Editor’s Note: This essay is a chapter in the soon-to-be-released Merrie England: A Journey Through the Shire by Joseph Pearce (TAN Books, June 20, 2016), and is published here exclusively by gracious permission of the author.
The great hills of the South Country
They stand along the sea;
And it’s there walking in the high woods
That I could wish to be…
Hilaire Belloc was a great walker. He walked to Rome; he walked across the United States; he walked throughout France and Spain; he traversed the Pyrenees and the Alps; he ambled and rambled his way around England. As a follower of Belloc, the Pilgrim always feels, on his own rambles, that he is following in the footsteps of this master of prose, poetry, polemic, and perambulation. In his perambulatory poem, “The End of the Road,” Belloc “crawled and scrambled… ranged and rambled,” “plodded… hobbled… trudged and tramped” but never turned his face to home, till he had slaked his heart at Rome. Although the Pilgrim has slaked his heart at Rome he has never, as yet, walked there. The desire to follow Belloc on his “path to Rome” remains with the Pilgrim as a reminder of a desire unfulfilled. One day, God willing….
For the time being he is intent, and content, to follow Belloc in more modest fashion. He has decided that he will not turn his face to home till he has slaked his heart in Belloc’s “South Country.” Commencing from Balliol College and thumbing his nose at All Souls, the College that had the temerity to refuse Belloc a Fellowship, he leaves Oxford for the long trek south-eastwards towards Sussex. His journey takes him through the Thames Valley, a vale of tears in which the serenity of field and plough has been scarred by the silicon implants of new technology.
Eventually, the rolling undulation of the North Downs declares his arrival in the South Country. Mounting these hills he surveys the spacious sparseness of the Sussex Weald spread supinely before him and rejoices at his return to this corner of England that has always been a home from home. Sussex is, for the Pilgrim, a place plush with memory. He recalls his own Pilgrimage, years earlier, in homage to the South Country. On that occasion, following the path taken by Belloc in his book, The Four Men, he had set out from the George in Robertsbridge and, for four days, had traversed Sussex from east to west in the company of Grizzlebeard, the Sailor, the Poet and Belloc’s Self. Seventy-five miles in communion with the soil-soul of Sussex had renewed his spirit and refreshed his body.
Many other literary allusions spring from the soil under his feet as he wends his way towards the village that Belloc called home. His mind wanders to Ditchling, the delightful village at the foot of the South Downs in which Eric Gill and others put Belloc’s distributist principles into practice. His thoughts wound their way to the monastery at Storrington which inspired Belloc’s poem “Courtesy” and within the walls of which the poet Francis Thompson had sought succour following the years in which he had been hounded by Heaven. He muses upon the vale of Arun, upon the village of Slindon and upon Ha’nacker Hill, from which “Sally is gone that was so kindly.” These ruminations and reminiscences keep him company until he arrives at Shipley, the hamlet, hidden from the world’s gaze, which was Belloc’s home.
Little has changed in the fifty years since Belloc departed bodily from King’s Land. The ghost of his powerful absence still dwells in his stead and the mill that he restored stands tall and erect, and in full working order, beside the house. Belloc’s Mill, as it is now called, serves as a symbol of endurance, mitigating the melancholy which surrounds the desolation and ruin of Ha’nacker Mill. Perhaps, one might wish, and certainly one might pray, that the survival of the Mill at King’s Land serves as a symbol of the endurance and continual resurrection of the Permanent Things. Perhaps, if such wishes and prayers are answered, Sally might return to Ha’nacker Hill.
The Pilgrim’s pilgrimage to the South Country concludes with the short walk from King’s Land to Belloc’s final resting place in the grounds of the small Catholic church in West Grinstead. Standing at the grave, the Pilgrim perceives that this is not, after all, the Poet’s final resting place. It is simply a Poet’s Corner, a memorial to one who is still alive.
He does not die that can bequeath
Some influence to the land he knows,
Or dares, persistent, interwreath
Love permanent with the wild hedgerows…
He rides his loud October sky:
He does not die. He does not die.
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