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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

02 October 2020

The final leg of his pilgrimage takes Malcolm Guite to Ramsgate Sands

“ON MARGATE sands,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “I can connect / nothing with nothing.” Fortunately, my pilgrimage ended not at Margate, but at Ramsgate near by, and I found that on Ramsgate sands I could connect everything with everything.

The connection that had first drawn me and inspired my pilgrimage from Rochester, through Canterbury, to Ramsgate (Poet’s Corner, 18, 25 September) was, of course, the pioneering journey of St Augustine, bringing the Christian faith to my pagan ancestors when he landed on these shores from Rome. So, my pilgrimage took me to Augustine’s Shrine in Pugin’s beautifully restored church. There, the relics of the saint established for me that sense of physical connection and continuity between the saints and ourselves, and, through them, in the long line of apostolic touch and succession, to the touch of Christ himself.

But there were so many other threads of connection, woven in the complex web of our history, which shimmered and shifted in my mind when we crossed the little creek on to the Isle of Thanet, made our way to the land’s end, and, on Ramsgate sands, touched the sea at last.

On the way into Ramsgate, walking along Pegwell Bay, we passed the Hugin, a replica Longship that sailed from Denmark to Thanet in 1949, and was there, as the Kentish tourist authority puts it, “to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of the invasion of Britain, the traditional landing of Hengist and Horsa and the betrothal of Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, to King Vortigen of Kent”.

I was struck that this was an “invasion” that we wanted to celebrate. But I was more forcibly struck, scanning the horizon and thinking of those others, now making even more perilous journeys in open boats to find sanctuary on our shores, by the thought that, of all peoples, the English, descendants of those early seafarers and adventurers, ought to have a special empathy, a sense of kith-and-kinship, with those who are driven to make that desperate journey now.

After our visit and prayers at Augustine’s shrine, we found our little hotel on Nelson Crescent; and I suddenly realised another connection to a figure who has been hugely significant in my life. This was the very crescent where Coleridge stayed on those recuperative visits to Ramsgate which were so significant in his recovery from depression and addiction: his first little forays back into “normal” life after the intense “rehab” that he and his friend Dr Gilman had devised for him in Highgate.

It was here that he wrote his fine late poem “Youth and Age”, with its glimpse of “aery cliffs and glittering sands”. He experimented with the new-fangled bathing machines, but much preferred to walk a little further along the sands to a cave that he had discovered. There, as his biographer Richard Holmes says, “he stripped off and ‘had a glorious tumble in the waves’.”

We, too, walked down from Nelson Crescent on our last morning, and out to the beach. For the sake of decency, I resisted the temptation to follow the exact example of my illustrious hero; but I took off my shoes and socks and let the cool waves wash over my road-weary feet, and felt, as Coleridge must have done, so many other cares being washed away.

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