As I bicycled to the crest of a hill on the road to the village of Battle, it occurred to me how helpless we are to keep our imaginations from spiking fact with fancy. Here I was on the way to inspect the battleground where William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, and all I could think of was "Ivanhoe." The mist was so thick I had the impression of pedaling through a movie set of Olde England in which someone had forgotten to turn off the fog machine. Beyond the road lay a valley with farms and villages, but the only thing that penetrated the wall of dankness was the deep green of the immediate fields.
I had taken a train from London to Hastings one autumn morning to see the site of England's great defeat and to explore the Sussex countryside. The South Coast is somewhat overlooked by American tourists, who tend to search out rustic England in more readily identifiable places such as Stratford upon Avon or the Cotswolds.
East and West Sussex are easily accessible, and though parts of it are well settled, there are also great stretches of open landscape. The county begins 30 miles south of London, separated from the capital by the counties of Surrey and Kent. On the Sussex coast lie the resorts of Brighton and Eastbourne, and inland is the gently rolling country long known as a domain of gentlemen farmers.
It is a quaint but unpretentious place. My companion, an English friend who is a veteran bicycle racer, had suggested taking a bicycle day-trip in Sussex because he knew I like my landscapes spiced with history. We decided to begin at Hastings, in East Sussex, where William the Conqueror had camped after sailing from Normandy. From there we would explore the villages near the coast.
I'm reasonably fit and had made no special preparations other than renting a bicycle and packing some rain gear and an extra sweater in a bag on the back of the bike. We planned to spend that night with friends near the coastal town of Newhaven, but could easily have chosen to stay in one of the numerous bed-and-breakfasts in the area.
It had taken less than two hours by train from Victoria in London to St. Leonard's station in Hastings. We bicycled the five miles to Battle, the village where the battle of Hastings was actually fought.
On Oct. 14, 1066, the Duke of Normandy had marched these five miles and defeated King Harold of England. William built an abbey here as reparation for the carnage. But then as now, victory means never having to say you're sorry, and building it must qualify as one of history's flimsiest apologies. For as every English school child learns, the Conquest was thorough and brutal.
The early Norman castles still standing in England are a reminder of this, being built to protect an army of occupation from the Anglo-Saxon peasants who had been subdued. English school children also learn that military conquest eventually blossomed into deep and benevolent cultural changes, notably the enriching of language with words derived from French such as "beef." (Nowadays, of course, cultural invasions are quicker: The latest American fast-food chain opened in Britain recently, introducing the new vogue phrase for hamburger, "the Whopper.")
We opted for steak and kidney pie at the Pilgrim's Rest, a 15th-century inn across the street from the Battle Abbey site, and lingered over a pot of tea. The changeable English weather began to lift, and when we strolled over to the battlefield it was still cloudy but the visibility was good. We walked along the high ground, which the English had held, an 800-yard-long ridge that now is bordered by a monastery wall. The English army consisted of more than 8,000 foot soldiers, including the house-carls, a core of professional troops armed with two-bladed battle-axes, which they gripped with both hands. The Normans, numbering slightly fewer, had infantry and cavalry, which were repulsed in the early phase of the battle. Though the English had never fought men on horseback before, the Normans had not faced the battle-ax, and they were alarmed at the deep gashes inficted by the weapon.
Historians have endlessly discussed how and why the Normans wore down the English infantry. It seems that Harold, a good king and effective soldier, played a strangely passive role behind the lines. A few weeks before, he had made a forced march to Stamford Bridge, 250 miles north of London, and defeated an invading Viking army. The day after that battle, he heard that William had landed, and turned around for the march south. Harold was upset to discover that William was carrying the papal banner. Although it's always dangerous to impute modern psychology to medieval minds, by our own terminology he was probably depressed. A stone marker behind the abbey walls marks what is allegedly the exact spot where Harold was killed. Late in the afternoon, he had been shot in the eye by an arrow, and then disemboweled by Norman knights. All in all, it was a bad day at the office.
The Battle Abbey is a somewhat misleading name for a collection of monastic buildings, most of which post-date the Norman period. During the suppression of Catholics in the 16th century, Henry VIII gave the monastery to a crony who leveled the original 11th-century church and used the other buildings as a country estate -- one of Henry's methods of rewriting his enemies out of history was to knock down their buildings. A 13th-century abbot's house is now used as a girl's school. Judging from the outline of the foundations of William's original church, which is still visible, it was a very small structure even by the standards of the time.
From Battle, you can't go far wrong whatever direction you strike out in, because there is lovely countryside as soon as you get off the main roads. We decided to head southwest, in the opposite direction of the coastal route taken by William the Conqueror after his landing. William's army had made a perilous Channel crossing in boats so rudimentary they could not tack but only sail with the wind. The Normans disembarked at Pevensey, beneath the Roman fortress that is still there, and marched east to Hastings. According to the Domesday Book, the Norman record of William's possessions after the Conquest, villages along the route were laid waste: Hailsham, Herstmonceux and Ashburnham. I stopped for a candy bar in Herstmonceux, and it seemed to have recovered nicely from William's rampage.
In the British press today there is alarm about a different kind of destruction, what has been dubbed "the rape of the countryside." In the past decade, more than 130,000 miles of hedgerows have been destroyed, as industrialized mega-farms flatten the familiar quilt-patch of small holdings into vast uniform tracts of land. Such reports conjure up visions of Robert Morley doing one of his jolly tourist commercials in a surreal empty landscape, perhaps being chased by a monster tractor. The small corner of Sussex I saw on my 35-mile trip from Battle was intact: Certainly, you are never far from a motorway and civilization, but the land remains much as it has for centuries.
We were making fast time, employing the racing technique of "drafting," by which I pedaled behind my friend within about a foot of his back wheel. I found to my surprise that if I kept close enough, I seemed to be pulled along as the bicycle in front cut the wind and created a slight vacuum. This was invigorating, I thought, the ideal way to experience what John Keats called "the mists and mellow fruitfulness" of autumnal England.
As a cautionary note, I should confess that poetic thoughts can be hazardous in such circumstances. Our wheels briefly collided, and I was sent sprawling across the road in a poor imitation of a baseball player sliding into second base. I was unharmed except for a few scrapes and injured pride. A herd of cows nearby took no notice.
We stopped in the tiny village of Jevington, and walked our bicycles up a winding path to the church of St. Andrew's. Like many small parish churches in the area, St. Andrew's straddles the Conquest in its architecture. The nave dates from the Norman period and after, while the tower was raised in about 900 A.D. by Saxon settlers. They built for durability: The stone walls are 5 feet thick, suggesting that the Saxons intended the tower as a place of refuge from the early Viking raids. Today the setting couldn't be more peaceful, and one is struck by how comfortably the present merges with the distant past. Our visit happened to coincide with the harvest festival, underscoring the impression. The ancient church porch was festooned with squash, pumpkin, tomatoes, apples and, hanging above the door, a corn dolly, the braided-wheat good luck charm whose origin dates to pagan times.
Sussex is prime territory for walkers as well as bicyclists. Jevington is at the beginning of the inland route of the South Downs, the broad chalk ridges that extend from Beachy Head on the coast to the plains of Salisbury 100 miles northwest. The continuous walking trails have the distinction of being the oldest pedestrian highway in England: 3,000 years ago, the South Downs was a pilgrimage route for the prehistoric Windmere people who used the open ridges as a passage to Stonehenge above valleys at that time thickly forested.
On several other visits to this part of Sussex, I've hiked from village to village. Alongside the footpath a mile above St. Andrew's church you will find a long barrow, a mound that is the site of a neolithic encampment. All along the top of the Downs the prospect of the surrounding countryside is splendid. But my most treasured memory revolves around the best meal I've had in Britain, when my stomach was a hungry void after a day of hiking. It was in a tea shop in Alfriston, the village next to Jevington, and the meal consisted of a plate of scones lathered with jam and the famous heart-stoppingly rich Sussex clotted cream.
We concluded our bicycle trip by pedaling the three or four miles to Beachy Head, the stunning promontory that is a popular destination for day-trippers and also, incidentally, England's favorite suicide spot -- local cab drivers keep an eye out for passengers of an obviously morose demeanor. The grass grows green and evenly right to the brink of the chalk cliffs -- a seamless and precarious putting green upon which flocks of sheep nonchalantly graze. The hikers strolling along the cliffs seem nonchalant too. Perhaps the sense of vertigo sharpens their enjoyment of the panoramic view of the Channel.
In the summer of 1066, the English scanned the Channel from here in search of the Duke of Normandy's fleet, but he surprised them by arriving two months late. More recently Beachy Head was a landmark for aircraft in World War II, both Allied and German. From Beachy Head nowadays you can see the Channel ferry that sails between Newhaven and Dieppe. The French cross for the day to buy cheap clothes, the English go to France for wine and cheese.
Perhaps the English got the best part of the Conquest after all.