We noticed the first one buzz past us somewhere along the A259.
An outrider, leading the way. Then another one. A third. A fourth. Soon a whole swarm passing the car, at speed. Bikers.
We’re heading to Hastings on May Day to see the centuries old ‘Jack in the Green’ spring celebration, but have found ourselves caught in the middle of another old, important, English tradition.
Balding mods and rockers, the first youth rebels in the land – now with pension book in hand – flocking in huge numbers to the coast to make-pretend it’s 1964 forever.
After explanations to Giristroula about the other, 60s, weekend, Battles on the Beaches and mopeds decorated and worshipped – and not used to scoot round small Greek towns to pick up watermelons – we make our slow way through the revving machines and past the proud aged poseurs on the front and head into Hastings Old Town and up onto Castle Hill.
On the green fields high above the town there is another large congregation. Drunker and bawdier. Slightly more pagan and mystical.
Everyone appears to be painted green with garlands of flowers in their hair. Music and singing as hoary old green bearded men sit on kegs of beer with giggling, plump, not-so-young nymphs on their knees, kissing and boozing.
There is a depraved, feudal feel to proceedings as the people of Sussex celebrate the coming-in of summer.
I point out the morris dancing to Giristroula, thinking she’ll be amazed by this very odd, peculiarly British past time, but she looks fairly ambivalent.
“We have this in Greece,” she shrugs “Up in the mountain villages. At apokries time. Winter festival time. Bells and hitting sticks… But not quite as civilised as this…” she peers at the prancing group… “Or quite as organised.”
The main event of the Jack in the Green festival arrives – a nine foot man made of leaves and assorted foliage, wearing a faintly sinister grinning green mask. It’s a striking sight.
The green bouncing crowd excitedly surrounding him, chanting, throwing their arms in the air. More kegs of ale are passed over the crowds’ heads, and the pubs in Hastings Old Town below us spill out with Falstaffian revellers.
As Jack is attacked to the ground and slain to ‘release the summer’, he still looks in better shape than some of the crowd around us – one man lays passed out, face first, his trousers round his ankles, a knot of daffodils planted proudly between his buttocks. We decide it’s probably time to leave.
We crawl out of Hastings, leaving the pretty old part – with its black fishermens’ huts and resting, beached, barnacled old boats – back past the bikers still there on the front.
Down on the beach a man is renting out windbreakers. Giristroula, only used to the hiring of sun umbrellas on the scalding sands back home, stares in wonder as someone tries to open up a deckchair, the material getting caught by the wind, blown into a bowing arch of striped canvas.
The Hasting clouds lower.
A man wearing large bulky headphones swings a metal detector sadly over the wet muddy sands beyond the thickly pebbled beach.
We carry on into Hastings nondescript, neglected-looking, new town.
The Londoner finds the high streets of Sussex pretty much the same as the ones he left behind really. I feel Giristroula is a little disappointed and tell her to expect more divergence and more British peculiarities ahead on our tour. And really hope it to be true.
I had pointed to the castle – put up by a conquering Frenchman in 1066, knocked about later by an English king so it wouldn’t fall into the hands of a different gladiatorial Frenchman, bombed later still by the Germans – and had told her of all the meaningful episodes in Britain that happened in a year ending ’66: Battles, Great Fires, World Cup wins.
She seemed to take it all in. Politely uninterested.
Despite my family coming from London, and me having grown up and spent my whole life there, I was actually born in this town.
My father had some aborted scheme back in the early 70s of living down here to save the family money (I have read that Hastings, more recently, is the place where people suffering bankruptcy are re-located by the government when they have lost their homes – I imagine this adding to the new town’s feel of depression, which you can’t help but notice swirls around the place).
My father’s great plan for our family didn’t work of course, and we soon returned to London but still, I must have had the first few months of my life here in Hastings.
As we look out at the crumbling white façades of tall houses, standing in the street like slightly decaying teeth, Giristroula says it’s similar to her place of birth, Pyrgos, down in the Peloponnese in southern Greece.
I’m pleased that we have something like this in common.
“Mmm,” she says, looking distractedly out of the car window. “Pyrgos is a pretty ugly town too…”
So Hastings then. It was a curious town. Likeable – but not entirely so. An agreeably slightly seedy place to be on this first day of the coming summer.
But, as twilight falls there’s little time to dwell too much on where we’ve been, as there is, of course, still a whole country to go. So we continue on. Pressing westwards.