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Lines written on the Sussex Downs

08 December 2023

Kevin Scully explored a pilgrim trail linking seven churches


The countryside at Wilmington, in East Sussex, where the Cuckmere Pilgrim Path passes by the Long Man, on Windover Hill

The countryside at Wilmington, in East Sussex, where the Cuckmere Pilgrim Path passes by the Long Man, on Windover Hill

do not
start here
you can not
start here
you must start
where you are
or rather
where you were
at the start

THESE apparently discouraging lines open the poem “Pilgrim” from a collection that seeks to capture a personal journey in language. It wrestles with notions of travelling — in reality and in faith.

The first draft was used at the start of an annual walk in 2022 on the Cuckmere Pilgrim Path: a 12-mile trail that links seven Sussex churches.

About 15 people set out on the hottest Saturday of the year to do a mercifully truncated walk. Only four of us covered the entire distance. It was my first official duty as Poet-in-Residence in an area that I thought I knew well — an opinion that was changed profoundly over 12 months.

People set out on all types of pilgrimages, from the epic Camino to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, with its myriad routes that attract increasing numbers who walk all or part of it; the Holy Land; the longer pilgrimage routes to Canterbury; and to shorter, even circular walks in many countries.

For just over a year, I found myself walking one particular path in and around the South Downs with an eye to turning the experience into a sequence of verses.

THE path was established five years ago by the Revd Peter Blee, incumbent of five churches in the county, who has linked them — Berwick, Alciston, Selmeston, Arlington, and Wilmington — with two others, Alfriston and Lullington from another benefice.

Fr Blee has a knack for making connections between landscape, spirit, and faith, using the environment to link the earthly with the heavenly, making explicit matters that many might consider private.

A student of neither architecture nor literature from Sussex University once told Fr Blee that the only language for the Bloomsbury Group-adorned Berwick church was poetry. Half in jest, I suggested that he see that as a challenge, and the benefice should appoint a poet-in-residence to put that to the test.

AlamyThe chancel arch, decorated by Duncan Grant, in St Michael’s, Berwick, in East Sussex

The PCC took it up, and I found myself exploring the countryside and churches that are linked by the path. I did this alone, in small and large groups, and sometimes with other poets.

The circular path allows pilgrims to venture into the known and unknown, the concrete and metaphysical of matters outside ourselves, and, as I found, of the interior life. As T. S. Eliot wrote in Little Gidding, “We shall not cease from exploration.”

Recently retired from 30 years of ministry, most of it in inner-city London, I had plenty of time to reflect on the highs and lows, pressures and rewards of a walk with God with people from many backgrounds.

I repeatedly found myself exploring in words the circularity of the walk, sometimes lighting on one aspect of a church, or the topography at the foot of the South Downs.

Most of the churches have a feature in which pilgrims can focus — a bell, a window, the extraordinary paintings. The pilgrim bell in Alciston prompted me to connect it with others in Singapore and Slovenia in Three Bells:

Shaped to contain
the bell invites you:
strike me and I will
resonate for you.

A new window in Selmeston, designed by Léonie Seliger, of the Cathedral Studios, Canterbury, pushed me to an look through the blur of memory:

Defined colours somehow bleed into shades
of doubtful complexion: stridency in blue
splatters into harvest gold, stripling
green, martyrs’ blood red, scurry-cloud
grey, fingerprint black in a hidden cross.

IT WAS not all solitary. Groups of other poets came at my invitation, and responded to the walk and churches, as did parish and ad hoc groups. Discussion is a vital part of a pilgrimage, and others provide insight, challenge, and comfort. I hosted a number of events to which people brought and read poetry written by themselves and others, contemporary and past, that covered a wide range of experience and insight.

A local potter, Jonathan Chiswell Jones, invites walkers to put their thoughts on paper and place them in pots that are in each church. He also suggests that pilgrims take another’s message on part of the journey.

I take the lid off one and, as prayers
tumble out, read the messages:
thanksgiving; rejoicing; in memory;
lamenting; delighting; beseeching;
God help me; There be witches here.

You made your creation
a receptacle, like the questionable God and
the universe.

There is no silence here.

Such experiences challenged me to think and speak about other people’s responses to events in our lives.

I met a couple on holiday from the Netherlands, and we were soon swapping life histories and concerns about what we saw as worrying shifts to the political Right in European politics. This took place as we rested after the sharp climb to the top of the Wilmington Long Man.

Red, white, blue, whatever way,
didn’t help the man we could not see,
whose head was under our backsides.
He too has had a colourful life —
camouflage green in war, yellow brick,
now whited concrete blocks to stand out.

And even he has had to adapt,
what with the removal of his public
parts so offensive to Victorians,
but still he stands ready
with his walking poles or javelins
daring walkers below

but lost from above.

INEVITABLY, people reveal many things about themselves, and I found myself recalling the confidences, life events, and highs and lows that make up all our lives, but are an essential part of the priestly vocation. I tried to capture some of that with the final poem of the pamphlet, “One Last Climb”.

There’s a glimpse of sea — I know, I have seen it
once or twice — when you lean into the wind
at the top. Getting there takes an effort. I leave
the designated path and its shell-emblazoned
signposts to take a short, sharp, pull up the track
which, despite my age, still has the romance
of smugglers carting contraband into the village below.

I stumble, my boot’s downworn heel
wobbles me, feel sockdamp, look and notice
growing cracks behind the toecap,
a fraying lace. Signs enough, as though
my puffing chest and pumping heart were not,
to pause, sit down and wait. The view will still
be there. I know it will. I have seen it before.

The Revd Kevin Scully is a retired priest who is studying for an MA at the Poetry School in London. His pamphlet,
For The Journey, is available at Berwick Church. and via: kevin-scully.com

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