures that had been touched up by the book illustrators. But it is full of vigour and colour.

Such are the tapestry's youthful looks, that my first response isn't to think of it as an historic artefact but as a work of art. It's hung in a gallery with atmospheric lighting which adds to the impression of a series of pictures, rather than a political testament. What I hadn't expected was how beautiful many of the scenes would be, with their peculiar blend of close detail and a rather fluid, folk-art style that gives the tapestry a tremendous energy.

Another consequence of seeing the tapestry in small sections (and of seeing it when we're small ourselves) is to think of it as something simple, in some sense not fully developed. But it is a very mature work of art, both in its structure and execution.

Although its basic purpose is propagandistic - to prove that William had a more rightful claim to the throne of England than Harold - the way that the story is told is far from simplistic, with scenes linked and cross-referenced by symbols and a narrative pattern that focuses the viewer's attention on certain key scenes, such as Harold swearing loyalty to William, acknowledging his claim to the English crown.

Altogether, the tapestry is much more impressive than I had imagined, a vivid political cartoon that steps out of history with a remarkable immediacy.

I travelled to Bayeux by train, taking the Eurostar to Paris, and then crossing northern France into Normandy. The sense of closeness that the Channel Tunnel has brought is an appropriate introduction for Bayeux, as another lesson of visiting the tapestry is to see the closeness of historical ties between England and Normandy.

The tapestry itself records the crossing back and forth across the Channel and the power-broking that involved rival factions in England, France and Scandinavia. This was politics with a European dimension, with the stretch of water between England and France proving little interruptio n to the struggles of its leading players.

Bayeux cathedral, a short walk from the museum housing the tapestry, gives an even more solid display of the common roots of English and Norman history, with architecture that makes visitors from England immediately think of the great English tradition of cathedrals. Even the Norman countryside around Bayeux looks like the chalky downs of Hampshire and Sussex.

While the Normans came to England and invented castles and cathedrals, it hasn't all been one-way traffic. The English can lay claim to having exported a far more leisured form of cultural legacy - the seaside town. As examples of this, the twin Norman resorts of Deauville and Trouville are well worth a visit, with promenades and half-timbered arcades that visibly have their origins in fashionable Victorian seaside resorts.

These French beach towns are now much smarter than their English equivalents, so much so that the next stage in the cultural exchange has been to fill these French seaside towns with English visitors. Except that these middle-class families, led by men with pasty legs, out-of-dat e phrase books and vaguely nautical caps, are the kind of English people that you never actually see in England anymore.

If you're looking for national caricatures, you can turn back to the tapestry. In this the Normans are portrayed with short, military haircuts, clean-shaven, while the English all have rather foppish long hair and droopy moustaches, rather like the roadies of a fey heavy metal band.

But history, I suppose, is always embroidered by the victors. And in terms of an easily accessible visit, Normandy offers such chances to see a shared past and to see ourselves in the reflections of another country's history.

London to Bayeux, #163;89 return by train. Check for booking restrictions. Eurostar: 0990 186186

Bayeux Tapestry: Centre Guillaume le Conqurant, Rue de Nesmond, 14400 Bayeux. Open every day in summer.

Tel: 0033 02 31 51 25 50

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