Thursday, April 7, 2016

1066 etc.

We spent the last few days of our trip in Rye, a town I think of as in Kent even though it just slides over the border into East Sussex. Kent is the setting for much of TWTSML, and when I came to Kent for research, in spring of 2012, we stayed at the George in Rye. That's a hotel I've seen mentioned in more than one work of either historical fiction or once-contemporary fiction that became historical (because it was written so long ago), and it's also the bomb, very old and quaint while at the same time modernized, elegant, and comfortable. This trip, the George was inconveniently fully booked, so we stayed instead at the Mermaid. I'd been to the Mermaid for drinks before--its bar is rather famous both for being very old and for formerly being a hotbed of coastal smuggling. A sign outside the Mermaid says "rebuilt in 1420," but parts of the hotel are much older than that, including, by all appearances, the mattress on our bed. The floors tilted impressive amounts, none of the walls were plumb, the en suite included bathtubs but not showers, and I was the only member of our family who didn't have to continually duck to avoid smacking my head on the lintels. That said, the place is really charming, the bar excellent, the food fantastic, and although the bed did slope downhill and the mattress really was uncomfortable, I slept extremely well, soothed, no doubt, by the enormous pigeons roosting on the windowsills.

When we drove out of London Thursday night (my son very conveniently does not have classes on Friday) and reached the green hills and marshes of Kent, my husband said to me, "Your characters have come home." That was exactly how I felt. I myself feel more at home in Ireland, or South Africa, but Ada and Jamie are home in Kent, and always will be, and I feel them palpably there.

On Saturday we went to Dover Castle, a huge sprawling complex atop the cliffs, which contains the remains of a Roman lighthouse, a fully-functional tower from the time of Henry II, (he's the one married to Eleanor of Aquitane, but she wasn't imprisoned in this particular tower. I asked), and the command post from which the British navy ran Operation Dynamo, the rescue of troops from Dunkirk during World War II.  The gift shop for the WWII part of the castle had Goodnight Mr. Tom and Code Name Verity side-by-side; I hope someone will squish them over to make room for TWTSML, which is coming out in the UK on May 16th.

That was Saturday. Friday my husband and son played golf at Rye, a course they truly love. I cast about for something for my daughter and I to do--we could have amused ourselves quite well in Rye, which is a medieval hill town with an ancient tower and a very nice old church, and also an excellent bookstore--but I wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything very cool nearby, since unlike our last visit I didn't have a research agenda. And lo, only 20 miles away, Battle Abbey, the site of the Battle of Hastings, which was, you know, fought in 1066. William the Conqueror. The Bayeux tapestry recounts the battle. And if you really want to wind my daughter up, show her some medieval weapons and let her imagine battle plans. In the visitor center we started with a brief film describing the battle; when the narrator said, "The English broke ranks--" my daughter groaned. "Never break ranks," she said. "You idiots."

After the battle, the pope got a little salty with William the Conqueror, even though he'd previously sided with him in the fight, and directed him to do penance for killing King Harald by building an abbey on the battlefield site. Supposedly the altar marked the spot where Harald fell. The altar itself fell later, when the entire church was destroyed following the dissolution under Henry VIII, but big chunks of the abbey remain; parts became a country estate and are now a boarding school (the students were on Easter break.) Most of the actual battlefield is still an open, sloping field: no one ever built on it, or leveled it for sports fields, or anything, for the last 950 years. Astonishing to think about all that.

That was our trip. The highlights, anyhow. I'm back in Bristol now, where life is resuming its normal rhythms. I've ridden my horse, re-established my yoga practice, folded all the laundry and balanced the checkbook. Now I have to tackle something intimidating: the computer I used for writing, eight or perhaps nine years old, is breaking down. I've bought a new one. Today I have to take it out of the box.