Meet the woman in charge of our most famous historical sites
- Credit: Jim Holden
Natasha Williams is English Heritage’s head of historic properties in Sussex, looking after key sites in the 1066 story
At this point in a normal year, Natasha Williams would be planning her battle strategy.
Being softly spoken and quick to laugh, she doesn’t seem the fighting type - but managing the logistics of the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings is all part and parcel of her role overseeing English Heritage’s Sussex sites.
One is Battle Abbey, the location of the 1066 clash between Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror. The other is Pevensey Castle, most famous for being the landing place of William’s army.
After studying ancient history and archaeology at Exeter University, Natasha took a job at Battle Abbey as a part-time seasonal steward, reasoning that it would be a good stopgap “before I found my calling”. As it turned out, she’d already found it.
“I just fell in love with the site at Battle,” she says, reflecting on her decade with English Heritage. “Everyone knows 1066 and has a vague idea of what happened here. I love the discussion of different theories as to what happened at the battle.
“But there’s a lot more to the site than 1066. That’s what brings visitors to the site but hopefully they leave realising that there’s another 950-odd years of history that happened here.”
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Some of her own favourite stories about the site involve the much more recent past: “A couple of years ago we had somebody whose grandfather was a groundskeeper here when it was a country estate, so he was able to share his memories of the Duchess of Cleveland. People are constantly dropping off photos that they’ve found in their attics.
“The main building, which now houses Battle Abbey School, has a lot of graffiti on the stonework, in the gatehouse especially, from Canadian soldiers stationed here during World War II.
“We had a letter sent in with a picture of one of the troops stationed outside the gatehouse and a couple of names attached to it, so we were able to put a face to some of the graffiti and build a story around it.”
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Pevensey Castle is currently undergoing work to repair its walls, reflecting the careful balance that must be struck between conservation and visitor experience. “I think it’s important that we don’t shy away from the fact that this work needs to be happen,” says Natasha.
“The message is really clear that there is work ongoing and that it’s one of the main reasons English Heritage is here, to conserve these properties. There’s a bit of a fundraising message there as well, in that it’s expensive to do this work which is why we value our visitors so much.”
This year has been tough for everybody, not least those attractions dependent on tourism for their income. Battle Abbey was one of the first heritage sites to open in mid-June under the new Covid restrictions and visitor numbers have been recovering well.
“Across the south we are probably running at about 60 per cent compared to a normal busy year. We actually saw more visitors this August than we did last August which is amazing really. A lot of it is domestic visitors and what’s been really nice is seeing locals who haven’t been to the site before.
“We’ve seen that a lot at Pevensey actually where, because it’s on their doorstep, they haven’t necessarily been but as soon as these places started to open it was somewhere different for them to go and they started to explore their local sites. That’s helped make up the shortfall from the overseas visitors.”
Typically, the Battle of Hastings re-enactment draws in thousands of visitors and hundreds of ‘soldiers’ to portray the action, but this year’s event on 10-11 October will be scaled down to accommodate distancing measures.
There will be falconry displays, archery and dramatisations with a family focus: “If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we can adapt and still give a really good visitor experience,” says Natasha, adding that events will take place over Halloween and Christmas too.
“Seeing the visitors flooding back, excited to be here, has really renewed a lot of the teams on-site.
“We want to make sure that people keep coming back to keep the story alive – keep people feeling that they’re part of that history.”