Photograph: Simon Dack/Alamy
As I shoulder the weight of the backpack, I ask myself: am I too old for this? In my 20s, I used to go on regular days of wild camping, but now, in my 40s, I’ve racked up more than a few heartaches from all those youthful adventures. However, on this pilgrimage journey across the South Downs from Lewes to Cuckmere Haven, I can leave my tent behind, as I will be sleeping in places of refuge along the way.
The Sanctuary Network was established 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 communities in return for registering as a friend of the BPT and donating between £5 and £20.
In Lewes I meet my friend Mark and stock up on food at the farmers market before heading up the cobbled streets into the hills. We’re following a section of the Old Way, a 240-mile pilgrimage route from Southampton to Canterbury, rediscovered on a 1360 map by British Pilgrimage Trust co-founder Will Parsons.
Pilgrimages are for everyone, not just for those who have faith. Marco’s pilgrimage is to adore a landscape that resonates within him. It’s easy to see why. Cloud shadows whisper to each other as they drift across the rolling hills and out to sea. A peregrine falcon flies at eye level watching us as he glides into the valley known as Bible Bottom. The hills envelop us as we descend on a footpath then ascend to Mount Caburn, a defensive seat for Iron Age lords before descending once more to Glynde. Descending from the breezy hills, we’re pleased to stop at the tiny forgotten church of St Andrews, Beddingham: once a Saxon settlement, it now sits derelict beside the junction of the A26 and A27.
Silence descends inside. Mark surmises how often the pews at this church see visitor bottom, but I’m thankful it exists and is open. We still need places like this, pockets of fresh, whitewashed peace.
We leave the village along a shady ash-lined path and pass Furlongs, once the home of the artist Peggy Angus, who gathered friends on the farmhouse and partied by a dew pond in the hills. Sussex artist Eric Ravilious depicted the farmhouse in the 1930s, with Peggy shown in her garden amongst her sunflowers.
Somehow less is more, a less comfortable bed, less food and I recognize how rich I am for being up in the hills
In Firle we dine at the Ram Inn and drink Harvey’s Sussex Best bitter, made at the Lewes Brewery, before heading to our 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. Now he welcomes fellow pilgrims into his church. Inside, the air smells of incense and the place is welcoming, with flowers in a jar and kneelers embroidered with depictions of local wildlife. I lay my camping mat and sleeping bag under a shell-covered window, the 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 atop their tomb in the chapel.
The next morning, I open my eyes to the sun shining through the stained glass windows. Mark and I eat pain au chocolat on a bench in the churchyard and seek out the simple graves of Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who also lie side by side, with a smaller memorial to their daughter, Angelica, at their feet. We head once more to the South Downs. The cold morning air is like frozen water, and the trail is filled with runners and riders. Newhaven appears below, sheltering from a pearly sea as the chalk hills meet the water. I feel abundantly happy. Somehow less is more, a less comfortable bed, less food, and I can acknowledge how rich I am to have this morning up in the hills.
In the Charleston garden, once home to the Bloomsbury group, we buy delicious flatbreads and coffee vegetable soup and watch the blackbirds on the hunt.
At Alciston we stroll through the remains of a monastic farmhouse while Mark falls in love with every flint cottage and ancient barn we pass. Two fellow pilgrims sit quietly in the tiny, simple church and a pilgrim 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 is returning to these shores. A chance to walk with intention and to clear your mind. Tomorrow we will complete our three day walk following the winding Cuckmere River to the sea, but tonight we will stay in the Old Chapel Centre, a United Reformed church in Alfriston. It is a light and airy space offering a simple kitchen and toilet facilities. We drink mint tea and lay mats on the church floor for our last night.
You have to be prepared to rough it a bit to take advantage of 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 expect a bed and a kettle either, but come. What they offer, for a small donation, is the opportunity to wake up in beautiful spaces with daylight filtering through the stained glass windows and a chance to experience something rare and important: the trust of the people who would open their sacred spaces to strangers on a trip. In the times we live in, I have found that act of trust invaluable and humbling.