We noticed the first one buzz past us somewhere on 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 tradition, but have found ourselves caught in the middle of another old 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 Passepartout 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, huge, 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 Passepartout, thinking she’ll be amazed by this very odd, peculiarly British avocation, 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. As is the green bouncing crowd excitedly surrounding him.
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, and 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 into the 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 Passepartout is disappointed and tell her to expect more divergence and more British peculiarities ahead on our tour. And really hope it to be true.
I point 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 tell her of all the meaningful episodes in Britain that happened in a year ending ’66: Battles, Great Fires, World Cup wins.
She takes it all in. Politely uninterested.
Despite my family coming from London and me having grown up and spent my whole life there, for some reason I was actually born in this town and must have had the first few days 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, Passepartout 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 nods, looking, distracted out of the car window. “Pyrgos is a pretty ugly town too…”
Hastings was a curious place, likeable – but not entirely so – slightly seedy place to be on the first day of summer.
But, as twilight falls there’s little time to dwell on where we’ve been really, as there is, of course, still a whole country to see. So we continue on. Pressing westwards.