The Battle of Hastings in 1066 changed the course of English history, and the Norman Conquest that followed was bloody enough that William the Conqueror vowed to build an abbey as penance.
The site chosen was the battlefield itself, and the high altar of the church is believed to have been built at the spot where William’s usurper, Harold Godwinson is thought to have died.
Little wonder then that Battle is known as 1066 Country.
You can visit the remains of the abbey and battlefield and potter around the town’s historic High Street’s twee local shops, tearooms and pubs.
Battle is in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with big tracts of woodland on its doorstep, while Medieval castles, the historic town of Hastings and an acclaimed organic vineyard are all close.
1. Battle Abbey
In 1070 in the wake of the Norman Conquest Pope Alexander II ordered William I to do penance.
William decided to build an abbey, and the site chosen for the high altar is said to be the exact spot where Harold Godwinson fell, shot in eye with an arrow.
The abbey was partly reconstructed in the 13th century and grew until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in the Reformation.
The abiding feature is the formidable gatehouse at the bottom of Battle High Street.
This beckons you to an English Heritage visitor centre with interactive displays, a dramatic movie retelling the events of 14 October 1066 and a children’s discovery room.
Some of the abbey has become the Battle Abbey School, while you’re free to investigate the 13th-century rib vaulted dormitory range, where there’s a stairway leading to the first floor of the Novices Common Room.
The abbey church was pulled down in the 16th century, and a plaque in the ground marks the high altar and supposed site of Harold’s demise.
2. 1066 Battlefield
Embroidered with wildflowers in summer, it can be hard to picture the meadow sweeping down the slope as a scene of carnage, but the visitor centre hands out audio-guides to give an account of the battle.
On 14 October, the Anglo-Saxons held the high ground, on Senlac Hill under the abbey buildings, while the Normans repeatedly pretended to retreat to break the Anglo-Saxon lines.
On sunny days you can listen to the audio-guide out in the fields, but there’s also a covered terrace with a view of the site in less clement weather.
3. Battle Museum of Local History
Battle High Street is brimming with beautiful old architecture and at the upper end of the High Street stands the Almonry, originally a hall house built in the 15th century.
That first five bay house was extended around a courtyard and remodelled in the 16th and 17th centuries when the current tall chimney stacks were added.
The Almonry now holds council offices and this small but compelling museum charts local history going back to a set of preserved dinosaur footprints.
You can view the discoveries from a nearby Roman bathhouse, as well as a Anglo-Saxon battleaxe from 1066. The museum also delves into Battle’s eventful 200 year gunpowder industry and displays what is claimed to be the oldest effigy of Guy Fakwes in existence, from the mid-17th century.
4. Battle High Street
Practically all of Battle’s shops, pubs, restaurants and galleries are clustered along the High Street that starts in the south in front of Battle Abbey.
The High Street mixes familiar UK town centre staples like Costa Coffee, with a lot of local colour at a delicatessen, design shops, independent jewellers, tearooms, galleries (Corner Shop and Saffron Art Gallery) antiques shops, a patisserie and a handful of places selling handmade gifts and cards (see Aurelie & Rose in particular). What will also strike you about the High Street is the amount of clearly historic buildings.
We could never list them all, but there are timber-framed houses from the 15th to the 17th century at No. 22, 32, 59, 60 and 67, to name a few, along with many stately Georgian houses with red brick or stucco facades.
At only 15 minutes on the train, Hastings blends riveting history with the old-time fun of a seaside resort.
The delightful Old Town is wedged in a narrow between two cave-riddled sandstone cliffs, East Hill and West Hill, where the Weald arrives at the English Channel.
The shingle beach (Stade) in front boasts the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in the country.
These vessels are towed ashore by a caterpillar-tracked tractor, while fishing gear is stored in curious tall black wooden net shops.
The jagged ruins of Hastings Castle are atop the West Hill, while the East Hill is the gateway to the Hastings Country Park and its gorse-decked hillsides providing a habitat for a startling array of birds.
And finally to get from the lower part of Hastings to the cliff-tops you can take the East and West Hill Cliff Railways, two funiculars well over a century old and going strong.
6. Bodiam Castle
In the opposite direction to Hastings is another convenient outing, at little more than ten minutes by car.
Constructed from sandstone, Bodiam Castle is a product of the 100 Years’ War, and was put up in 1385 expecting an imminent attack across the Channel from France.
Something distinctive about Bodiam Castle is that it was built without a keep, and its various chambers lined the inner courtyard and outer defensive walls.
Beside a broad moat, there’s a satisfying symmetry to the castle, and while almost everything within the walls is ruined you’ll be left in no doubt about how impressive this stronghold and its vaulted great hall would have been in Medieval times.
Standing in the inner courtyard you’ll spot the vestiges of great fireplaces, and from there you can scramble up to the battlements to survey the River Rother Valley.
7. Brede High Woods
At just shy of 650 acres Brede High Woods, just beyond Sedlescombe, is one of the largest areas in the hands of the Woodland Trust.
This is a huge medley of ancient and secondary woodland, both coniferous and broadleaved and accompanied by ponds, streams, springs, managed coppice and heathland.
The large quantity of old growth allows a real diversity of species to thrive, from woodland flowers like bluebells and wood anemones in spring, to great crested newts in the ponds and streams.
There’s also human history in Brede High Woods, at the hints of a forgotten iron smelting industry.
You’ll come across strange depressions known as bell pits, as well as banks marking property boundaries and long overgrown farms and orchards.
Something to hunt down is Chequer Tree Cliff formed by clay extraction over generations.
8. Almonry Gardens
After calling in at the Battle Museum of Local History you can pause from a busy sightseeing schedule to relax in the Almonry’s sequestered gardens.
These colourful borders and immaculate lawns are tended by Beautiful Battle, a team of volunteers helping to keep the town looking its best.
There are three different spaces – an upper garden, lower garden and the Almonry’s courtyard.
The gardens have won gold in the South & South East in Bloom competition, but because they are behind a wall and not signposted, they are missed by many people marching down to the abbey.
9. Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard
Now going for more than 40 years, the international award-winning Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard produces 30,000 bottles of wine a year.
These reds, whites, rosés and sparkling wines are bottled at the estate’s own winery and made using biodynamic and environmentally friendly methods (for instance, no plastic packaging) certified by the Soil Association and Vegan Society.
The vineyard has been recognised by the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Organic Wine Awards.
To see for yourself how a biodynamic vineyard works there’s a wide choice of tour packages available.
These range from a simple self-guided tour to a guided “tour for two” with ploughman’s lunch or cream tea and a tasting of four wines, a deluxe tour where you can take a bottle home, or a luxury tour with an overnight stay at the swish Sedlescombe Golf Hotel.
10. Battle Great Wood
Managed by the Forestry Trust is more than 450 acres of woodland on Battle’s east flank.
Battle Great Wood is a mostly coniferous plantation, but there are also glimpses of local industry in the many coppiced sweet chestnut trees.
The paths in the woods are wide, free of stiles and well looked after, and will deliver you to parcels of open heath, bordering streams and freshwater habitats.
Birds like nightjars, crossbills and tree pipits are often sighted in these woods, and if you go quietly you may happen upon a deer or badger.
11. Marline Valley Nature Reserve
About halfway to Hastings from Battle there’s yet another fabulous place to go for a wander, in a partly wooded valley over a gill stream.
Marline Valley has sandstone outcrops, ancient woodland and unimproved meadows.
The open meadows are astonishing in early summer for a rarely seen display of wild flowers like ragged robin, common spotted orchids, lesser spearwort, water mint and common fleabane.
And to make things even sweeter, butterflies like grizzled skippers, commas, purple hairstreaks, common blues and meadow browns all make an appearance in summer.
In the humid gill woodland grows an assortment of rare ferns, liverworts and mosses, while firecrests, nightingales and willow tits are a few of the birds that breed here.
12. Great Park Farm
This much-loved amenity in quiet countryside outside Battle is a few things rolled into one.
There’s a nursery selling a multitude of plants cultivated in extensive greenhouses.
The knowledgeable staff will be happy to answer questions about plant placement, care or suitability.
The farmshop sells fruit and vegetables grown at Great Park Farm.
Depending on the season this will be sweetcorn, courgettes, spinach, pumpkins, strawberries, raspberries, garlic, runner beans and much more.
There are also homemade breads and pastries, made with no preservatives or flavourings.
Right in the nursery is the Potting Shed Cafe, serving treats made on site and with a menu that changes from day to day.
13. Battle Brewery
Despite starting up as recently as 2017, Battle Brewery already supplies most local pubs, shops and cafes, and to cope with demand underwent a big expansion just a few months after opening.
As well as being a cherished part of the community the brewery also has a green philosophy, sending its spent grain to farms as cattle and pig feed and turning waste hops into compost.
Battle Brewery makes a pale ale inspired by the Abbey, as well as a porter, a full-bodied stout and Conquest, a copper ale, as well as a few seasonal brews.
You can visit on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday to sample the brewery’s cask beer on the pumps.
Take a table outside in summer and enjoy the views of the surrounding farmland dotted with sheep.
14. Sedlescombe Golf Club
If you want to swing your own club in 1066 Country there’s a fine parkland course in the Battle Great Wood.
Seasoned golfers can take on the Great Wood Course (£30 weekday, £35 weekends), which poses a real test.
The front nine is all about distance, with long, forgiving fairways, while the back nine is altogether more technical and requires accuracy and placement.
If you’re just getting started and need to fine tune your approach play the Little Wood (£10 all times) a great par 3. This is no simple pitch and putt though, and is just as tricky as the main course for its undulating fairways, tiered greens and many sand traps.
15. Battle to Bexhill Walk
Another coastal town in range of Battle is Bexhill, which has a superb beach, but like Hastings is more than a seaside resort.
There was a religious community and settlement here established by the Mercian King Offa in the 8th century, all laid to waste during the Norman invasion.
William I gave the land to one of his knights, Robert, Count of Eu, as a reward for his service.
There’s a 5.3-mile walking path to Bexhill from Battle, which will take just over two hours.
As an experience the walk can be divided between the streams, woods, pasture and arable farms on the way to the tranquil village of Crowhurst, and the low-lying marshland that comes just before the climb into Bexhill.
The route takes you close to Great Park Farm, and once you reach Bexhill you can admire the town’s Victorian and Edwardian townscape and the De La Warr Pavilion, a sleek Modernist building on the promenade from 1936.