England: Grim tales and dark humour

By Graham Reid

From Spike Milligan to William the Conqueror, Graham Reid finds southeast England steeped in history

Spike Milligan is buried in a picturesque churchyard. But his hilarious gravestone was only recently returned after a family dispute.
Spike Milligan is buried in a picturesque churchyard. But his hilarious gravestone was only recently returned after a family dispute.

While in Winchelsea in south east England, I went to pay my respects to Spike Milligan at his grave in St Thomas' churchyard. But unfortunately, Spike was out. More correctly, his famously funny headstone had been taken away - they left Spike down there - because, when his third wife Shelagh Sinclair was buried beside him in June 2011, her family wanted her name and dates added to Spike's stone. Milligan's son James from an earlier relationship objected. A bitter family feud followed.

The headstone - with Shelag's name and the inscription "May they rest together in perpetual light" - was returned in November.

Those words seem a bit serious given Milligan's epitaph on his headstone proves you can make people laugh from beyond the grave. It reads "I told you I was ill". Actually, it doesn't read exactly that because the good burghers of Chichester wouldn't permit it, so Spike's family had it written in Gaelic.

You can see why Milligan wanted to be buried at St Thomas'. It is one of the prettiest churches in the area, its old stones have been worn smooth by the feet of thousands of worshippers over hundreds of years, it boasts magnificent stained glass and trees so old they must have once heard the clash of swords as often as bird call on a gentle breeze.

Winchelsea - which Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais visited frequently - is also quaint and eccentric. The narrow streets have no visible names and down winding and narrow Wickham Rock Lane you are lead through an English countryside so beautiful it is a postcard clich. Here is an old windmill converted into a recording studio and used by another local, Sir Paul McCartney.

McCartney has a house in the ancient walled city of Rye nearby - he was Milligan's neighbour - and if Winchelsea is quietly attractive, Rye is a tourist magnet for its picturesque streets, odd names on the doors of homes ("The House Opposite" my favourite) and beautifully restored buildings where ancient sagging timbers defy a straight line.

There are no high-rises in Rye and 75 per cent of the quaintly historic homes are under protection orders.

With a population of just 4000, Rye inside the old city wall defines the notion of an English country town.

The writer Henry James spent the last two decades of his life in Rye and among his many visitors were Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells. The painter Augustus John was a member of the local Arts Club when James was its president.

This is also 1066 country - local tourism bills itself that way - and nearby is where Anglo-Saxon Britain and Norman Europe collided with appalling consequences. Appropriately-named Battle has grown up beside the site of the Battle of Hastings.

William the Conqueror, who defeated Harold's army that day in 1066, leveled the nearby hillside and a Benedictine abbey was built. It became one of the most beautiful and well-endowed in Britain until Henry VIII's reign, during which the monastery and church were destroyed. Over time it was further abandoned but its impressive remains - empty, silent and solid - allow for contemplation of all that happened here.

On the rolling grassland below two opposing armies - perhaps 10,000 men in all - stood in fatal opposition on October 14. Harold's Anglo-Saxons were weary after their defeat of a Norwegian invasion near York in late September and the 400km march to the south, William's troops - augmented by cavalry and using powerful crossbows, perhaps their first use in conflict on English soil - were fresh.

Even so, the battle lasted some nine hours until the English force, leaderless after Harold's death, fled.

It was peculiar to stand there and think that hundreds of men, hacked brutally or dying from the most horrific wounds, were lying beneath that quiet English field. All in an unmarked grave.

Just like Spike on the day I visited him, come to think of it.


Sussex Checklist

GETTING THERE: Cathay Pacific operates up to two flights a day from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong

ACCOMMODATION: Kester House in the village of Sedlescombe is an easy drive from all the main sights such as Rye, Winchelsea, Hastings, Battle and Bodiam Castle. It is a discreetly renovated 16th century home with three private rooms and all modern facilities. See kesterhouse.co.uk

ONLINE: 1066country.com


Graham Reid travelled to England with assistance from Cathay Pacific, VisitEngland and Visit1066country.

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