Alkham, and the Ruins of St Radegund’s Abbey

The world wide web contains dozens and dozens of weather forecasts for the small area I want to walk around today. But there really is a phenomena of ‘too-much-information’. Weather forecasting is still an inexact ‘science’ and with climate change (as global warming has now been re-branded), it is likely to become less exact. Sometimes the best thing to do is to stick one’s head out of the front door, check the sky, feel the air and decide from there. I reckon it’s going to be mild and warm with a bit of wind. Other factors have also come into play. I want to travel light so will take a chance if there is a light rain shower and I want to feel the wind and the coolness of the breeze on the downs.

The starting point is Whinless Down, and lovely it is too. It’s early Sunday morning so few people around and only the occasional exhaust-pipe-less motorbike about twenty miles away making a roaring din. It seems odd that with all this talk of autonomous vehicles that no-one has managed to make quieter engines. One is quickly lost up here. Not geographically, it is possible to navigate by the views of Dover castle and the various communications masts and a battered copy of the OS Explorer Map 138. I had spent some time the previous evening with a pair of compass making measurements on it and studying contours. The ground is dry, and there is a pond up here past the Long Wood which has no water, although it is full of some lovely yellow flowers. I feel terribly guilty about not being able to identify them. I have been reading Jocelyn Brooke‘s very enjoyable semi-fictional, half-factual memoir ‘The Orchid Trilogy’ and feel acutely embarrassed.

Brooke was born in Sandgate in 1908 and wrote a number of novels which are set in Kent. The memoir consists of The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral. There are many qualities of Brooke’s writing to be enjoyed, not least the way he takes great interest and fascination in the local and the ‘ordinary’. And is partly as a result of reading Brooke that I want to be up on the downs today. In some ways it feels as if all this nature and the flowers are a very lovely memorial to him.

There is another pretty area of downs to the north of Mount Ararat and near a Denehole. The origins and functions of these are unknown, but generally they are shafts which may lead to underground chambers. They may have been hiding places or for the extraction of chalk, or both, at different times. It is possible that they originated in pre-history, into the bronze or iron age? It is a leisurely pleasure to lie back on the grass and listen to the bird song. I have been reading Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate on the train to work. It makes me laugh out loud at times. I very much like reading Eagleton because he is always intellectually stimulating, and introduces new authors and ideas in such an effortless way. Aquinas now dangles in front of the mind as tantalising possibility. There is something which Eagleton hints at which I do not properly understand, almost as if Aquinas finds something intellectually which even he is not sure of. It is not ‘does God exist or not’ but something different. This walk is the first time I have really had some time and solitude to think about this; as if so much of what we ‘know’ might not be much at all, and that there might be all this other stuff which we don’t realise is there. Or all our knowing prevents us knowing other things. Eagleton makes the point that Aquinas would have disputed the concept of the ‘external world’ – ‘why is a tree ‘external to me’ rather than next to me?

‘If I see it as ‘outside’, then the real me must be somehow squatting inside my own body, like a man operating a crane. And who is operating him?’

It can be rather disorientating to be reading this at 7.30am on the commuter train and then find oneself in an office surrounded by computers, monitors, white MDF furniture, standardised office chairs, spreadsheets, powerpoint presentations and all the rest of it. So it is very pleasant to be able to think about it lying on the grass of the down, looking at the rolling hills and the woods and clumps of trees.

When I eventually get to Alkham I look around the church and then sit outside on the bench by the south porch drinking tea and looking at the construction of the church wall and the tracery in the windows. The church is of the 13th century and well built. I am curious as to where these building skills came from. Where they imported by the Normans after the conquest? Churches were built, cathedrals, castles, abbeys, monasteries. But what about domestic housing? I recently bought a copy of The English Medieval House by Margaret Wood from the Chaucer Bookshop in Canterbury which is one of my favourite bookshops. It encourages browsing. And bookshop reading. That sensation when one selects a book from the shelf and is immediately transported into the mind of the author.

Leaving Alkham, its back across the downs again, up into a wood. It is one of those places that feels as if it is on the top of the world. The sky looks different up here. By chance, the ruins of St Radegund’s Abbey is discovered. This was founded around 1191, 92 or 93, the sources vary. Apparently it went into decline around 1450 and it was closed as part of the dissolution (or suppression) of the monasteries legislation from 1535 onwards. This was a Premonstratensian Order of ‘Canons Regular’. They were recognisable by their white habits.

I am regretting not buying a copy of St Augustine’s The City of God on a visit to Sheffield last year. For one, I would have been putting money into the hands of a local bookseller, always a fine act. But also I would now have the book to hand. I shall see if the Chaucer Bookshop has a copy, and also perhaps, the Rule of St Augustine, for this is by what the Canons Regular at St Radegund’s lived by. Here are a few of the rules. How accurate they are, cannot be vouched for as they were found on the web. It is worth noting however, that almost a thousand years ago, groups of people attempted to live a very different life to the one that we have now, and that involved collective and collaborative behaviour towards a shared solidarity and humanity, and by the action and virtue of truth.

‘The main purpose for your having come together is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God, with one heart and one soul’.

‘Therefore call nothing your own, but everything be yours in common. Food and clothing shall be distributed to each of you by your superior, not equally to all, for all do not enjoy equal health, but rather according to each one’s need. For so you read in the Acts of the Apostles that ‘they had all things in common, and each was given what he needed’. (Acts 4.32, 35)

‘Those who owned something in the world should be cheerful in wanting to share it in common once they have entered the monastery’

‘But they who owned nothing should not look for those things in the monastery that they were unable to have in the world’.