Into Battle: The Small Sussex Town Where English History Was Made

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 13 months ago

Last Updated 26 May 2023

Into Battle: The Small Sussex Town Where English History Was Made
Battle town square, outside the Abbey gatehouse

Battle is where British history was shaped, where the most famous skirmish ever on English soil took place, and where Anglo Saxon England came to an abrupt and bloody end. And, for 21st century visitors, the small Sussex town has all that history, with the added bonus of beautiful buildings, independent shops and charming tea rooms.

On the day of our visit in July, 2021, the town is a riot of yarn bombing, scarecrows and painted pebbles, all showcasing Battle as a place with plenty of community spirit.

Yarnbombing is popular in Battle

Benches, post boxes, bollards and even bikes are covered in wool of every colour, while scarecrows perch on benches, lean against lamp posts and linger in shop entrances awaiting judging of this year's Scarecrow Festival. The pebbles are more of a mystery and confined mainly to the town square outside the abbey.

Yarnbombing, scarecrows and painted pebbles on display in Battle, July 2021

Battle Abbey and Battlefields

The main attraction around these parts is Battle Abbey, and the historic battlefield on which it sits. The town takes its name from the Battle of Hastings, fought here rather than the better-known seaside town eight miles away (presumably 'Battle of Random Hilly Field In The Sussex Countryside' didn't catch on).

The gatehouse façade looming over the high street and town square is a looker, commanding the attention of everyone passing through. Visitors to the English Heritage site can wander the battlefields where the Battle of Hastings reportedly took place, with a stone marking the spot on which King Harold was famously (probably) shot in the eye, a detail gruesome enough to get even the most reluctant of children interested in the history around them. (If you're looking for Harold's possible burial site, it's a lot closer to London).

Looking from Battle Abbey towards the battlefields

Choose between walking routes of various lengths around the battlefields, with information panels along the way, all ending up at the abbey. It was built in 1070 on William the Conqueror's orders to commemorate those who died in the battle, and though the Abbey Church was destroyed during Henry VIII's reign, other abbey buildings remain (though only just — a bomb was dropped on the abbey in 1943, while the Canadian army was storing significant supplies of ammunition on the site. By fluke, the bomb didn't go off, otherwise the abbey and much of the town wouldn't be standing today).

Battle Abbey, seen from the battlefields

Although the battlefields history is presented without question, we'd point you towards a 2013 episode of Time Team, in which experts suggested that the famous battle may have taken place just outside the modern-day town, rather than at the 'official' battlefield which is now visited by thousands of tourists each year.

The ruins of Battle Abbey

Interestingly, that particular episode of the Time Team back catalogue is no longer available to watch in the UK — shortly after it aired, someone (a local source suggests to us that it may have been English Heritage, though there's no proof of that) paid for the copyright, to prevent it being aired or made available again. So enjoy a visit to the abbey and battlefields, but take the specifics with a pinch of salt.

Before you leave, take the time to climb the spiral stone staircase to the viewing platform at the top of the gatehouse, which offers 360 degree views over the local area.

View over Battle town from Battle Abbey gatehouse

The hilly Sussex countryside is undoubtedly beautiful, but most fascinating is the view up the high street, ideal for people-watching and for getting a better view at the architectural mish-mash of buildings lining the town, the details of which are largely swallowed up on ground level by the unrelenting bustle.

Battle Local History Museum

For a more rounded look at the town's past, the Battle Local History Museum at the other end of the high street is by far the most interesting local history museum we've been to. It tells the full story of Battle, from Norman invasion to the present day, with passionate volunteers on hand to add colour to the displays. Headline artefacts include an axe head discovered locally in 1951, and believed to be the only weaponry from the Battle of Hastings ever found, and the world's oldest Guy Fawkes effigy, which has been bonfire-dodging for over 200 years.

The oldest Guy Fawkes effigy in existence, on display in Battle Local History Museum

If you've ever wondered what Battle was called before the eponymous skirmish, wonder no more — there wasn't a settlement here until the abbey was built a few years later. The modern-day high street was a Roman road, and it's clear the Romans knew what they were doing.

Two millennia later, the street is a constant stream of traffic, with cars, buses and lorries drawn into a modern-day tussle for space as they use the town as a through-route to their final destinations. Combined with the fairly narrow pavements, it gives the town a claustrophobic feel to anyone exploring on foot, making leisurely meandering a bit of a challenge.

Since Norman times, the towns fortunes have risen and fallen on the back of a revolving door of industries, from leather tanning to cannon-making, gunpowder production, clock-making and even a jam factory, the legacy of which can still be seen today in the form of a Newbery Preserves sign over the entrance to Abbey Court on the High Street. The Newbery Brothers jam factory was big business in Battle from the 1800s until after the second world war. These days, tourism appears to be the main industry around these parts.

Battle High Street

Rother Books, in one of Battle High Street's historic buildings

Like towns up and down the country, Battle bears the financial scars of 2020. Multiple empty shops have 'To Let' signs in their dusty windows, but refreshingly, several independent businesses are holding strong. Rother Books offers literature among wooden beams, while a few doors down, Battle Cakes and Bakes is an old-fashioned bakery, with towering window displays of cakes and pastries.

Views down Mount Street

It's worth venturing down side streets and twittens, as they're known in Sussex, not least for a bit of respite from the busy high street. Cute, historic cottages and countryside views can be seen just a few steps off the main thoroughfare.

A beautiful historic cottage on Mount Street

There's the added bonus of stumbling across gems such as DickieBird Homestore, a petite but colourful homeware store with a nook of a coffee shop tucked away out the back, its off-the-beaten-track location making you feel like you've discovered a little secret.

Inside DickieBird Homestore - head to the back for coffee and cake

Unsurprisingly, Battle wears its history with pride. A Guy Portelli sculpture on the roundabout at the top end of the high street brought the town to the attention of the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society in 2017, and earned it a place in an international calendar.

Guy Portelli's sculpture in Battle

Several plaques can be spotted throughout the town, including official Battle Town Trail route markers, as well as independent plaques giving details about the history of individual buildings. Take time to raise your head above the street level hubbub and see the mish mash of historical architecture which makes up the high street today — timbered and gabled buildings, bay windows, local-style white weatherboarding, chimney and turrets all sit side by side, squeezed in as if they've been neighbours forever.

An historic cottage next to the Abbey Gatehouse

A quick glance at Historic England's map confirms that the majority of buildings on the old Roman road and surrounding streets are indeed listed structures, meaning that they should be in situ for many generations to come.

Though Battle's retail defences may be temporarily lowered, there's no doubt that such an industrious town, which has made its fortunes in so many different ways through the centuries, will thrive again. It's not only an historic epicentre, but a beautiful area with plenty of architecture to admire, and independent businesses and community spirit to enjoy — all on a direct train from London.

Battle town centre is a 10-minute (uphill) walk from Battle station, which is on the London-Hastings line, less than 90 minutes from Charing Cross. There's an entrance fee to visit Battle Abbey and the Battlefields, which are managed by English Heritage.

Take a look at other things to do in Sussex, including the fairytale castle at Herstmonceux, the idyllic town of Rye, and of course, the nearby seaside town of Hastings.