Kate Isabella Bolton’s parents, Alfred and Clara, were married in Emmanuel Church, Hastings, in 1877, and so my plan is to head there for a Sunday service and get to sit in the building where my great, great grandparents would have committed themselves to one another, almost 140 years ago.
It’s a fair walk but a beautiful morning for it, cool and bright. Seagulls squawk pleadingly overhead but, other than that, it’s still quiet out.
I stop brieﬂy on the way to get some shots of Holy Trinity before heading up Castle Hill Road again. It’s a little more forgiving when one has a bit of time to spare!
I reach the church with about half an hour to spare and wander the streets that surround it, appropriately named Vicarage, Priory and Emmanuel. As I do so, strains of 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) ﬁlter out of the building as musicians prepare for the service. It’s one of my favs and seems somehow appropriate. Gratitude gets my insides doing a little happy dance!
Just before 10:30, I make my way indoors just as two elderly ladies do the same. They notice I’m not a regular, introduce themselves and bustle me through the doors, introducing me to a number of other congregants along the way.
I ﬁle into a pew, trying to look inconspicuous, but a couple sitting behind me are eager to hear my story. We chat easily as I share where I’m from, why I’m here and where I’m heading, and they tell me something of themselves. It transpires that their daughter and her family had recently been holidaying in Orkney and so more threads of this amazing tapestry of connectedness reveal themselves, as the chords of 10,000 Reasons reach my ears for the second time today 🙂
Afterwards, I’m graciously invited to stay to tea but have a train to catch and so say my goodbyes. The lady sitting behind me with her husband says, “We won’t forget this day,” and I swallow the lump in my throat – I walked into this building a total stranger and leave, barely an hour and a half later, blown away by the kindness and warmth of this beautiful community.
Pensive but ﬁlled with joy, I head back down the hill, admiring the splashes of colour, mostly pastels, that mark many Hastings houses.
At the station, I buy a return ticket to Battle (I’m optimistic, you see!) and hop on the train. Battle, as you may have guessed, is a place rather than an event, although it is named after the Battle of Hastings which took place on this site in 1066. It’s also where William the Conqueror had an abbey built in gratitude for his victory over the Saxons and in penance for the blood that was shed. It’s a good 15-minute walk to the battleﬁeld from Battle station and I ﬁnd that I’ve arrived on a weekend commemorating the battle which took place here on 14 October, 949 years ago.
Consequently, Battle isn’t devoid of danger after all, for the place is teeming with people and almost every child is armed with a sword or axe of wood or plastic which they’re ﬂailing around madly, at a height rather hazardous to adults! I take refuge in what remains of the chapter house and dormitory range.
I then head down to the battleﬁeld, wandering among the Saxon tents, where battle preparations are underway. In keeping with the theme, I decide on a wild boar burger with applesauce for lunch – delish!
Then, sun glistening on their helmets and standards ﬂuttering proudly, the Saxons, led by Harold, draw up battle lines to form their trusty shield wall. It has served them well in recent victories and, as long as it holds, they will stand. Soon, the Normans are deployed onto the battleﬁeld, William the Conqueror leading them.
The battle rages and a skirmish sees William falling. In the confusion which follows, his men drop back, now unsure, faltering. William is alive but needs to prove it to his warriors. He remounts and removes his helmet, so they can see his face, as he rides along their lines.
A ﬂank of the Norman army begins retreating. They’re pursued down the hill by a group of Saxons. William sees his next tactic demonstrated. He orders his army to repeat the retreat and, sure enough, some Saxon soldiers are drawn away, following the Normans apparently retreating down the hill, only to be surrounded and annihilated by them. The shield wall is thinning.
Then, another ﬂurry of Norman arrows trace a graceful arc into Saxon lines. Shields are lifted to deﬂect them but a cry of horror rises to the skies, too – an arrow has pierced Harold’s eye and he drops to the ground – dead. A band of faithful men surround him, loyal to the last, but they lose their lives and Harold’s standard falls.
The Saxons rally bravely but they are leaderless and the shield wall is disintegrating. The Normans pick it to pieces and William emerges victorious to lay claim to the English throne. This historic ﬁeld I’m standing in lies soaked in the blood of battle and marks a turning point in the British narrative.
I walk back through the grounds, below the Guesthouse Range and the Abbey, past the dairy and icehouse, to explore the Duchess of Cleveland’s walled garden.
As I head back toward the gatehouse, I pass a tapestry strung up between some trees. It’s not the famous Bayeux tapestry, as one might expect, although there is one panel dedicated to the technique used for that piece. Rather, this one tells the story of a lesser known battle, the Battle of Maldon. The artist informs me that it took him three years and that it’s for sale… for £6 000, if you’re interested and happen to have that lying around!
Back in Hastings, it’s already dark as I take another walk along the beachfront, to Queen’s Apartments.
This used to be the Queen’s Hotel and it’s where my great, great grandfather, Alfred Bolton, lived at the time of his marriage to Clara Pinny in Emmanuel Church, where my day started.
I’ve come full circle. I’ve returned to places that were part of the lives of my ancestors, part of me. I’ve had a history lesson. I’ve touched the past. And I have an early start in the morning!