A Travellerspoint blog

August 2018

Britain’s first Christian martyr

St Albans

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban, from the Vintry Garden

Saint Alban, or Saint Albanus in the Latin form, is generally considered to have been Britain’s first Christian martyr. He is traditionally believed to have been beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium to the north of Londinium (modern-day St Albans) sometime during the 3rd or 4th century, and the city’s abbey church is home to his shrine and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries.

While the date and place of his martyrdom, and the exact circumstances, are both subjects for considerable debate, there seems to be little doubt that he did have some connection to the city which now bears his name.

On a practical note, St Albans makes for an easy and enjoyable day out from London, being less than 20 minutes by train from St Pancras Station. I visited a friend there recently and we enjoyed a little photography walk around the abbey and surrounding streets.

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

The cathedral and abbey church of St Alban, to give it its full name, is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. It stands on the spot where the saint is believed to have been buried after being executed for his faith.

The details of his martyrdom are as I mentioned rather hazy, with several conflicting accounts (for example, giving either Verulamium or Londinium as the location) so I will reproduce here that given on the abbey’s own website:

Shrine of St Alban

‘Alban is believed to have been a Romano-British citizen of the third century in the Roman city of Verulamium, in the valley below the present Cathedral. The earliest versions of his history say that he gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution. This was a Christian priest, originally un-named but later called Amphibalus in the re-telling of the story. Alban was so moved by the priest’s faith and courage that he asked to be taught more about Christianity, then still a forbidden religion.

Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. But Alban, inspired by his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with Amphibalus, allowing him to escape. Instead Alban was arrested and brought before the city magistrate. Alban refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the Roman gods. When asked to identify himself he declared: ‘I am called Alban and I worship and adore the true and living God, who created all things’.

The magistrate ordered that Alban should receive the punishment due to the priest. He was brought out of the town and up the hillside to the site of execution where he was beheaded. Despite escaping, Amphibalus too was later arrested and martyred at Redbourn, a few miles away. Alban was probably buried in the Roman cemetery now located by modern archaeological digs to the south of the present Cathedral. Alban is honoured as the first British martyr, and his grave on this hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage.’

Carving by the door we used

When we visited the abbey was undergoing some major building work, the construction of a new welcome centre, which meant that some entrances were inaccessible and others, including the one we used, partially obscured by hoardings.

Once inside however, any building work was hidden from sight and we could wander around freely. And I mean freely – unlike some other English cathedrals admission here is free, and they even offer free tours, although of course donations are welcome. The suggested £5 is reasonable, given the historical significance of the building and its sights.

While I didn’t find this the most attractive of cathedrals either outside (it is rather squat and solid) or in, I did delight in the wealth of detail I found here:

The shrine and chapel of St Alban

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The shrine of St Alban

St Alban’s shrine is the most significant feature of the abbey church. The base, dating from 1308, is of Purbeck marble and supports a modern red and gold canopy under which rests a shoulder-blade said to come from the original relics of the saint’s body. The canopy is embroidered with English wildflowers, commemorating Bede’s description of Alban going to his execution up a hill ‘adorned with wild flowers of every kind.’

The shrine is housed in a small chapel behind the choir, with carvings of saints, including John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, looking down on him.

Statues of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary

On one side of the chapel is the medieval wooden watching loft, the only surviving example of one in the country. It dates from around 1400 and is decorated with carvings of what seemed to me to be small angels, although they are very worn. From here the monks and local people would keep watch over the shrine.

The watching loft

Detail of carving on the watching loft

The shrine of St Amphibalus

On the other side of the watching loft is another stone shrine, in a rather poor condition (and badly repaired at some point in the past, it seems). This is the shrine of St Amphibalus, the Christian priest to whom Alban gave shelter. Its poor condition can be explained by the fact that after the Reformation and Dissolution the Lady Chapel at the east end of the abbey church had been used as a school, and separated from the rest of the building by a wall built in part from the stone of this shrine and also St Alban’s.

The shrine of St Amphibalus - detail

While the latter has been restored, this one is awaiting attention. A sign nearby explains that it is hoped that soon it will be possible to carry out a more sympathetic restoration.

The North Transept

From St Amphibalus’s shrine we came next to the North Transept which has this magnificent rose window with modern stained glass. The latter was added in 1989 and unveiled by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The rose window

When we were there the North Transept was displaying a mosaic replica of the Bayeux Tapestry made from 3 million tiny pieces of steel left over from industrial textile manufacturing. The mosaic is 64 metres long and very intricate – a real labour of love by artist Michael Linton, who took 33 years to complete the work.

The High Altar Screen

The High Altar Screen

The backdrop to the choir is the ornate High Altar Screen. This was restored in the late 19th century and Harry Hems of Exeter was commissioned to carve and replace the statues in 1899 – the originals having been destroyed at the Reformation.

Details of the screen

The figures include one of the most famous of the abbey’s former monks, Nicholas Breakspear. In 1154 Nicholas became Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope.

The South Transept

I found various intriguing details in and around the South Transept, which is largely given over to the inevitable gift shop and an information desk. High on the wall I spotted this green-winged angel looking down on the bustle below. The cathedral has one of the oldest and most extensive series of medieval wall paintings surviving today, ranging from the late 12th century to the 16th century, and this is no doubt an example of these although there was no sign to tell me its exact date.

Wall painting

Nearby I spotted the Maynard family vault. These were clearly both affluent and influential, judging by the size and ornamentation of the vault. Researching a bit later, I found that John Maynard was the local MP in 1553 and 1554. This ornate plaque commemorates his son, Raffe, as well as Raffe’s wife and his mother (John’s wife). I liked the slightly doggerel style of the poems that describe the three, but especially the women who were it seems paragons of virtue:

Maynard family vault

‘Heere lyes intombed a woman worthie fame:
Whose virtuous life gives honor to her name:
Few were her years, she died in her prime,
Yet in the worlde fulfilled she much tyme:
Which virtuously she spent providinge still
The hungry bellies of the poore to fill:
Unto the God of heaven thrise every day,
With great devotion saint-like did she pray …’


‘Lo here intombed lyes a widowe worthie prayse:
Who in the feare of God devoutly spent her days:
With charytable almes relevinge still the poore,
For empty handed none departed from her doore.
A mirror in her tyme for virtues of her minde:
A matron for her years, the like is hard to finde:
Beloved bewayled of all in life and death was she:
An honor to her sex as any of her degree …’

We didn’t walk the full length of the cathedral, thrown off our route a little by the detours necessitated by the building work. I will have to go back, as the nave is the longest in England (at 85 metres) and is separated from the choir by another screen which has very recently (2015) been augmented by the addition of seven statues of martyrs, including St Alban and St Amphibalus, and looks well worth seeing.

To finish our visit for now, here is a selection of other details I spotted, and liked, in the abbey:

Inscription on a wall in the South Transept, and another part of the Maynard vault

I have no idea who these represent, but I liked them!

Stained glass window, and candle holder

Carving detail

Near the cathedral

In the Vintry Garden -

There are some pleasant green spaces in the vicinity of the cathedral, including the Vintry Garden. The name of Vintry has been used for this area since the 14th century and is said to derive from the abbey vineyards – grapes are grown against the brick wall as a reminder of those times. For many years though this area was used as the monks’ graveyard. After the Dissolution in 1539 much of the land belonging to the abbey was sold off and this garden became the property of one of the houses on the nearby High Street (then Market Street). For much of the 20th century that building housed Barclays Bank but in 1974 the local council negotiated a lease for the land. Excavations revealed not only the monks’ graveyard but also the 19th century layout of the garden, which has largely been replicated in today’s version. There are pretty views of the cathedral from here (both my photos at the top of this page were taken in the garden)

The Verdun Tree

Not far away is the Verdun Tree, a chestnut grown from a conker which came from one of the last trees left standing after the First World War Battle of Verdun. This tree was planted here in 1976 to mark the 60th anniversary of the battle. The descriptive sign next to it tells the story of the battle and also points out, interestingly, that ‘a horse chestnut is in fact in many ways appropriate to mark a battle, as the starch from its conkers is an essential component of cordite – unlike gunpowder, an almost smokeless explosive.’

On the Verdun Tree

Clock Tower

After our visit to the cathedral we walked past the medieval clock tower, built between 1403 and 1412. A sign on the wall explains that it has a large curfew bell dating from 1335.

Clock Tower and its doorway

The same sign points out a few historic details about this old part of the town. The Dauphin’s troops were stationed here in 1216 (hence the name of one of the streets, French Row). And King John of France was detained in the nearby Fleur de Lys inn in 1356. Anther sign on the tower marks the former Eleanor Cross that stood near here. This was one of a chain of crosses (the most famous is at Charing Cross in London) that were erected by her husband King Edward I to mark the resting places of the body of Queen Eleanor as she was brought from her place of death, Harby in modern-day Lincolnshire, to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

The Museum and Gallery

Busker on Market Street

We had a walk through the market where my friend bought some fruit and I avoided buying a bracelet! By now we were well into the afternoon but before I headed back to London (refreshed by a cup of coffee and a chat at her home near the station) there was time to pop into the newly opened museum and gallery in the restored Town Hall.

We saw the beautiful Assembly Room on the first floor where in the past dances would have taken place, now to be used again for civic functions. On the ground floor the old courtroom has been turned into a café, and some of the cells beneath it are now toilets!


In the museum - staircase and assembly room chandelier

We didn’t have time to properly look at the exhibits, nor was there time on this visit to St Albans to explore the Roman theatre and hypocaust (underfloor heating system) on the outskirts of town. I remember visiting these as a child however, so am keen to go back one day soon to see them again.

So watch this space ...!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:25 Archived in England Tagged shrines architecture history church museum garden cathedral Comments (9)

A night in a fort

Spitbank Fort

Spitbank Fort near Portsmouth

Introduction to Spitbank

In 1860 Lord Palmerston, then Prime Minister, commissioned a series of forts to defend the country in the event of an attack from France. Napoleon III was strengthening his navy and the memory of past threats from that quarter were still fresh. As well as several on land, four were built in the waters of the Solent to protect Portsmouth, the most important naval port.


Horse Sand Fort from Spitbank Fort

No Mans' Fort from the catamaran to Spitbank Fort

The forts were never used however. By the time they were completed the French had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and were no longer to be feared. The forts became known as Palmerston’s Follies and although maintained in case of need, and pressed into use for defence purposes in World War II, there was never a shot fired in anger from Spitbank, the smallest of them all, or any of its neighbours. And today, after several different incarnations, it has been thoughtfully restored to serve as a luxury hotel offering ‘24 hours of opulent luxury’.

A winter visit

A stay here does not come cheap, even though when we visited (like the other guests with whom we spoke) we got a good off-season deal. But as a special experience to celebrate an anniversary, a birthday or some other milestone it offers something rather out of the ordinary.

The fort lies a mile off the southern coast of England, in the stretch of sea between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight known as the Solent. So to get there you need a boat, and this is arranged as part of your stay. We were asked to be at the ‘Departure Lounge’ (in Gosport when we went but moved to Gunwharf Quay in Portsmouth) by 11.30 AM. We drove there, and parking was provided with a pass that entitled us to stay till midnight the following day – so time to do some sightseeing the next morning if you fancy it.

We were greeted with tea or coffee (disappointingly weak coffee, I have to say) and met some of our fellow guests. We were then formally welcomed and offered a tot of Navy rum served in old gun canisters that had been transformed into rather stylish drinking vessels.

At midday we left, walking a few yards to the jetty where we boarded the catamaran that was to take us to the fort. It was a very cold day, so we were glad to find indoor seating, though I did brave the elements to stand for a short while on the open aft section and take some photos of Portsmouth as we departed.

The catamaran

Leaving Portsmouth Harbour

Arriving at Spitbank Fort, in the rain

The crossing takes about 20 minutes so it was not long before we were pulling up alongside the fort. It was easy enough to step ashore, although anyone with walking difficulties should note that there are several flights of metal stairs to climb. At the top of these we entered the warmth of the fort’s Victory Bar and were welcomed with champagne.

A tour with Kyle

Start of the tour

Kyle at the lighthouse

We were welcomed to Spitbank by Celine and Kyle, who were to look after us during our stay. Both were very friendly and helpful, and worked hard to make our visit fun and interesting, but it was Kyle who took us on our tour of the fort and who really brought the place to life.

Every company catering to tourists should have a Kyle! He was clearly passionate about the fort – both its history and its current new life as a hotel. He was enthusiastic to the point of bouncing, reminding me more than a little of Tigger in the Winnie the Pooh books. Even a non-history enthusiast could not have failed to take an interest when he showed us the various remnants of the fort’s past, or told the story of the ghost said to haunt the ‘bolt hole’ – a passage that circumnavigates the fort in its lower outer wall.

Although he seemed to me to enjoy all aspects of his job, it was this tour that saw him at his best, and it was no surprise when he told us that he was hoping that when the company opened the planned museum on another of the forts it owns, nearby Horse Sands, he would be able to transfer there. I hope he got his wish, but meanwhile he made a very good host here on Spitbank.

And when things did go wrong (a mix-up with our breakfast order) he was quick not only to apologise but also to make what he called a ‘gesture’ – a generous halving of our drinks bill. Yes, every company should have a Kyle.

So, fired up with Kyle’s enthusiasm, let us learn a little more about the history of Spitbank Fort …

Spitbank Fort – some history

On Spitbank Fort

I had never studied the period of history during which Spitbank Fort and the other so-called ‘Palmerston Follies’ were constructed so I had only a sketchy idea of its intended purpose, beyond the obvious general one of defence. But on Kyle’s tour I learned a lot more, and have since filled in a few gaps through my own research.

Central area of the fort

In the mid nineteenth century Britain was nervous. The Napoleonic Wars were still relatively fresh in people’s memories, and now Louis Napoleon, nephew of Bonaparte, had become President of the Second Republic. In 1852, he seized complete power and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, showing himself to be ruthless and ambitious. It seemed very likely that he would want to expand his territory, and an invasion of Britain was feared. These fears subsided briefly as Britain joined forces with France to fight a common enemy, Russia, in the Crimean War, but soon afterwards surfaced again. Under pressure from the general public to protect our shores, the government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, commissioned a series of forts to be built. And because of advances in weaponry that meant that ships could now fire at the land while remaining out of range of coastal defences, several of these forts were built offshore in the Solent, with the particular aim of protecting Britain’s most important naval port, Portsmouth.

Work started in 1860. Spitbank Fort was the first to be completed in June 1878, and St Helen's followed shortly after. The two larger outer forts, Horse Sands and No Man’s Land, were started earlier but took longer, only being finished in spring 1880. But by this time the threat had passed. The French had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and were no longer to be feared. And even if they were, technology in weaponry had moved on, and the cannon the forts were designed to accommodate were fast becoming obsolete. They became known as Palmerston’s Follies and the huge sums spent on their construction became a source of embarrassment to him and his government.

Over the years they were rearmed several times, in case of need, but that need never arose. During the First World War they served as signal stations but not used in defence, and in the Second World War they were also of limited use, unable to support heavy anti-aircraft guns for general air defence. They seem also to have under-performed in their other role as observation posts intended to limit attacks on the sea ports, since both Portsmouth and Gosport were more than 60% destroyed by enemy bombing raids. However, they were equipped to support the seizure of French warships anchored off Portsmouth in 1940 after the fall of France. This was the only time that their arms were trained on the target for which they had been originally built, a ‘French’ invasion. But the seizure was accomplished with little opposition and the guns on the forts remained unfired.

Kyle with an original shell

After the war all the forts were deactivated and decommissioned. In the 1960s they were put up for sale, but none were sold until the 1980s (perhaps it was only in that decade that an interest in restoring historical buildings for modern use surfaced?) Since then they have all been through various incarnations, with Spithead itself serving as a private home and a venue for rave parties before being acquired by Solent Forts and turned into the luxury hotel that we visited. The same company also purchased No Mans Land and Horse Sands Forts; the former was turned into another, larger, hotel where the emphasis will be on partying and corporate entertaining rather than intimate luxury, and the latter is being developed as a museum, restored to something of its original appearance. I got the impression that the plans for the latter reflected not only the company’s genuine interest in the history of their properties, but also a way of ensuring a strong relationship with English Heritage and endorsement by them of the use made of the other forts and accompanying changes to their appearance.

The old cookhouse, and the Bolthole (said to be haunted)
Entrance to the bolt hole

Those changes, at Spitbank at least, are very sympathetic to the fort’s history and architecture, with many original features retained.

Our bedroom, Admiral Milne

Corridor to bedrooms

There are just eight bedrooms at Spitbank, all located on the main floor in what was once the seaward-facing gun floor, holding the cannons that were trained in the direction of a possible invasion. (The other half of this floor, now the Victory Bar and Officers’ Mess restaurant, held the smaller landward-facing cannons). All the rooms are luxurious, with two being advertised as even more so than the others, but ours, although not one of these, was so fantastic that I can’t really imagine what you would get for paying for the upgrade – although I have seen mention of there being both shower and bath (we had ‘only’ a generously-sized walk-in shower).

All the rooms are named after admirals, some (such as Nelson and Drake) more famous than others. We were in Admiral Milne, whom I confess I had to look up. I learned that it was named for Admiral Sir (Archibald) Berkeley Milne, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet at the start of the World War One, and also one-time captain of the royal yacht, Osborne. I’m not sure what this distinguished gentleman would have made of what has become of Spitbank but I have a feeling he would have enjoyed the luxury of the room that bears his name!

Admiral Milne bedroom

The room was very large with a king-size bed that was super-comfortable. There was an armchair and a lounger, but I loved best the simple wooden seating that ran the length of the outside wall and allowed me to keep an eye open through the window for passing ferries and other shipping.

In Admiral Milne bedroom

Many of the rooms include original features. One apparently has a glass-covered opening in the floor through which you can see directly down to the waters of the Solent – a remnant of the old ventilation system. I would have loved to have had that, but we did instead have our own piece of history, in the shape of one of the wooden hoists that were used to lift the heavy shells between the different floors. You can see this near the back of my right-hand photo above.

Relaxing on the fort

Crows' Nest Bar and lighthouse

Our 24 hour package had a heavy emphasis on food and drink. Having been met with champagne on arrival in the Victory Bar (more about that bar later), and after our tour and a little time to unpack, a buffet lunch was served – and a rather gorgeous buffet at that, with the highlight possibly the beautiful seafood platters, although I also really liked the couscous and Thai noodle salads. This was served in the fort’s other bar on the roof, the Crows’ Nest, with views out to sea.

Seafood platter

We spent the afternoon exploring the fort on our own to take photos; relaxing in the hot tub on the roof (despite the chill in the air) and warming up in the sauna, and spent some time in our comfortable room, enjoying the views.

The hot tub

Spitbank Fort is situated in a busy shipping lane with ferries passing to and from the Isle of Wight and naval ships into and out of Portsmouth Harbour, as well as the occasional fishing boat and others besides. So there is always something to see if you look out of a window, or from the hot tub – even the sauna has a perfectly-positioned window! There are also great views to be had of the Island (as locals call the nearby Isle of Wight) and of Gosport and Portsmouth on the mainland.

View of Portsmouth

The Isle of Wight

We also couldn’t resist visiting the Victory Bar where coffee or tea and cake were served late afternoon. This was also an opportunity to explore what I found to be the most interesting part of the fort – probably because it is, I felt, the one that had been restored with the most original features (but also possibly because it is a bar!)

The bar has been created in part of the gun floor that once held the smaller landward-facing cannons and you can still see in the stone floor the arced metal runners along which the big guns would be swung to direct their fire, and the large iron hook in the ceiling that helped to support their immense weight. Smaller hooks elsewhere in the ceiling were, Kyle told us, where the crew would sling their hammocks.

The Victory Bar

Along the inner wall a series of smaller rooms open off this one. Today they form part of the bar area, but they would once have been fully sectioned off. One was the officers’ bunk room, one their washroom (now used to chill the champagne!) and one their mess. Dotted around the main room and these small snugs are lots of appropriate pieces of furniture, pictures and other items. I was particularly interested in a copy of a German newspaper (we assumed a replica) dating from the time of the Normandy Landings (see photo below).

The former mess room

Corner of the Victory Bar

Original features

German newspaper

For all its history, the restoration of the fort has created here a properly cosy bar, with comfortable seating areas and windows equipped with telescopes from which you can get a close-up view of the land you’ve left behind.

Our evening on the fort

Sous-chef and oysters

The restaurant at Spitbank Fort is known as the Officers’ Mess, but it is not in the space that would have originally served that purpose (which is a small room opening off the Victory Bar) but in part of the smaller land-facing gun floor (the same Victory Bar occupies the remainder of that floor). It is quite large and tables, which are also large, are very spread out. It was slightly odd dining here with just 12 other people – seven couples in total, all seated on separate tables. We ate dinner here – or rather, we ate most of it here. But before it started, we were invited to the Crows’ Nest for an ‘interactive’ oyster bar – which basically meant that anyone who wanted to try their hand at shucking could do so. I took one look at the knife involved, remembered how clumsy I can be, and wisely decided against. Unfortunately, I less wisely forgot that I occasionally have a problem with mussels and oysters – something I was to pay for during the night :(

Rabbit in a mess tin

Meanwhile though it was on to the main event, and we were surprised to be told that our first course, ‘Butter poached rabbit, celeriac remoulade, pancetta & mustard’, was to be served not in the Officers’ Mess restaurant but in the wine cellar on the basement floor, in mess tins and accompanied by a dry sherry. It was a little strange to perch on bar stools and eat what was a delicious dish (actually my favourite of the whole meal) in this fashion, but it added an unusual touch to our experience.

We then headed up to the restaurant and were seated at our allocated tables. Ours was near the door and we found it rather cold and draughty, but we learned later that most of the others were no better, being near the windows. It was a bit of a shame that the chill slightly detracted from what was an excellent meal: another starter of ‘Hand-picked Lymington crab, gazpacho, lobster & coriander’, a main course of ‘Surrey Farm beef fillet and 24 hour shin of beef Anna, salt baked parsnip, violet carrot & horseradish’ (the beef cooked medium rare, as I like it) and a dessert of ‘Raspberry & mascarpone torte, pistachio praline and basil poached raspberries’.

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Beef, and raspberry torte

After dinner, hot chocolate and marshmallows were served round the firepit on the roof, but it was a bitterly cold night and few of us hung around there for any time, preferring to return downstairs to the warmth of the Victory Bar. The drinks we bought there, and the wine we chose to accompany our dinner, were the only things we had to pay for during our stay by the way – everything else was part of our package.

Night view of Portsmouth

The next day

We were lucky that our bedroom faced east and that we woke up just in time to see a wonderful sunrise over the sea. The previous day had been dull but now there were plenty of gaps in the clouds and the February sun gave us a special display as it rose.




Sunrise from Spitbank Fort

Breakfast was, like dinner, served in the Officers’ Mess – a buffet with cereals, pastries and fresh fruit, plus a menu from which you could order a full English breakfast or perhaps just some eggs and bacon. Unfortunately the staff made a bit of a mess of taking our order (I think each of the two on duty thought that the other had done it), and one was then too busy chatting to other guests to fetch it from the kitchen, with the result that my poached eggs (all I could fancy after a challenging night brought on by the oysters!) were over-done and not runny. On the positive side though, when we came to check out a little later and pay our drinks bill, this had been halved as a gesture of goodwill to apologise for the mix-up, and as we had enjoyed several drinks (including a lovely bottle of Malbec with dinner) this was much appreciated and ensured (as no doubt they had hoped) that we left Spitbank with a very positive impression.

After breakfast it was time to pack our overnight bags and board the catamaran back to Gosport where our car was parked. We had a quick look in the fort’s gift shop nearby, but didn’t buy anything. A number of other guests did however, with prints of the fort being the favourite item from what I could see, but we preferred to rely on our own photos for the memories.

Farewell to Spitbank

Posted by ToonSarah 11:20 Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises food history hotel fort drink seas Comments (11)

An English seaside town


We have friends living in this south coast seaside town, Paula and Kevin (who used to be our neighbours in west London) and have visited several times. Let me introduce you to some of my favourite sights in the town.

Hastings Old Town

Buildings of the Old Town

At first glance Hastings looks much like many other mid-sized English seaside towns, with fish and chip shops, amusement arcades and deck-chairs. Not that there’s anything wrong with these, but tucked away at one end of the resort is the great bonus of the picturesque Old Town. This truly retains the old character of the town in its winding streets and historic buildings which now house some interesting shops, bars etc.

Carnival parade

Every summer there is a week-long carnival, Old Town Week, celebrating the delights of the historic town centre, promoting its shops and other local businesses, and raising money for local charities. There are lots of events, culminating in a grand procession through the streets of the old town and fireworks at dusk on the beach.

The Stade

Net storage huts on the Stade

On the beach of Hastings Old Town, which is known as the Stade, are these traditional huts for storing nets. They were built in this unusual shape to make the best use of limited space and because of a council regulation that they should be no more than eight feet square. Most date from the second half of the 19th century and quite a few are still in use, while others have been adapted e.g. as a fish and chips shop. One of Britain’s oldest fishing fleets is based here, the largest between the Thames and Brixham in Devon, and the largest beach-launched fleet in country.




Fishing boats on the Stade

This is a great place for keen photographers, and for buying fresh fish of course.




Fish shops on the Stade


The Stade - fishing paraphernalia

Rock-a-Nore Beach

At the eastern end of town, beyond the Stade, is a small shingle beach known as Rock-a-Nore Beach. This is a quieter place for a stroll, especially in winter, and has an attractive setting with its backdrop of cliffs – yellowish sandstone here, not the chalky white found both to the west (Seven Sisters and Beachy Head) and east (the famous white cliffs of Dover). The difference is due to the geology of this part of England. The chalk downlands of the South Downs and North Downs are separated by the Weald. The South Downs meet the sea near Seaford and Eastbourne, while the North Downs meet it near Dover and Folkestone. Hastings lies between these, at a point where the Weald meets the sea. A glance at a map will show you what I mean.



Rock-a-Nore Beach

Part of the cliffs here collapsed in January 2014 (caught on video by a bystander: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-25594640) so take care if exploring this area, especially in rough weather.

The area of town behind this beach and the Stade is also known as Rock-a-Nore. The name apparently derives from a former building ‘lyinge to the Mayne Rock against the north’, that is, with a rock to the north of it. You can take a funicular railway up the cliffs to East Hill, for walks on the grassy cliff-top and views of the town and the sea – still on our ‘to do’ list!

The East Cliff funicular

Fishermen’s Museum

In the heart of Hasting’s Old Town a small church (formerly the Fisherman’s Church) has been converted to a museum which tells the story of the local fishing industry through the ages. The centre piece is the Enterprise: one of the last of the luggers (sailing fishing boats) which dominates the main room. Children in particular love to climb up on to its deck and imagine themselves out at sea, but it’s interesting for anyone who wants to get just a small sense of the lives of the hardy fishermen who once sailed her and others like her.

The Fishermen's Museum, outside and in

Around the walls are numerous old photos of some of these men, with descriptions that each evoke a small piece of history – when they fished here, what their boat was called, how they died (some of them sadly but inevitably in accidents at sea), nicknames and family etc. Other exhibits include models of different types of boat, and a variety of nets, ropes and other artefacts. In one corner display cases hold examples of the marine life these men would have encountered as well as some that they most likely would not – the giant albatross’s huge wingspan is fascinating but the likelihood of one ever having been spotted off the Sussex coast very small.

A side room has yet more photos – I particularly liked the ‘before and after’ ones of Rock-a-Nore (the name of this area of the town) which showed that in fact relatively little had changed over the two generations that separated the photographers.

Admission to the museum is by donation and the Fishermen's Protection Society and the Old Hastings Preservation Society rely on these for its upkeep so please give what you can.

Hastings Lifeboat Station and Visitor Centre

Lifeboat, Hastings

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution plays an important role in this country, surrounded as we are by the sea. It provides an essential service but unlike the other emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) is a charity, relying on donations from the public. Some of those donations are raised by having open days, when it’s possible to tour the lifeboat station and learn more about the work of the lifeboat men and about the boats themselves. On our recent visit to Hastings it was one such day, and a volunteer showed us around and told us lots (arguably too much!) about the two different boats they have here. One is a smaller Zodiac-style inshore boat, the Daphne May, while the other, the Sealink Endeavour (seen in my photo) can travel as much as 50 miles out to see on rescue missions. Apparently one or the other of the boats goes out from here an average of 50 times a year, so you can see it’s a much-needed service.

There has been a lifeboat stationed here since 1857, when a sailing vessel and all its crew were lost off the coast of Hastings. This tragedy led to funds being raised to purchase a lifeboat, which was stationed in a boathouse at Rock-a-Nore. Six years later the RNLI took control of the station. In more recent historical times the Hastings lifeboat was one of the 19 that took part in the evacuation of forces from Dunkirk. Today’s lifeboat station was built in 1995 and was the first to be designated as a Visitor Centre as well as an operational one. While clearly those operations have to take priority, as lives may be at risk, you are likely always to receive a welcome and to be able to see the boats if they are not at sea. There is also a small shop selling lifeboat-related souvenirs, with all profits going to the RNLI.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:13 Archived in England Tagged beaches boats fishing coast history festival seaside Comments (7)

A very English county

East Sussex

In my previous entry I described our recent visit to East Sussex (and a bit of Kent). Here are some of the other places we have visited and enjoyed in the past:

Seven Sisters and Seaford Head

Seven Sisters

One of the loveliest spots from which to view southern England’s classic chalk cliff scenery is here at Seven Sisters. They take their name, logically, from their number, and the line of seven white cliffs, especially when gleaming in the summer sun, is truly quite striking – and very photogenic.

The cliffs are the remnants of dry valleys in the chalky South Downs, which are gradually being eroded by the sea, creating this wave effect. As the Seven Sisters Country Park website explains,

‘The cliffs are receding at about 30-40cm each year on average. The process is intermittent with major falls occurring after heavy rain or rough seas, often two of three times per year. Where these falls occur they protect the base of the cliffs from the sea and usually there are no falls in the same places for eight or nine years until the sea undercuts the cliffs again.’

(The same web page, by the way, also has a nice diagram showing the contours of the cliffs and the individual names of each).

These views are only accessible on foot, although you can get fairly close by car, as this map shows: How to see the Seven Sisters. We have in the past followed two different routes. Firstly, parking near the Visitor Centre on the A259 (for which there is a charge) and walking along the lovely Cuckmere Valley for about three miles to the beach below the cliffs, Cuckmere Haven. From here you need to climb the hill to your right if you want to get the classic view in my photo above. You can also get a bus from Eastbourne, Seaford or Brighton to the park entrance.

Seven Sisters from Seaford Head

Alternatively you can drive via Seaford to Seaford Head, where a free car park gives you access to several walking trails across the cliffs leading to the same hill-top view, from where you can descend to the beach for a closer look.

The path down to the beach

Once there you can of course enjoy the views, but it’s also worth taking a closer look at your immediate surroundings. Wild flowers abound on these chalky cliffs (but please don’t pick them), there are shells and pebbles to pick over on the beach, rock-pools to explore for shrimp and other small sea creatures, and sea-birds galore.

Seven Sisters from the beach, and in the Cuckmere Valley

Battle Abbey

At the eastern end of Battle High Street is Battle Abbey. This abbey, much of it now in ruins, was built by William the Conquerer to commemorate the thousands who died in the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings – which, despite its name, took place here.

The main attraction here is the opportunity to walk around the battlefield and learn about the events that shaped English history. That may sound dull, especially as an initial view of the area shows nothing more than a slightly muddy field, but the excellent audio tour populates the field in your imagination with soldiers and other significant players. When you first put on your headphones you are invited to choose a character to follow through the events of that day – a great way of bringing history to life. I chose one of the women who followed the soldiers and cared for the wounded, which gave me a very different perspective on the battle.

Battle Abbey, evening light

There is also a small museum devoted to the history of the abbey, with various artefacts found during excavations. Nearby you can see the spot where King Harold is said to have died. You can’t go in the re-built abbey itself however as that is now a private school.


Roses above the door

This lovely Jacobean house was once the home of the author Rudyard Kipling (from 1902 to 1936). It has been left just as it was when he lived there, decorated in his exotic oriental tastes. If like me you like to see where well-known books were written, you’ll like the study with his collection of books (many unsurprisingly from India) and the original illustrations for The Jungle Book, drawn by the Detmold brothers, which are displayed here.

Outside are pretty gardens to explore, with traditional roses and a lovely lily pond. This garden was laid out according to Kipling’s own design, which still hangs in his study. They run down to the River Dudwell with its working watermill, dating from c. 1750. You can also see Kipling's 1928 Phantom 1 Rolls-Royce in the garage here.

The lily pond

Carr Taylor Vineyard

England may not be well-known as a wine-producing country but for some years now pioneers have been establishing vineyards in the southern counties and trying to change that image. At first their attempts were laughed at and their wines dismissed as sub-standard, but increasingly both the casual drinker and the wine connoisseur have come to take their efforts and their results much more seriously. Indeed some of the wines produced here have won awards in international wine competitions.

Carr Taylor Vineyard
(early in the growing season!)

This site was first planted as a vineyard in 1971 and consists of 37 acres of land which slope gently towards the southeast, creating the perfect micro-climate in which to grow grapes. The owners claim to produce ‘a truly English style of wine which is crisp, aromatic, fresh and fruity’. Certainly we were impressed by those we tasted when we visited.

As well as tasting and shopping for wine (and a whole host of wine-related products) you can follow a trail around the vineyard, where signs along the way give information about the grape varieties grown there and how they are cultivated. All this is on a very small scale compared to in major wine-producing countries but is a novelty here in England.

Pashley Manor Gardens

Pashley Manor - the house

Pashley Manor is a beautiful Tudor Manor House, although only its gardens are open to the public. But these are well worth a visit, and a walk around them will easily occupy an hour or two.

Flowers at Pashley Manor

Nearest to the house, are several well planted formal gardens with beautifully planted borders. There is even a vegetable garden that looks more attractive than many flower gardens!

The vegetable garden

Interspersed with the planting, and on the lush green lawns, are a number of sculptures by various artists, all of them for sale (no, I didn’t ask the price!) One section here holds a lovely swimming pool which would be so tempting on a hot summer’s day. The plants in the borders are labelled, so it’s easy to identify ones you might want to try at home, and there are also helpful gardeners working here and there, willing to stop what they’re doing and chat about the plants.

One of the borders

Beyond these more formal gardens you come to a landscaped area with a woodland walk and a small lake. Everything is very photogenic, with carefully planned views. When we visited, though, I did have a small mishap with my camera, when a black swan on the lake attacked my camera when I was taking his photo and left a small dent in the bodywork with his bill!

Beautiful but aggressive!

There is also a lovely café here and a small shop selling good-quality gifts and a small range of plants. Alternatively, there are picnic tables in the field where you park, although picnicking isn’t allowed in the gardens themselves.

Church of St George, Brede

Church of St George, Brede

The small village of Brede lies about five miles (eight km) north west of Hastings. We stopped here for a drink at the village pub, and sitting outside our eyes were drawn to the attractive old church on the other side of the road, so when we had finished our drinks we crossed over for a closer look. It was the church of St George, originally Norman but with considerable additions over the centuries. It sits in a picturesque churchyard with wonderful views on one side over the Brede River Valley. We spent some time strolling around looking at the old gravestones and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. I found lots of details that appealed to the photographer in me.

Fallen angel in the graveyard

Lichen on an old tombstone

View from the churchyard

Inside, the church retains some of its Norman features, including a window (at the west end of the north aisle) and the pillars of the south arcade. It is worth a quick look, but for me it was the exterior and churchyard that made this such a lovely spot.

De La Warr Pavilion

Bexhill-on-Sea is a quieter seaside resort than Hastings, best known for the De La Warr Pavilion on the seafront. It was built in the 1930s, the result of an architectural competition, in the Modernist style of that era. The architects, Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, were leading lights in the Modern Movement. The project was initiated by the 9th Earl De La Warr, then Mayor of Bexhill – hence the name. His vision was of a public building that would put Bexhill on the map, culturally speaking. When he opened the new building, he described it as:

‘a modernist building of world renown that will become a crucible for creating a new model of cultural provision in an English seaside town which is going to lead to the growth, prosperity and the greater culture of our town.’

Staircase in the De La Warr Pavilion

Staircase lighting

After some damage during the Second World War, and subsequent deterioration of the building, it was restored in the early 2000s and reopened as a contemporary arts centre, with one of the largest galleries on the south coast of England.

If you are interested in 20th century architecture this is a must visit. Its elegant lines epitomise the Modernist style at its best, in my opinion. Whether or not the current exhibitions are to your taste (they change regularly) do go inside to admire the staircase in particular.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this wander through some of the sights of East Sussex. There is lots more to see and do in this lovely county, and as I said, we visit quite often, so I will add another page to this blog when we’ve made some new discoveries.

But meanwhile I need to introduce you to Hastings, the town we visit most often …

Posted by ToonSarah 10:45 Archived in England Tagged landscapes architecture flowers coast history views church vineyard garden wine author Comments (7)

Of Weald and Downs

East Sussex and Kent

The beach near Rye, East Sussex

With Paula & Kevin
in a Sussex pub garden

For quintessential English countryside only a stone’s throw from London you could do far worse than visit East Sussex. This lovely county truly has a bit of everything – pretty villages and interesting towns, centuries of history, coastal scenery and rolling downlands.

Alex & Pete's cottage

To the west of the county lie the South Downs, while the east, along the border with Kent, shares with that county the area known as the Weald, a sandstone ridge which separates the chalk landscapes of the North and South Downs.

We have just returned from a lovely weekend visiting friends in this lovely county, prompting me to share some of its delights here. We’re lucky enough to have two sets of friends living here: Alex and Pete have a pretty cottage in Battle (site of the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings) while Paula and Kevin live in the seaside town of Hastings (which despite its name wasn’t the site of that famous battle!) This past weekend we were with the former in Battle and we took advantage of the summer weather to get out and about.

We visited two beautiful spots, Bodiam Castle and Sissinghurst. OK, I’m cheating a bit, as the latter is actually a few miles across the border into the neighbouring county of Kent. But it sits in the same High Weald area as Battle, so I hope I will be forgiven! In this entry I plan to tell you about those outings and in the next will introduce you to some of my other favourite places in East Sussex.

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle

There are many castles in England worth visiting, but what makes 14th century Bodiam stand out is its moat. This is the archetypal image of a moated castle. Although ruined it is sufficiently intact to look very impressive when seen from across the moat in particular.

The castle was built by a knight, Sir Edward Dallingridge, and designed to be both an effective defence against the threat of a French invasion (or peasants’ revolt) and an impressive family home that showed off his status and wealth.

Bodiam Castle, with northern gatehouse and Barbican ruins in front (left of photo

There are two gatehouses but you can only enter through the one on the north side, in front of which are the ruins of the Barbican. A National Trust volunteer here pointed out the historic graffiti carved into the stone of the gate, which can also be seen on the southern Postern Gate. Some of this was made by soldiers of the Napoleonic period. It used to be thought that they were guarding prisoners of war in the castle, although that has since been disproved – they are more likely to have been simply stationed in the area. One of the inscriptions here is particularly clear – it was made by James Bryan, of the 35th Regiment of Foot, in 1819.

Historic graffiti

But I was more fascinated by the volunteer’s explanation of these more cryptic carvings. They are known as Witches’ Marks, and were typically carved into buildings as a device to prevent witches from entering – the theory was that they would get lost in the maze-like patterns. These particular Witches’ Marks probably date back to around the time of the building of the castle!

Witches' marks

Once inside you will find the various buildings which once stood around the central courtyard are much more ruined than the outside wall. It takes some imagination to visualise the chapel, great hall, living quarters etc., although the informative signs certainly help.

Ruins of Bodiam Castle


Chris up the tower

You can climb the spiral stone steps of the postern tower for views of the surrounding countryside and for a bird’s eye view of the castle’s layout. But the steps are steep and a little worn so I left that to Chris, who went up with our friend Alex while Pete and I remained on the ground, studying more of the graffiti.

Chris's photo of me and Pete (and an oblivious stranger!)

Historic graffiti

We also looked up at the murder holes through which guards could throw burning oil, rocks, scalding water, tar and other nasty substances on to invading troops, should they storm and enter the castle.

Murder holes

This gate was the entrance for tradespeople but was also probably used as a private entrance for the family and for informal guests – hence the heraldry above the entrance.

Heraldry above the Postern Gate

Eagle owl

As you explore you see signs of Sir Edward’s wealth – a large number of fireplaces (33 – none of them in the servants’ quarters!), the chapel which once had beautiful stained-glass windows, the landscaped setting with water features.

Outside we saw an area set aside for children to try their hands at archery. There was also an eagle owl, one of several birds of prey to be seen at the castle, but owning to unusually hot weather they weren’t having any of their usual flying displays, understandably. So we headed back to the main entrance after our castle explorations to enjoy a much-needed cold drink and relax with a view of the pretty surrounding countryside

Sissinghurst Castle

Despite the name, Sissinghurst is more of a manor house than a castle. The original manor house was built around the end of the 13th / early 14th centuries. Nothing remains of that house apart from some sections of its moat. But in the 16th century a new Renaissance courtyard home was built here by the Baker family, with a new brick gatehouse and comfortable family accommodation.

At Sissinghurst Castle

The house was leased to the government during the Seven Years War (1756-63) to be used as a prison camp for 3,000 captured French sailors. It is to them that we owe the ‘castle’ element of the estate’s name – they wrote home to their families, often referring to Sissinghurst as Chateau de Sissinghurst, and the name stuck. Unfortunately, they also destroyed much of the house.

Building detail

Weather vane

What survived was restored by the Mann Cornwallis family (their initials can be seen on the weather vanes which top the towers). This included the Renaissance gatehouse, stable block and several farm cottages.

But Sissinghurst owes much of its present-day fame to the couple who bought it in 1930 – Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. They fell in love with the estate and devoted much of the rest of their lives to creating a home here – restoring some of the buildings and adapting them for their needs, but most significantly, creating the garden that would make Sissinghurst famous. It was Harold who designed the series of separate ‘rooms’ but Vita whose influence is most strongly felt in the planting of these. She felt that plants should not be constrained but instead be allowed to tumble over paths in a more romantic style.

When the National Trust took over the property in 1967, five years after Vita’s death, they tidied up the garden, but more recently they have carried out research into Vita and Harold's original designs and vision for the gardens and are gradually restoring them to recapture these.

Climbing the gatehouse tower

Tower gatehouse from the gardens

The first thing we did on arrival was climb the 78 stairs in the gatehouse. This is really worth doing and I was very glad I’d made the effort. On the way up you can stop in a series of rooms, of which the first is by far the most interesting. This is Vita’s writing room and has been left just as it was when she died in 1962. Actually, you can’t go in the room, only look from the doorway, as many of the books and other objects are fragile, but that is enough to give you a strong sense of the character of the room.

Vita's writing room
Forgive the quality, it's a dark room and I didn't like to use flash

Further up in the tower you can see some of the graffiti left by those French sailors, and also, as you climb, see collections of coloured glassware and this little stained-glass monk in one of the windows.

P1000877.JPG P1000867.JPG

Stained glass in the tower, and historic graffiti

Once you reach the top the views make the climb worthwhile. As one of the staff had told us, you see no modern-day buildings at all, so these are the same views generations of previous inhabitants will have enjoyed.

View from the tower

Looking down, closer to the tower, you can really appreciate the overall layout of the gardens and features of the estate in a way you can’t possibly do when on the ground. The series of rooms into which the garden is divided is clearly seen from here, and the various small buildings dotted around. Unusually Harold and Vita chose to make their home in several of these – they slept in the South Cottage, where Vita also had a flower room and Harold his book room (where he wrote); their two sons had bedrooms in the Priest’s House, which also held the kitchen; Vita wrote in the tower, in the room I have already described; and the library, also used for hosting visitors, was (and still is) in the former stable block opposite the tower. I found it hard to imagine living like this, until I realised that the garden is also part of the ‘house’ and walking through it from room to room would have been an almost hourly pleasure for the family.

The White Garden from the tower

View of the orchard from the tower

The library

Descending the tower we crossed to the nearby library which houses the couple’s extensive collection of 20th century books. Here we found a helpful volunteer happy to answer our questions about the furnishings and fittings, including the large painting of one of Vita’s ancestors, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset (1536-1608) being presented with petitions by his secretary, and a simpler work by one of the imprisoned French sailors depicting the Sissinghurst of his time.

In the library

Exploring the gardens

We went to an introductory talk about the history of Sissinghurst, from which I have drawn some of the info above, and took a break for refreshments in the café, then started our explorations of the gardens. It has to be said that these weren’t at their best and I would love to return to see them perhaps earlier in the year (June would be great for the roses). Our dry hot summer has also hit some of the plants quite hard, but there was still plenty to enjoy.

The gardens

The dahlias were looking pretty good, the White Garden had enough in bloom to be very pretty indeed, and elsewhere the borders held much of interest. Here is a selection of my best photos taken as we strolled around.

In the gardens of Sissinghurst

The White Garden





In the White Garden





Some of the other flowers

It was a hot day, however, so we decided against a longer walk in the fields around the garden, and instead settled for excellent ice creams eaten in the shade of the Elizabethan barn. We checked out the shop where there was a sale on (but didn’t buy anything), and also the separate plant sale (ditto), before heading home, resolving to come again soon.

I'll finish with a few photos of some of the buildings on the estate - and one more of the gardens!

In the gardens, and the stable block

The old stable block

Old cottage

Posted by ToonSarah 12:09 Archived in England Tagged landscapes buildings castles architecture flowers history views garden Comments (12)

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