On Saturday 25 May we drove east from Lewes to Hastings and on to Kent.
We did not visit the battlefield of 1066, because, said Charlotte, “It wasn’t National Trust, and there would have been an entrance fee”. My reasons were different. We had already been to a few battlefields on this trip. They make me sad, and anyway, just visiting the scene of the carnage doesn’t help me to understand its place in history.
We went to Hastings‘s seaside promenade instead, parking opposite a villa with a blue plaque which commemorated Thomas Carlyle’s stay there in 1864. At the time he was working on his twenty-two volume life of Frederick the Great, and doubtless his walks along the seafront aided his reflections. Or perhaps not. His biography has been called a “mythopoeic effort”, which I guess means he strayed from the facts; maybe he was distracted by the ladies in their bathing machines.
From Hastings we went on to Rye and Rye Harbour, once important sea-ports but silted up over the centuries by strong tidal flows. In the north-west of Western Australia we have ten-metre tides and there’s not a medieval harbour in sight. Without suitable local ports an Australian prime minister named Robert Menzies was obliged to get himself appointed Lord Warden of the English Cinque Ports.
In Hythe after a bit of searching we found Hay House, where my 3rd great grandfather James Gordon Cavenagh (1770-1844) lived for ten years or so from 1830. He seems to have had quite a temper. There was a gate in the fence between his house and the Royal Staff Corps Barracks next door. In 1830 the Royal Staff Corps decided to remove the gate and close up the fence. Cavenagh took exception to this, and drawing his sword, threatened the men removing the gate. “I’ll run the first man through the body that attempts to touch the palings”. There was a brawl but eventually a fence was erected and the gate removed. When the matter went to court a jury found against Cavenagh and awarded 10 pounds damages. The barracks has since gone and Hay House is all that remains of the site. Now subdivided into flats, it looks a bit run down.
We attempted to visit the local parish church of St Leonard where my great great grandfather Wentworth Cavenagh and his siblings were baptised, but a wedding was about to begin and we couldn’t get in. It seems to have been a fashionable occasion and the narrow lanes and Einbahnstraßen around the church were choked with well-dressed Poms in Range Rovers trying to find a place to park. We somehow got caught up in the tangle, our fat black Mercedes further disrupting the traffic and Anglo-German relations, until we finally shot out of the mess and promptly got lost. Being lost feels better than knowing where you are and not wanting to be there.
Lunch we had in the garden of the Riverside Inn at Ashford. Low clouds threatening rain made it a dismal meal. Charlotte had scampi and Peter had a burger; the cider was warm, flat, and sour but not unpleasant. The inn had a few forlorn gum trees, a reminder of home. You had to imagine the strong bright sunshine and cold beer.
We spent the afternoon at Sissinghurst, where the gardens were just as beautiful as we remembered them from our 1989 visit. Greg had predicted that the intervening thirty years of tourism would have ruined Sissinghurst. I’m glad to say he was quite wrong.