The battle to save the field of the Battle of Hastings required diplomacy of an high order as the Trust's opponent was none other than our partner at Tewkesbury, English Heritage.
On March 26th 1998, English Heritage applied for planning permission to Rother District Council to build a café and an exhibition centre in the walled garden at Battle Abbey, with the new development to be serviced by a road across the battlefield.
The Battlefields Trust only came to hear about this in a letter sent to the Trust from Mr Neil Clephane-Cameron dated April 21st 1998. It alerted the Trust that Rother District Council's deadline for objections was April 30th 1998.
After careful research and detailed consideration of the proposals,Michael Rayner on behalf of the Trust submitted detailed objections to Rother District Council In a letter dated May 4th 1998.
The grounds for objection were that the proposed café was so close to the spot where King Harold would have stood and possibly died during the battle and was thus of very questionable taste; that if the café was turned down the proposed road was also unnecessary; and that improved interpretation facilities should be put on hold until an existing building could be made available for conversion to a visitor centre.
On May 5th 1998, the Trust made representations to Sir Jocelyn Stevens, Chairman of English Heritage and to Dr Andrew Brown Battlefield Inspector alerting English Heritage to the fact that its proposals at Hastings could undermine its successful work at Tewkesbury upholding the Battlefields Register.
On May 28th 1998, the Trust received a letter from Sir Sir Jocelyn Stevens saying
"I have given instructions that these plans be withdrawn until I have had an opportunity to see them."
On September 3rd 1998, Sir Jocelyn Stevens wrote to the Trust to say that the proposals had been the subject of "a thorough debate by our Advisory Committees" and that "the Advisory Committees recommended…that the proposals should go ahead and I have today written to the planning authority to say that the scheme will shortly be resubmitted for their approval".
The Trust sent objections to Rother District Council on October 19th 1998 and a more detailed objection based on planning guidelines on November 1st 1998.
The Trust wrote again to English Heritage saying that "the desire to provide visitors with refreshments should not outweigh the need to preserve this central part of such a historic battlefield" and that (English Heritage's) new proposals for the road would alter the route of a trackway there at the time of the battle.
On November 1st 1998, the Trust faxed a detailed submission to General Sir Martin Farndale, the Master Gunner and Chairman of the English Heritage Battlefields Panel.
The submission included the fact that Dr Andrew Brown, English Heritage's Battlefield Inspector had not been consulted about English Heritage's resubmission of their planning application.
Sir Martin took immediate action by fax to alert the Chairman of English Heritage (via Dr Andrew Brown) writing that this was also the first time the panel had heard of English Heritage's plans and "this seems to me to be a classic case for our panel before it goes any further". He arranged to meet the Chairman of English Heritage next day - Monday November 2nd 1998.
The Trust also took steps to fully brief the press on the issue.
On November 4th the Daily Telegraph, ran a major story by Michael Fleet accompanied by detailed maps with the headline
Battle café is one in the eye for historians
(Daily Telegraph, page 10 Wednesday November 4th 1998).
On November 4th, the Trust learnt that Sir Jocelyn had asked that English Heritage's
Planning application to Rother District Council be deferred.
On November 5th 1998, three national papers featured the issue:
The Times published a letter from Professor Richard Holmes (briefed by the Trust) condemning English Heritage's proposals.
The Guardian featured Neil Clephane-Cameron in a report headlined:
Battle lines drawn over 1066 project.
The Daily Telegraph's report, Pause in the battle of Hastings, stated:
"Sir Jocelyn Stevens intervened to have the planning application deferred and will now meet members of the Battlefields Trust and his own Battlefields panel to discuss the scheme".
On February 18th 1999, Sir Jocelyn Stevens held a consultative meeting at Battle.
Backed by an high-powered team from English Heritage he invited the Battlefields Trust and local interested parties and associations to attend. At the outset of the meeting Sir Jocelyn announced that English Heritage's original proposals "were dead in the water", that English Heritage were there to listen and would call further consultation meetings.
True to his promise, a year later, in February 2000, Sir Jocelyn, in his last outside engagement as Chairman of English Heritage, held a further consultation meeting at Battle in which he announced that English Heritage, the owners of Battle Abbey, would begin negotiations to take over an existing building to expand its visitor facilities and would also invest in improved interpretation of the battlefield to make it worldclass.