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12 September 2014


Transport of delight

A NEW first for me: I have just blessed a bus. Now, departing pilgrims I've blessed, with lashings of holy water; and fairground rides on Brighton pier; sundry objects of devotion - cruets, ciboria, and other ecclesiastical paraphernalia - I have sanctified with clouds of incense; even a dead woodlouse at an animal service (don't ask); but this was my first bus. I feel so proud.

I was due to lead prayers at the Royal Sussex Regiment's monument in Regency Square, Hove, as part of the city's commemoration of the First World War (I'm chaplain to the Mayor again), and knew that there was to be a "heritage bus" in attendance, which I had offered to bless.

As I neared the square on the bright sunny Brightonian morning appointed, I realised that I had completely forgotten about my offer, and did not have the wherewithal with me. I popped into the nearest pub, the Regency Tavern, and knocked on the cellar door. I called out: "Hello. Can you help me?"

"I don't know till I've seen you," said a voice from the depths.

The landlord appeared, and looked rather nonplussed at this stray clergyman propping up his out-of-hours bar. I explained my predicament - a bus to bless and no holy-water receptacle, etc. - and he rallied round and presented me with a miniature milk bottle filled with water, which I promptly sanctified.

"Actually, could you help me?" he asked, and pointed to a brass plaque on the wall, surrounded with big remembrance poppies. It was a memorial to men lost in action on the railways, and had once been in pride of place on a steam engine.

"The Dean of Carlisle blessed it last time - could you bless it for us now, here?"

I obliged, of course, sprinkling water from my milk bottle, and praying for those who had died and those who remembered. It was slightly surreal, in a pub at nine o'clock in the morning, but heartfelt and genuine. 

Proud heritage

I PROCEEDED to the memorial, dressed in my clerical gear, led the prayers, and came face to face with the aforementioned bus.

I had expected a vintage vehicle from the 1900s, wheeled out decorously from time to time as the centenary progressed; but no - it is a modern double-decker, festooned with pictures of Brighton and the Sussex Downs in wartime, with soldiers from India convalescing in beds in the Pavilion, and patriotic crowds waving flags in sepia-coloured streets.

Again, I said suitable words, and splashed water from my milk bottle with a spray of leaves I had purloined for the purpose from the Square. We then got on the bus, and trundled off to the Mayor's parlour in the town hall for a bit of a do.

I've seen the bus go past twice, since. It will be doing the rounds of the local area for the next four years, and I'll have a swell of proprietorial pride each time it whizzes past. Again, it was surreal, but also heartfelt and surprisingly moving.

Suitable setting

WHILE doing another mayoral thing - this time in the First Base Day Centre - I joined in with an awareness-raising breakfast for the scheme, one of this year's three mayoral charities.

First Base does amazing things: it has a chiropody centre for the homeless, and a resident optician (it had never occurred to me how much your spectacles are at risk when you live on the streets, nor had I realised the amount of paperwork that homeless people encounter, which would be impossible to negotiate without the means to read it).

The centre is, in some ways perhaps improbably, housed in one of the finest buildings in the city - the former St Stephen's Church. Originally built in 1750 as the Grand Assembly Ballroom in the Castle Hotel, it was bought by the Prince Regent as his private chapel (he had gone twice to the - still extant - Chapel Royal, but, as the preacher had both times preached about adultery, he had refused to go back). It was later dismantled, and rebuilt in fashionable Montpelier Place as a "society church". Falling on hard times, it was bought by the Brighton Housing Trust, and turned into a drop-in centre for the homeless.

As I listened to the sobering figures - more than 1000 rough-sleepers on the streets, nine homeless people murdered over the past decade - my attention wandered over the architecture of the centre, up the stucco pilasters, and past the Corinthian capitals to the elegantly arching vault.

I noticed the architrave, a delicate repeating pattern of urn designs, looking, from the ground, for all the world like 18th-century chalices with hosts presented above. Images of incarnation hovering over a once-consecrated place where the lame are helped to walk, and the blind enabled to see, a beautiful place where individuals are valued and nurtured - I could not help but feel the powerful resonance. So, not such an improbable setting, then.

The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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