In faraway England there’s a band of history enthusiasts on the march. They are heading south towards a field near Hastings in the footsteps of King Harold and his army who made the same fateful journey 950 years ago in 1066.
The story is well known, and not just among the English. Your Girl Reporter heard all about it at Kennedy Road Junior School in Hong Kong. We made a mural of scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry for the classroom and I was inspired enough to think that one day I might be able to go to England and stand in the very spot where Harold fell with a Norman arrow in his eye.
All the history I learned in primary school occurred in the British Isles, with just a passing mention one afternoon that the rising sun carved into the wall overlooking our playground was a remnant of Japanese occupation during World War II.
There was no further time for that, nor the inglorious details of the Opium Wars which culminated in the establishment in 1841 of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong on that barren rock, with barely a house upon it.
Instead, we drew pictures of serfs and the narrow strips of land they worked in the three fields attached to the manor house which changed hands from Saxon lord to Norman lord after the events of 14 October, 1066.
Years later, my long-forgotten ambition to stand where history happened returned in a whizz-bang flash as I watched a fireworks display over the ruins of Hastings castle.
It was an intoxicating sensation, to find the foreign suddenly familiar, even if the events in question actually happened down the road at a place ever since called – wait for it – Battle. And the Bayeux Tapestry is actually an embroidery.
My father, who grew up in a tiny town called Grenfell in country Australia, had a similar experience on his first visit to Britain. His primary school teacher Sister Ignatius had introduced him to the outside world like this: “Today children we’re going to learn a new subject called Geography and it goes like this: London is on the River Thames.”
Dad said it had struck him, as he enjoyed an English pint overlooking the mighty Thames, as a very peculiar concept to expect a child to grasp while growing up shoeless in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.
My sister Alin had the worst of it, enduring ridicule from her teacher and her classmates when she failed to comprehend an instruction to draw a picture of Big Ben and handed in a portrait of my big red teddy bear.
Alin and I both ended up living in England – her in Yeovil, a pretty little rural town in Somerset, and me in Hastings. We met often in London over the years but only once was it just the two of us.
We started in Kensington, as her mission was to obtain a visa for an impending trip to Spain but the queue was long and we quickly decided there were better things for two colonial girls to be doing in London.
We popped into Harrods where, as canny Hong Kong shoppers, we were shocked at the prices, then headed over to the Tower to stand in a bit of history. Traitor’s Gate was Alin’s favourite spot – I think it appealed to her anarchic nature.
We wandered through Leicester Square, Piccadilly, one of the parks and we were in Trafalgar Square, surrounded by pigeons, when Alin said she wanted to see Big Ben. “Let’s do it,” I said and, without a clue where to go or how to get there, we turned 180 degrees and there it was, straight ahead of us, gleaming through the surrounding buildings in the summer evening light.
We walked down to the river and along to Westminster and when we got there she was awestruck. She had never expected it to be so beautiful, with all that intricate golden detail.
On one of Dad’s visits to Hastings Alin and her family came down too and naturally we went to Battle Abbey, so they could see for themselves the lie of the land and walk the battlefield and imagine how it must have been all those hundreds of years ago.
And we stood by the slab which marks the spot where the original altar is supposed to have stood. Legend has it the altar was built on the spot where Harold fell.
Someone had left flowers – the kind of bouquet you would pick up at a service station – with a card which read, “To the memory of the last true King of England.”
History. We were standing in it.
© Sally Baxter 2016
Memorial – Alison Kinney, Berfrois. A meditation on memorials to war inspired by the Bayeux Embroidery, as it shall henceforth be known in these pages.
March into 1066 with English Heritage and follow the journey on Twitter at #Battle1066