With two children at school, it isn’t always easy to zip away on wonderful long-haul holidays, even if we’d like to. We’re stuck with taking trips during school vacations (along with everyone else) which is limiting in terms of price and timing. But that doesn’t stop us exploring and having fun! We know we are extremely lucky to be able to travel within the UK and find some fabulous places to visit (watch the video below for our latest!).
One of these – an absolute gem – was Battle, in East Sussex. It sounds a strange name doesn’t it? But actually, it explains exactly what it is. Because Battle is where one of the most famous battles ever took place – one which changed the course of English history. It’s the last time this country was successfully invaded and it gave a certain Norman Duke, William, a new title (not just King, but “the Conqueror” as he beat King Harold and marked the end of Anglo-Saxon England). This all happened 950 years ago this year.
We began our trip at the Battle Museum of Local History (this is currently closed until March, but will open again then with a special 1066 exhibition). It is a really lovely place, run by volunteers. Adrian and Sarah, who showed us around were wonderful company, willing to tell us everything we wanted to know, and excited about the new exhibitions celebrating the anniversary later this year.
Going to the museum first was a great way of beginning our visit, as it gave us proper background on the area. For example, we had no idea that there was a Roman connection to Battle, nor thought about dinosaurs roaming the area.
The Museum had a number of items which piqued our interest, from a cabinet on the World Wars (Hitler targetted the Abbey, and dropped bombs which, fortunately, didn’t do much damage), to old stamps and coins, local suffragists and what is said to be the oldest ever Guy Fawkes effigy (from the mid 1600s). It was also amazing to see the only axe head recovered from the battlefield. Talk about historic!
After looking around, we went outside to admire the Almonry gardens and the well.
Battle is a really picturesque market town, even in January (!) and one of those places which is easily walkable, so we meandered down from the museum (which is at one end of the High Street) to the Abbey (at the other), past lots of lovely shops, tea-rooms and restaurants. Here we made sure we got our audio guides and entered.
It had been raining heavily (hey, that’s England for you) which meant we knew in advance that we wouldn’t actually be able to walk on the field itself. At first we were very disappointed by this, but actually you can walk above it on a terraced walkway and that was great in itself.
A trip to Battle Abbey and the battlefield starts with a introductory exhibition inside a visitor centre. This is extremely nicely done, with a clear explanatory video voiced by David Starkey and Samuel West, explaining the context of the time. There are interactive displays to try out (we did surprisingly badly on the one which asked you to pick Norman names and English names!) and chain metal and even weapons to try.
After the visitor centre (which also has its own cafe by the way) we went outside. We really loved this part of our trip. We held our audio guides close by (Robert had the children’s one, which he really enjoyed), and we walked along, finding out about the Battle Of Hastings (so-called because that was the nearest major town back then) and marvelling about the fact that 7,000 men had been killed here, right where we were standing, on October 14th, 1066.
The history was fascinating, not least the tactics used by William when he pretended to flee during the battle, making Harold’s troops break ranks, to disastrous effect.
We also found that the monks initially didn’t want to build the Benedictine abbey on the northern part of the site, not least because it was on top of a hill. But William told them they had to, and they did – he had been ordered to do so by the Pope, as penance, due to the huge loss of life during the conflict.
It must have been absolutely enormous – even the ruins are pretty big – and it become one of the riches monastic houses in England, until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII (it later became a country estate). And, of course, having such a huge abbey in the area then led to a town growing up behind it…
We also saw the stone which marked where it is believed King Harold died.
We were at the battlefield for well over two hours, enjoying the information and then looking around the ruins of the Abbey itself. The gatehouse museum, where you can also find out about the life of a medieval monk , was closed, but we didn’t feel we missed out (we were happy to admire this marvellous 14th century entrance to the abbey from the outside). However, it would be great to go back, as the roof of the gatehouse is to be opened up later this year as part of the celebrations, so you can have a birds-eye view of the landscape of the battlefield.
We then spent some time looking around the shop, which was extremely well stocked with everything from mead to children’s toys.
We thought this was a wonderful, informative place to come and just perfect for a day or two’s visit. It’s only 20 minutes or so drive from Hastings (where people think the battle took place and often get a shock when they turn up expecting to see the battlefield) and you could easily combine it with other trips in the area, including Herstmonceaux Castle or Bexhill on Sea. In recent years it’s also become well known due to the pop group Keane – and you can actually follow a Keane trail around town too!
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Where to stay: We travelled to Battle by car, and it took less than two hours from our home in London, which was a pleasant surprise. We stayed at an absolutely gorgeous small country hotel, called Claverton Country House, which is just outside Battle and a real treat to visit. The children stayed in a room together and so did we, in an airy, very light, large double room with a great bathroom and a view outside which revealed large numbers of rabbits hopping around outside in the dusk. It was quiet and beautiful and extremely relaxing (plus, we have to say that the breakfast the next day was one of the best we have ever had, especially the perfect poached eggs and totally mouthwatering warm chocolate croissants).
Our rooms cost: £89 for ours and £79 for the children’s (which was a compact room), including breakfast. There are other places to stay in the area and you can see them here.
Cost: Battle Museum of Local History is free to enter. Battle Abbey and the Battlefield costs
Where to eat: We travelled into Battle for an evening meal and found some delicious food at Noble’s. The chef was terrific at rustling up something for Robert, despite his allergies, but the service was extremely slow, which was a shame (it even meant we didn’t have dessert, even though the food we did have was really delicious).
We also saw a number of other restaurants, including Simply Italian, the Bull Inn and the Chequers Inn.
We ate lunch at Bluebells Cafe which was extremely busy, but which had delicious food. We all had something quite simple (Welsh rarebit, tuna sandwiches and a cream tea for Jess) but it was all utterly yummy. We would highly recommend it if you are in the area and it is not too expensive either (we paid £48 for the four of us, including drinks and cakes afterwards!).
We also had a trip to the sweet shop, Spoilt Rotten, which had masses of old fashioned sweets, as well as lots of American ones too. We thought it was extremely good value and the young woman serving us was extremely patient as the children made their choices.
Where to park: There is a public car park at the top of Battle, as you drive in towards Hastings. It cost us £5 to park there for the whole day.
Battle Abbey is run by English Heritage and is free for members. It costs £8.30 per adults and £5 for children aged 5-15. A family ticket (two adults and up to three children) costs £21.60. At the moment it’s only open on weekends, although it’s open every day during half-term, and later in the year will be open daily.
Battle is situated 105km from London – trains run from Charing Cross every half hour and there are also regular coaches.
Disclosure: We travelled to Battle to contribute to a travel ebook being created by RAC Breakdown Cover on some great British staycations…
More great historical places to visit in the UK: