The South Downs Pilgrims’ Way. Part 1 of 3.

Day one – base camp to first post, Eastbourne to Arundel.

We began our pilgrimage on foot. It seemed fitting somehow, even though this entailed nothing more historic or glamorous than walking the mile and a half from our Parents’ house to the Railway Station at Eastbourne. We were embarking on a two and a half day pilgrimage through West Sussex.

We were travelling to our start point of Arundel Castle to join others to walk the South Downs Pilgrims Way, organised by The British Pilgrimage Trust (for ease of reference!) after Rob had seen an article about them in The Guardian.   The BPT offers an opportunity to reflect, to take time, to work out what your truth is, to ‘bring your own religion with you’.  It also offers a guided, off-road as much as possible, but organised route through the Sussex Downs, stopping at out of the way Churches and holy places you might not otherwise find.  It felt like a happy little group walking through urban Eastbourne anyway because we are three siblings. Myself, my sister Cathy and brother Rob had never been away like this before – let alone on a pilgrimage!

off we go

And off we go!! Cathy, Rob, me.

We arrived at the station with plenty of time and our rucksacks full of stuff, including lots of (un)healthy snacks bought from Tescos that morning.  It took three trains, including a twenty seven minute wait for the final four minute train ride into Arundel itself, but we were buoyant and cheerful, snacking away (well I was anyway!) and reading up on what we were about to spend our weekend doing.

‘Tis but a short walk from Arundel Station to the Castle. You simply can’t miss it! What you can do though is get a bit confused by which entrance you should use to get you easily to your destination! Clear instructions and a smashing little map were provided, but none of us had it to hand. So we asked the (departing) staff. “Oh, you’re the campers on the hill!” said a lovely woman, “Hold on, I’ll ask if someone will take you up there”. I offered her and the two drivers chocolate (I was still snacking!) by way of a small thank you and that went down well but as Rob said afterwards “Everyone is so NICE!”. So we were driven up the hill through the castle grounds in a smart buggy. We were grateful. It was a long hill. Arriving as we did a little bit James Bond style (Yamaha 350 engine, don’t you know) was totally unexpected and a million miles away from the philosophy that had us set out on foot etc etc, but it was great fun and we had the dubious honour of being the first to arrive, but also of being nearly an hour early.

After introducing ourselves to Will, who was up to his eyes in stuff but who was just lovely, and if irritated certainly didn’t let it show, we helpfully took ourselves off for a walk around the grounds. People began to arrive and we wandered back.  We had a choice of where to sleep, either in the tents or in the Chapel. All sleeping kit was provided so it was a case of pick up your bed roll, silk inner and sleeping bag and choose your sleeping spot.  We made our way to the Fitzalan Chapel to check it out. Rob and Cathy were keen immediately but I wasn’t. My first reaction was that I’d rather sleep under canvas, thanks very much! But as more ‘pilgrims’ came in to have a look and the place filled up with living bodies, it became a peaceful atmosphere, and one with a certain amount of excitement at the thought of doing something so unusual.  So I had a re-think and decided it was the Chapel for me. I have slept in a tent many times, but never in the private chapel of the Duchy of Norfolk – the Howards for goodness sake! Quite something for history nerds like the three of us!! By now I had realised this was the family chapel, private even to paying visitors, and that this was a privilege.  Before we left for a big meet up, the kind woman who had led us there, with a wonderful warm smile and an excited gleam in her very blue eyes turned to me and Cathy and said she felt it would be right to say a prayer for all ‘the ancestors’ and to ask their permission for a peaceful night. Something like that anyway. So she unclipped the ropes cordoning off the altar and all three of us knelt and prayed. Being a heathen I simply thought about the bones of long dead nobility I was going to share the night with and hoped they wouldn’t mind!!

All pilgrims finally met together, under the cork tree (cork tree?? I didn’t know!) to introduce ourselves.  I had already lost track of time and it felt great.  We were 36 in number, which comprised 3 guides, 2 patrons and a choreographer (more later!) and 30 of us would-be pilgrims.  We stood in a circle and were asked to just say our names and then make eye contact with every other one in the circle. It took some time but it was a lovely thing to do and, with the exception of two names I didn’t understand, I remembered everyone’s names. The woman who had the keys to the chapel and who had prayed with us introduced herself as ‘Georgie’.   It was only later that I came to know her other monika is Her Grace, the Duchess of Norfolk.

Then we visited Arundel Cathedral Church of Our Lady and St Philip Howard. Wow. Wow. Even a heathen like me can appreciate the beauty although I always prefer the simplicity of an Anglican church. There’s something in me that feels uncomfortable with all the glittering gilt and gleaming marble, all the ‘riches’.  Even though it is very beautiful. What was even more beautiful in my view was that the two guides, Will and Guy, walked quietly up to the Altar and started to sing. I think it was a madrigal. It was beautiful and I wish I could better describe how their voices soared and blended together. It was a massive treat (even for a heathen!) and it felt so calming. When they had finished they bowed their heads and quietly walked away from the Altar. Magical.

We had a very convivial meal in the Castle restaurant – plenty of hot food, good bread, wine, beer and cake!! I sat next to Dean Tim who had kindly kept his Cathedral Church open for us even though we were much later than expected. He had some very interesting things to say and I enjoyed his company very much.  Getting to know the other pilgrims was fascinating. Everyone with their own reasons for making the journey, coming from all over the UK. Completely replete, the whole company seemed to make a mass decision to wend their way to their quarters.  So we walked slowly back to the Chapel to begin our night of rest.

the keep

The Keep. Our journey from eatery to Chapel.

Once back in the Chapel, there was talk of throwing peanuts (every one had snacks!) at the loudest snorer, a temptation to use the silk inner bag as a mock shroud and pretend to be a ghost, and other such ‘larks’ but in the end we resisted all the mockery and Scooby Doo antics, head torches went out and we all drifted off to sleep.  I think we all slept really soundly. There was snoring, oh dear me yes, there was snoring! But it didn’t matter.  If anything it was comforting, because in amongst the dead, it was a sure sign of life!!!!

chapel sleeping

Bedding down for the night. A chapel selfie!

People got up for a pee in the night and I woke quite a lot. It was a very warm night and I think we’d all expected it to be cold, given we were sleeping on a stone floor. But I was glad to wake and remember again where I was. The best part was the sun rise.  This picture (below) doesn’t do it justice, but the sun at about 4.30 am rising through the stained glass was entrancing. Mesmerizing. I just sat, leaning against the tomb of William, the 9th Earl of Arundel and his wife Joan Neville (as pictured above), and watched it for about 30 minutes.  What a start to the pilgrimage!!

fitzalan window

Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel, 22nd July 2017. 4.30 am.





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