Between the medieval landscapes of the Sussex High Weald and the south coastline lies 1066 Country. As the name suggests, it’s an area where history was made, leaving behind iconic battlefields and majestic castles, as well as smugglers caves, secret passages and historic fishing fleets. Boasting over 150 miles of beaches, the area stretches from the golden dunes of Camber Sands in the west, to the ancient ruins of Pevensey Castle in the west.
At only 60 miles from the capital, and easy to reach by car or train, 1066 Country makes a great weekend or staycation destination for London families. And as we discovered during our recent weekend break, there’s plenty to do whatever the weather. Read on for more about our weekend break there.
Visit Bodiam Castle
A visit to the medieval Bodiam Castle will delight any wannabe knight or warlord. Rising from a wide moat, with its impressive gatehouse, high look out towers and arrow shooting slits, it’s your archetypal English castle – like a child’s drawing writ large.
It was built between 1385 and 1390 by a rich knight, Sir Edward Dalyngirgge, to defend the once wider estuary from a feared French invasion. All of those military features were put to the test as Bodiam castle saw serious battle twice, although not at the hands of the French. It was captured by Richard III in 1484, and again in 1645 during the Civil War, when Cromwell ordered its interior to be destroyed.
Today the ruin is run by the National Trust, and makes a picturesque spot for a picnic, or one of their signature tearoom cakes. Due to social distancing, the inside of the castle is currently closed, so you can’t cross the long wooden bridge. You can however take the short circular walk around the moat to take in the castle from different perspectives. It was so hot on the day we visited that we were grateful that the walk wasn’t too arduous.
There’s a free tree spotting trail to pick up too – although our nature highlights were the giant fish in the moat and the ducks that peck your pasty from your hand, given half a chance. Use one of their plentiful picnic benches if you don’t fancy sharing your lunch with the wildfowl.
After All This, we’ll be back to cross that moat, climb to the top of the towers for a spectacular view, and enjoy one of their special themed family days. Until then, we’re very glad we stopped by.
For more information about Bodiam Castle, visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodiam-castle
Explore the cobbled streets of medieval Rye
A wander through the winding streets of medieval Rye is a lovely way to pass some time. My absolute favourite has to be Mermaid Street – it has it all, in my eyes at least. Historic cobbles, timber framed inns and higgedly piggedly Tudor and Georgian houses cling to its steep sides. It is even pretty in the rain, when the cobbles gleam. But Rye has a dark past, even in pretty Mermaid Street. Underground lie a network of passages and tunnels, filled with smugglers secrets and murky tales.
There’s plenty of quirky historic details on Mermaid Street for eagle-eyed kids to spot. Take the eccentric names for example – where else could you find The House with Two Doors, The First House, The House with the Seat, or the rather enigmatic The House Opposite.
If you have time, and they have reopened, there’s more to see in Rye. Last year, on a childfree day trip, we climbed the perilous Norman tower of St Mary’s Church, and were rewarded with panoramic views across Romney Marsh to the now more distant coastline. Rye was once surrounded on three sides by the sea, and was raided frequently by the French. In one particularly devastating attack in 1377, Rye almost razed to the ground by fire and this church’s bells were stolen. But they weren’t gone for long – a year later, a revenge voyage saw the bells brought home.
Nearby Lambs House is a beautiful Georgian property which has hosted royalty and writers. Now run by the National Trust, it was once home to Henry James, and later E F Benson, author of the Mapp and Lucia Tales. In Rye Heritage Centre we tried the vintage penny arcade machines, with some laughable results. There’s tea rooms, small art galleries and antique shops to browse. I can wholeheartedly recommend oysters from Webbes Fish Cafe for a special occasion.
But on this visit with children, and with so much more to do in 1066 Country, we were happy to just show them our favourite street.
Jump waves at Winchelsea Beach
Probably the best known beach in 1066 Country is Camber Sands, with its wide, white sandy beaches and rolling dunes. However its fame and beauty is bringing more visitors than it can manage. Especially in the hot weather, car parks are overwhelmed, roads are gridlocked, and the beach is too busy for social distancing.
Instead we headed for Winchelsea beach – and I was thrilled to find practically empty, even on a scorcher of a Saturday afternoon. After we clambered its pebbly ridge, we were greeted with a long, shallow sandy approach to the sea. The gentle slope made it great for the little ones to paddle in, without fear of any sudden or dangerous drops. After months of avoiding the coast, the kids were delighted to be back at the sea – so much so they ran in fully dressed before I could change them into their swimsuits, party dress and all! They loved jumping waves and finding shells to fill my pockets with, and I was relieved to be back at the beach without any worries about social distancing.
I’ve since discovered from feedback from one of my followers that we accidentally timed our visit perfectly with low tide. If you want the same experience as us, check the tide times carefully to plan your visit.
It was windy on our visit, which meant we didn’t feel too hot in the sun. As I’ve learnt from the breezy beaches of the North Sea, do use plenty of sun cream, as it’s easy to get sunburned. The sand revealed at low tide is still wet, so there’s none of that sand blowing in your face business on drier beaches.
Winchelsea Cafe is serving food, drinks, and the obligatory ice-creams, albeit of the pre-packaged variety. We returned for lunch the next day but they were so popular the 45 minute wait for food was a little too long, even for their delicious looking burgers.
Take the steps directly from the cafe straight to the sea and back again, to avoid the mud in the tide pool. Museum Boy forays away from this path led to a rather murky moment that will undoubtedly become part of family folklore.
Unfortunately the cafe has closed its toilet, and there are none available at the beach either, so it’s not somewhere you can stay all day. But for an hour or so of uninterrupted beach time, Winchelsea Beach is well worth having on your radar.
The adventurous can walk the two or so miles from Rye to Winchelsea through Rye Nature Reserve, taking in Camber Castle and views of beautiful marshland with sheep grazing along the way. Or if you want quick access to the beach, you can park for free along Pett Level Road.
Escape the rain in Hastings
Hastings was a last minute change to our itinerary, when our outdoor schedule was turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of rain. But we had such a great day in Hastings that we’re glad the heavens opened. Our visit also proved there’s something for families to do in 1066 Country, whatever the weather.
At first glance Hastings is your typical British seaside town, with its flashing amusement arcades, Victorian pier, and slightly gritty seafront. But it also has a historic heart, a hard-working fishing fleet and a thriving arts scene, centered around Hastings Contemporary, all of which give it a distinctive character.
Hastings is split into the Old Town and the New Town. The pedestrianised George Street looked pretty even in the rain, filled with continental-style cafes, second hand bookshops and quirky art shops. In brighter weather, I would happily spend time wandering the winding streets. Instead we were headed for somewhere the rain couldn’t reach – the labyrinth of smugglers’ caves hidden in the West Hill.
Ride the West Hill Lift
Hastings boasts not one but two funicular railways. During our visit East Hill Lift which leads to Hastings Country Park was closed. We visited West Hill Lift. For almost 130 years it has taken tourists and locals alike up the steep hill face, through its distinctive tunnel. Today, a few quid buys you a swift but steady ride in its original Victorian cars.
At the top you’re rewarded with breathtaking views – even on our grey day I was feeling a little giddy! On a clear day you can see from the white cliffs of Beachy Head to out over the English Channel. It was on this very hilltop that local man John Logie Baird, the inventor of television, made his first radar experiments. Within easy reach are two historic attractions – Hastings Castle and Smugglers Adventure, our next stop. You can if you prefer take the rather steep 15 minute walk up the hill, but you’d miss out on this unique mode of transport. Note that West Hill Café was closed with no sign of reopening soon during our visit.
There’s one notable difference from times past. As West Hill Lift is a form of public transport you must wear a face covering, unless you are exempt. If like us you’re still getting used to the new normal, they sell disposable masks for 50p each. For social distancing reasons, numbers are limited. On both journeys we shared the cabin with three other visitors, the usual capacity is 16 people. Expect to queue outside before you can enter the ticket hall. Our wait on a wet day was about 15 minutes each side.
Wander the caves of Smugglers Adventure
Deep within the West Hill lie Hasting’s historic St Clement’s caves. Mostly formed during the ice age, they’ve been a home for exiled workhouse inmates, a Victorian visitor attraction, a hospital, an air-raid shelter and even a ballroom, visited by royals and The Rolling Stones alike.
Today it forms a dramatic backdrop to tell the dangerous and bloodthirst story of smuggling in Sussex in its 17th and 18th century heyday. It veers between atmospheric and kitsch, using over 70 life-sized figures, dramatic coloured lighting, films and interactive displays.
The children absolutely loved the push-buttons which brought their slightly creepy mannequin tableaux to life. I was most taken with the architecture, from the 44 metre claustrophic tunnel of Monks Avenue to the twisted, vast caverns. The extensive warren total an impressive one acre of space of underground space – allow at least 45 minutes to see it all.
The caves are very dark in places, so bring a torch or buy one from the entrance desk. The temperature drops, so do bring an extra layer. It’s spooky in places with references to ghosts and graveyards. But it’s the unexpected rattling of gaol bars by a mannequin desperate to escape which spooked six year old Museum Girl the most. For us, it was the right level of peril to make it a memorable visit.
For more information about Smuggler Adventure, visit https://www.smugglersadventure.co.uk/.
See a bit of fishing history in action at The Stade, the hard-working fishing quarter with its towering dark wood huts, previously used to hang nets out to dry. For 1,000 years fishermen have set off from these shingled shores.
Today it is the largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats in Europe. The boats have to be small enough to haul up the beach, so most are less than 10 metres. You’ll see colourful craft, tractors and winches, and pots for crabs, whelks and cuttlefish.
Hastings fishing fleet still uses traditional, sustainable methods to catch fish. And if the sea air gives you a taste for some fish and chips, there’s plenty of places nearby to choose from. We were a few minutes too late to get takeout from Maggies Fish & Chip cafe, which uses Hastings caught fish. But there are plenty of alternatives nearby – we were satisfied with our dinner from Mermaid’s Fish & Chip Restaurant.
Also at the Stade, Hastings Contemporary art gallery reopened just after our visit with a Quentin Blake exhibition.
The Blue Reef Aquarium
It would be a shame to come to the seaside without seeing any fish – besides our dinner, of course. A visit to Blue Reef Aquarium, also in the Stade area, helped right this wrong, as well as helping us dodge the rain.
It’s a small aquarium but has some impressive tanks, including a short tunnel with sharks swimming overhead. There’s also a reptile room, with snakes, lizards, scorpions and bugs. My favourite however was Baxter, the Giant Pacific Octopus who was spread-eagled over the glass and playing with his enrichment toy.
It’s very educational with plenty of written information and picture cards at each tank to help identify the fish.
Our visit took about 40 minutes, although your tickets are an all day so so you can come back for talks and feeds. We visited very close to closing time and apart from one other family, had the aquarium to ourselves. Aquatic themed social distancing markers and hand sanitiser are available throughout. Blue Reef Aquarium small seaside aquarium that made a nice finale to our fantastic weekend in 1066 Country.
For more information about the Blue Reef Aquarium, visit https://www.bluereefaquarium.co.uk/hastings/.
Where to stay in 1066 Country
We spent two nights luxury glamping at Swallowtail Hill, just outside Rye. We loved our charming shepherds hut, and its beautiful conservation meadows and woodland. It’s conveniently located for 1066 Country, at only a 10 minute drive from Rye, 20 minutes from Winchelsea Beach, and 25 minutes by car from Hastings. Do leave enough time in your itinerary to unwind at Swallowtail Hill. The joy of 1066 Country is that it is so close, we can always visit again soon.
Disclosure: We visited 1066 Country in July 2020. In our group was myself, Museum Dad, Museum Boy (8) and Museum Girl (6). We were guests of Visit 1066 Country and Swallowtail Hill, and received free accommodation and entrance to some of these attractions in return for an honest review. Additional photographs of Rye from our self-funded and child-free daytrip in October 2019.
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