JUST above the steep flight of the “town steps” in Aldeburgh, there is a little bench, set to one side, sheltered over and nestled into the green bank of the hill. There you can sit, snug from the wind, resting from the effort of climbing the steps, and gaze across the little town’s glorious roofscape, and out past the timbered Moot-house and those dark huts where the daily catch is smoked and sold, out to the sea itself.
The roofs are a pleasing assortment of shapes and sizes: little cottages, substantial town houses, and odd buildings built into corners and gaps, almost all tiled in old, red clay tiles which have weathered and variegated into as many fine gradations of red, mottled yellow, brown, and ochre as one might find in the soil itself.
In all their different shapes and sizes, angles and pitches, the roofs slope down to the main street and the seafront itself, where peculiar little watchtowers and turrets with miniature castellations add to the variety. Sitting there, one can imagine, for a moment, all the other varieties of homeliness and human life packed under those roofs; the people coming and going, departing, journeying, and homing again.
And beyond it all, just audible, the surging of the sea on its shingly shore, at once restless and soothing, as it was to Keats when, dying in Rome, he seemed to see
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores
We only go to Aldeburgh once a year, to stay for a few days in January, another exhausted clergy couple in post-Christmas recovery mode. But I always take the time to sit on that bench, absorb the view, and smoke a meditative pipe.
And I have found that, over the years, by fondness and familiarity, that little nook and its entrancing view have become available to me wherever I am. Trudging some bleak street, drained and laden, or ensconced on the upper deck of a crowded bus, I have a door that opens, unbeknown to my fellow passengers, to a secret otherwhere; I have only to pass through it to find that I am present there; for the place is present in me.
Who can trace that mysterious transposition whereby an outer place becomes an inner one? A spiritual alchemy, a sublimation and transference has happened gradually, yet suddenly the growing soul has found herself another nesting place. So Yeats found, treading “the pavements grey” in London while his whole inner being heard lake water lapping on the isle of Innisfree; and Joyce, blinding in Zurich, could walk down Grafton Street and number all the Dublin doors.
“When you pray”, Jesus says, “go into your room and shut the door, and pray in secret, and your Father, who is in secret, will reward you.” And one part, at least, of that secret, certainly part of that reward, is that the inside of the inner door is bigger than the outside, as was the door once, to a stable.
Malcolm Guite is interviewed about his latest book, Love, Remember: 40 poems of loss, lament and hope, on The Church Times Podcast. Listen here