Photograph: Simon Dack/Alamy
Carrying the weight of the backpack on my shoulders, I ask myself: am I too old for this? In my 20s, I regularly went on wild camping days, but now, in my 40s, I’ve racked up more than a few ailments from all those youthful adventures. Yet on this pilgrimage journey through the South Downs from Lewes to Cuckmere Haven, I can leave the tent behind, as I will be sleeping in shrines along the way.
The Sanctuary Network was set up by the British Pilgrimage Trust along three routes, the Old Way in Sussex, the Golden Valley Pilgrim Way in Herefordshire, the Northern Saints Trails and the Cornish Celtic Way. The aim is to offer walkers low-cost accommodation in the heart of the Commons by registering as friends of the BPT and making a donation of between £5 and £20.
In Lewes I meet my friend Mark and we stock up on food at the farmers market before climbing the cobbled streets to the bottom. We follow a section of the Old Way, a 240-mile pilgrimage route from Southampton to Canterbury, rediscovered on a 1360 map by Will Parsons, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust.
Pilgrimages are for everyone, not just those of faith. Marc’s pilgrimage is to venerate a landscape that resonates with him. It’s easy to see why. The shadows of the clouds whisper to each other as they drift through the hills and towards the sea. A peregrine falcon passes at eye level and watches us drift through the valley known as Bible Bottom. The hills envelop us as we descend down a path and then climb Mount Caburn, a defensive seat for Iron Age lords before descending back to Glynde. As we descend the windy hills, we are happy to stop at the little forgotten church of St Andrews, Beddingham: once a Saxon settlement, it is now stuck next to the junction of the A26 and A27.
Inside, silence settles. Mark speculates on how often the pews in this church see the bottom of visitors, but I’m grateful it exists and is open. We always need places like this, cool, whitewashed pockets of peace.
We leave the village along a shady track lined with ash trees and pass Furlongs, once the home of artist Peggy Angus, who gathered friends at the farm and partied beside a dew pond in the Hills. Sussex artist Eric Ravilious depicted the farm in the 1930s, with Peggy shown in the garden among her sunflowers.
Somehow less is more, less comfortable bed, less food, and I recognize how rich I am to be on top of the hills
In Firle we dine at the Ram Inn and drink Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, made at Lewes Brewery, before heading to overnight accommodation at St Peter’s Church. The church’s Anglican priest, Peter Owen-Jones, is known for his television documentaries, including Extreme Pilgrim and How to Live a Simple Life. Today, he welcomes other pilgrims to his church. Inside, the air smells of incense and the place is welcoming, with flowers in a jar and knees embroidered with depictions of local wildlife. I put my camping mat and my sleeping bag under a window covered in scallops, a sign of the pilgrim. Dusk light falls along the plastered walls and plays on the carved alabaster features of Sir John Gage and his wife who lie side by side on their tomb in the chapel.
The next morning, I open my eyes to the sight of the sun shining through the stained glass windows. Mark and I eat pain au chocolat on a bench in the cemetery and search for the single graves of Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, which also lie side by side, with a smaller memorial to their daughter, Angelica, to their toes. We head again to the South Downs. The cold morning air is like icy water and the path is crowded with joggers and horse riders. Newhaven appears below, sheltering against a pearly sea as the chalk of the dunes meets the water. I feel very happy. In a way, less is more, a less comfortable bed, less food, and I can recognize how rich I am to have this morning on top of the hills.
In the Charleston Garden, once the home of the Bloomsbury Group, we shop for delicious focaccia bread and coffee vegetable soup and watch blackbirds on the hunt.
In Alciston, we wander past the remains of a monastic farmhouse as Mark falls in love with every flint cottage and old barn we pass. Two other pilgrims sit silently in the simple little church and a pilgrim’s bell hangs on the wall. Visitors are invited to ring the bell, a ritual common to many faiths, the sound used to create the interior space.
The act of pilgrimage returns to these shores. A chance to walk with intention and declutter the mind. Tomorrow we will complete our three day walk following the winding Cuckmere River down to the sea, but tonight we have to stay at the Old Chapel Centre, a United Reformed Church in Alfriston. It is a light and airy space which offers a simple kitchen and toilets. We drink mint tea and lay mats on the church floor for our last night.
You have to prepare a little for the harshness to enjoy the pilgrim shrines. They offer no-frills accommodation — “indoor camping,” as the Old Chapel Center aptly puts it. Don’t expect fresh linen and room service, don’t even expect a bed and a kettle, but come. What they offer, for a small donation, is the opportunity to wake up in beautiful spaces with daylight streaming through the stained glass windows and the chance to experience something rare and important – the trust of people who would open their sacred spaces to strangers while traveling. . In the times we live in, I have found this act of trust invaluable and humbling.