The Pilgrim’s Progress

I will never stop missing the brushes with history. The stony sublime of Prague. My most harrowing fear upon leaving that ancient, twenty-something mess of a city was the loss of the spires. Who would I be without towers and turrets and domes and basilicas? Who would I be without a crumbling, ancient world on my doorstep?

As it turns out, I have become a pilgrim.

I have joined the ghosts of fisherfolk from the sleepy town of Brighthelmstone who, with their wares on their backs and the sea in their wake, traced rights of way through the foothills of the Downs, the scattered farm buildings of Woodingdean, and over the chalk-cut Castle Hill where, at last, the stark stone tower of Lewes Castle and the proud buttresses of St Pancras’ Priory rose into view over crests of rolling green.

Of course, things have grown and shrunk in disproportion since then. The little wood-clad fishing town is now a bustling coastal metropolis, having risen from the ashes and spread suburban wings. Lewes, in comparison, is a quaint and quiet market town, host to pensioners’ shopping trips and ladies who lunch.

And the Priory – once amongst the largest monastic churches in all Britain – is now a crumbling relic of the England that was, laid to waste by a power-hungry Tudor and commemorated as a series of weather-worn arches set amidst manicured parkland.

Nonetheless, on this moody slate-grey September afternoon, it is our sole aim. We might have taken the train – an easy 10 minutes from Brighton station – but instead we walked like the devotees of old, driven by piety or by the promise of Lewes’ bustling markets. And we discovered that despite the rise and fall of centuries, some things have stayed the same.

Grazing creatures still dot the landscape, barely batting an eye at the travellers who pass. Lambs who have nearly grown to full height, and delicate Dexter cattle who never will. We spy a rider on a snow-white horse, cantering across an adjacent hillside, unaware of his part in this rural pastiche. The little windmill at Ashcombe is intact and authentic, lost to a gale and then lovingly rebuilt. And the castle, waiting as it always is beyond the rolling hilltop, is picked out in gold by a surreal shaft of sunlight, breaking through the day’s brooding grey.

But it is not the stone steps to the keep that we seek when, after three hours of walking, we arrive in the quintessentially English lanes of Lewes. Nor is it, strictly speaking, the cold pint of Armada ale that we enjoy outside Harvey’s flagship pub. For once the sun has slipped beyond the green bowl of the Downs, we join a trail of latter-day pilgrims – some believers, some historians, and some merely up for a party – and make our way to the ravaged remains of St Pancras Priory.

The faint foundations of the long-abandoned monastery are outlined by hundreds upon hundreds of tea lights, each juxtaposed in an empty jam jar, and glowing in the gloaming. Candles grace the weather-worn windows of remaining walls, and cluster around trees. Candles mark the point where destruction and creation meet. Candles sanctify this hallowed ground anew.

And here in the darkness, the people of Lewes are lost in their own devotions. Children clamber over tumble-down walls, as close to a fairy-tale as they’ve ever been. Friends reunite over strong, dark ale. Families amass to hear the chamber choir, stark and strange in the open air. Lovers sit atop sloping banks and gaze across the tender blaze.

There are those who believe that places of power are mystically aligned, built upon ancient sources of spirit that run through them still unseen. Looking at the cross-section of humanity drawn to this site of Medieval devotion, one could almost sense it. But the truth, I think, is closer to home.

There’s something in us all that cries out for the ancient, the arcane, the ritual. Some find it at conventional altars, or Nature’s wider temple. Others find power in pastimes – studied and spiritual acts of creation. For us, tonight, it was enough to step back in time, to walk eight miles in medieval shoes, and to arrive in a world where the warmth of community still keeps out the cold.

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