I found myself transported back to the time of Cardinal Newman this evening, sitting in a glum old seaman’s church on the coast at Walmer.
Neo Gothic and built in 1848, it sits opposite the sea where for hundreds of years the locals took supplies out to ships sheltering in the Downs.
Once one of the biggest ports in the country, nearby Deal housed Nelson and Lady Hamilton on occasion, as the British fleet was anchored offshore, protected in a sheltered channel between the shingle shore and the legendary Goodwin Sands.
The evening glowered; the light was poor and the rain drizzled down on the grey, cold and lifeless seafront.
And yet there was calm, beauty even. I love dour Victorian churches with their fake Gothic arches and their heavily coloured (and equally heavily didactic) stained glass windows. The folk seemed from another time too. I was reminded of my fierce old Baptist grandmother, born at the end of the 19th Century, who lived in nearby Ramsgate. She was present somehow, amidst these local townspeople, a part of them.
Similar class, similar trade I guess and these people too reminded me of nothing short of Victorian shopkeepers. Was it my imagination or did I see mutton chop whiskers and frock coats? Who knows, the light played tricks on me perhaps.
Apart from one youthful member of the Choir, I seemed to be one of the younger participants. A not uncommon occurrence if one has a passion for sung evensong, in a format which has remained little changed since the days of Henry Tudor.
As is my wont, I turned up early for a few minutes of peace and reflection and while the choir practiced I thumbed through the race card.
I have often sung versions of Cardinal Newman’s beautiful poem but tonight the words struck me with more than usual poignancy. We were to sing it as one of the hymns.
“Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on;
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene: one step enough for me.”
I felt a mixture of emotions. A fish out of water perhaps, despite my unmistakable Englishness. It’s been a long time since I sat in my grandmother’s modest children’s clothing shop in Ramsgate, filching Victorian pennies out of the ancient wooden till. With permission from the old dear, I hasten to add.
The other side of the family was different altogether – wealthy, vulgar perhaps, with hindsight. And the years since childhood have taken me so far from Ramsgate and little shops in provincial high streets. More is the pity maybe.
Glamour, travel, expensive hotels and, well, some degree of wealth I suppose. For all that that means.
So it is grounding, I guess, sitting in this church. Back to my humble roots perhaps, or those of my grandmother.
And those wonderful words of Newman – let someone else worry. Look not where your path might lead. The night was indeed dark and although I was not far from home, I felt it. Emotionally, physically. I am all too often amidst encircling gloom and pride certainly ruled my will. Probably still does.
To have the childlike faith Newman talks of – what a wonder that must be.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
But, you know, with or without conventional faith there is a lot in the teaching. The code of behavior – modesty, kindness, lack of show. The idea that you should just plug on and let it all happen. And let someone else worry about it.
The whole experience left me feeling quiet, contemplative and satisfied. Cut out the god stuff and those Christians have got much of it spot on.