Of cabbages and kings

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Chris Fautley finds Hastings and Pevensey still redolent of the daily life and great events of 1066

I witnessed the second Battle of Hastings: only this time it was a battle with the elements - ask the key stage 2 class from Ferring Church of England Primary School, West Sussex who were visiting Battle Abbey in "l066 country", East Sussex. Thunder, lightning and for good measure someone dropped a lake on us.

Hailed as the "Birthplace of England", one of the principal attractions within the abbey grounds is the site of the Battle of Hastings. The cloudburst appropriately renewed the boggy conditions that hindered William the Conqueror's cavalry. Not that it put a damper on the tented Saxon village which had been re-created on the battlefield, a week-long event mounted by English Heritage.

Instructions to the children to "treat it like a time warp" were hardly necessary; they were absorbed from the start and mingled freely with the re-enactors playing the Saxons. Even the sun eventually made an appearance.

The Saxons casually squelched barefoot in the mud as they explained how they traded, what they ate, how they told the time and demonstrated fire-lighting and cooking. Memories of stewed cabbage were stirred at the sight of a large cauldron of leaves bubbling over a fire - until it was pointed out they were being used to extract dye for clothes.

Within the abbey grounds visitors can take a 45-minute battlefield walk. A stone marks the spot at which Harold supposedly fell.

Much of the abbey is in ruins. Only a small proportion is under cover. Even so, some parts are well preserved. The vaulted 13th century roof of the monks' dormitory is especially good and serves as a reminder that the abbey's development continued long after Norman times.

A small museum houses a Monastic Life interactive computer station. Exhibits include a "now and then" display of everyday items such as buttons and scissors.

The Saxon village is typical of English Heritage's approach to bringing history to life. Another imaginative way is storytelling. "Story-telling is a way in to using a site, be it for drama, English or history," explains Jennie Fordham, English Heritage education officer for London and the South-east. The national curriculum guidelines are sprinkled with suggestions on why story-telling is important, and English Heritage recognises this by publishing its own teacher's guide.

Whatever the tourist literature might suggest, there is more to this area than l066. Pevensey Castle, another English Heritage site, is a superb example of a 3rd century Roman fort. It does have links with the Conqueror - he landed here on September 28, l066, returning later to add his own inner fortifications.

Surprisingly, Pevensey sees only a third of Battle's l0,000 annual school visitors. There is no museum and few exhibits - the most notable is a pile of Roman catapult balls recovered from the moat. But there are dungeons to explore and towers to climb.

On a clear day, you can look out from the battlements and chart William's route east to Hastings and then onward to Battle. It is also a good point from which to appreciate how the landscape has changed. Nine hundred years ago, vessels sailed up to the castle walls; now the sea is a mile distant.

The opposite has happened at Hastings, which has the remains of Britain's first Norman castle. Much has fallen into the sea from its cliff-top perch, mostly as a result of a storm in 1287.

Now owned by Hastings borough council, large sections of the north and east wall remain, as does the motte, east gate and parts of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, which was incorporated into the castle grounds.

The highlight is "The l066 Story", an audio visual show which lasts about 20 minutes. The story of the castle is told right through its 900-year history. The re-creation of the 1287 storm is especially effective - the whole theatre vibrates with thunder claps and lightning bolts.

Hastings Castle is much smaller than Pevensey; even so, there are plenty of nooks, crannies and yet more dungeons to explore. Illustrated information panels are dotted about.

Primary and secondary education packs are available, and contain some highly imaginative ideas. They also cover the Hastings Embroidery - our answer to the Bayeux Tapestry - which records 81 events in British history.

Battle Abbey and Pevensey Castle: free admission for pre-booked school parties. Education material: contact the education officer, English Heritage, South East, 1 High Street, Tonbridge. Tel: 01732 778000 * Hastings Castle and Embroidery Child group admission prices: Pounds 1.60 50p respectively. One adult free with every 10 children. Education packs: Hastings Borough Council, Tourism Leisure Department, 4-5 Robertson Terrace, Hastings, East Sussex TN34 lJE. Tel: 01424 781113

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