Thursday, July 16, 2009

Battle Abbey & the New Forest

Main and very grand entrance to Battle Abbey
Click on any image to make larger

Last weekend I was telling at Battle Abbey near Hastings in East Sussex, before traveling further down the south coast for few days off in the New Forest. We arrived on Friday night and set up my tent at the east end the novices (Trainee monks of sorts) chambers just next to the abbey latrines. Just as with many other medieval abbeys, the young monks to be slept near the toilets and other smelly places such as tanning pits, in order I think to test their resolve, before they were accepted into the cloistered life as Monks proper!

View of Abbey gate from the main street

The Abbey was founded by William the Conqueror as atonement for all the blood spilt during the battle of Hastings fought on that very spot between the invading Normans and the English and it was clearly meant to impress as you can see from the grand and very imposing Abbey gate. The problem is that there is not that much of the original abbey complex left and the site is a bit of a mish-mash, being made up of Abbey ruins, Senlac hill which was the name for the ridge where the battle was fought and a Private school which sits slap bang in the middle of every thing!

A plan of Battle Abbey

That's not to say that its not interesting, because the undercrofts to the novices chambers are impressive, especially when everyone else had gone home and in the gathering dusk when they took on a decidedly spooky air! There are also the remains of the crypt that was once under the chancel end of the now lost church. Its significance being I think that it was the place where many of the abbey's sacred relics would have been stored, perhaps even directly beneath the Bishops throne so that he might absorb their powers! There is also a museum in the great gatehouse with objects from the abbey and pictures which chart its history .

Just set up at the end of the east range-
The Novices chambers next to the remains of toilets on right.

Then there is Senlac hill itself now partly covered by the abbey. As with the abbey ruins its well interpreted with panels dotted about the whole of the battle field and also with the aid of interpretive 'wands'. Although I'm not a fan of these as everywhere you look you see people with them struck to their ears, not actually looking (Unless directed too by the wand) and also not talking to each other. I think that that's a shame, because people get so much more from a site when imagining how it was for themselves. And that's all the more important at Battle, because there is so very little to see-after all its is a hill just like any other in Britain! And being just a hill, its very hard to picture the momentous events that took place here nearly 950 years ago. Events that certainly reshaped English history and culture. Certainly there is lots of information on both the wands and in the newly built visitor center, but no amount of facts can really get across what happened when in a few short hours up to 7000 men from both sides lost their lives...

The actual field of battle between Normans and Saxons
Looking up towards Abbey

The battle field looking down from the Abbey

One of the many interpretation panels doted about the battle field

It was one of those occasions when being privileged enough to stay on site when all the visitors had left, certainly came into its own. For one thing to walk about the hill side at dusk gave the place more atmosphere and it was peaceful enough to try and imagined the sights and sounds; the screams and shouts, anger and fear that such a hard fought battle must have caused. But standing there also made me realise how in the long run, Senlac hill was just a grass covered hill like any other. The Town and Abbey are called 'Battle' now to commemorate an event that took place in little more than six hours, about 950 years ago. But of course the real battle still goes on to this day, the battle for survival!....

For standing there at dusk, we watched as a barn owl glided and swooped its way across the field hunting for mice and who knows what else. Then a leggy young fox came trotting around the side of some bushes. The first time it saw us it ran straight back the way it came. But after ten minuets or so it returned and stood regarding us for a good while, before deciding we were no real threat and continuing on its way to go hunting for his supper on Senlac hill. I was telling a version of Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale that weekend, about Chanticleer the Cockerel and the sly, cunning fox. The fox we saw, was I think a Raynard in the making although perhaps a tad more laid back!

The private school on site

The really big pond

The undercrofts under the Novice's chamber

The remains of the crypt at Battle Abbey

Interpretation panel about the crypt

The New Forest

From Battle we continued along the coast to the New Forest. I had passed through the forest last year when traveling over to the Isle of Wight and really liked the look of the place. And I wasn't disappointed. I really loved the history of the place, because its not history! Meaning that there is still a link today to ancient customs, and the locals, the 'commoners' as they are known still have a well used right to graze horses, cattle and pigs in the forest. These rights are still protected and managed by the Verderers Court and five 'Agisters' and other forest wardens to this day. This was all news to me and I've never seen so many horses in one place, even trotting about the campsite!

The many headed monster of the New Forest...

As close as I dare get!

Kim as a sacrifice to the Hydra to ensure peace!

What I really liked about the place though was the lack of things to do and by that I mean some places are awash with museums and all sorts of other experiences that can drain you body, mind and wallet! In the New Forest there are a few visitor centers and the odd museum, like Bucklers Hard where they built warships in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but apart from that the only real option is to wander in the woods, and relax. And that's precisely what I wanted to do, going over a few stories for the coming months and exploring. And it was a real sense of exploration, because unlike some other woodland sites, there aren't lots of well worn marked paths that take you to the same places everyone else has been before.

We had a great explore and the woods were beautiful. Not least because the woodlands are covered in dead wood, which helps attract wildlife and just looks very sculptural. Obviously in times past the dead wood would have all been cleared by locals who had rights to wood as well as the grazing, but luckily for us no more. We came across an oak, still whole that must have died a long time ago and now looks like the skeletal remains of a many headed Hydra guarding the gates of Hell! Also a fallen tree which must have fallen long, long ago, for it appears that another large oak has grown in the very spot where the dead one once stood. The New Forest is certainly the place to do some serious ancient tree hugging with an oak dating back to the 1600s and a yew in Brockenhurst churchyard which is said to be over a thousand years old.

Sculptured dead wood everywhere...

An oak that fell long, long ago..

We did do a little bit of traveling round to Bucklers Hard and also to the Rufus stone, which marks the place where William Rufus, the 2nd Norman King of England was slain. I tell a version of this tale which includes all the sons of the Conqueror, so I had to go and although the monument itself is a bit lackluster, the surrounding countryside is lovely and just how I describe it in my version of the tale! A long open avenue or 'chase' between the trees, pointing west towards the setting sun and ideal for hunting deer. The very place where the King was killed by his friend Walter Tyrrel. Or was he? Was it an accident or perhaps greed on the part of Tyrrel, or was it perhaps that no mortal hand killed the King? Perhaps instead it was the spirits of the woodland; the Greenman or Herne the Hunter who killed Rufus as a punishment for his greedy ways and as a blood sacrifice to ensure that thew woodlands of England remained forever green...

Re-enacting the slaying of Rufus!

Myself I couldn't be sure, so I re-enacted his death in an attempt to feel the Kings pain, to put myself in his shoes-It was a role I felt that I could really get my teeth into... But whether it was the lack of a real arrow or my festival trousers that I'm certain no King of England would have worn and in the case of Rufus would not even have been seen dead in, I'm not sure. But what ever the reason, I could not get a feel for what happened. Which is just as well, for I like my version of the tale too much to have to change it!

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