The View from Highdown HillApr 28th, 2012 | By trevor | Category: Articles
We are born with the dead: See, they return, and bring us with them, T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Let me take you on a journey… you’ll understand why when we get there. I live inWorthing,West Sussex, which is a large town on the south coast ofEngland. Our journey, an imaginary one of course, is to a hill some three miles from my home. It is called Highdown Hill and is now owned by the National Trust. You won’t have heard of Highdown Hill unless by chance you live close to where I do or have an in depth knowledge of British archaeology. But even then it could well have passed you by, because, from almost any point of view, historical, geographical, environmental, it appears relatively unremarkable. Such an assumption, however, belies a truth awaiting our discovery.
I have walked upon, across, along and around Highdown Hill all my adult life, courting, exercising my dogs, entertaining my children or just enjoying the views across the coastal plain to the English Channel to the south and the down land to the north. Such are the familiar activities of almost all the visitors to the hill these days, along with those riding horses or flying kites. At the summit, a modest two hundred and sixty six feet above sea level, is a small enclosure defined by a shallow bank and ditch. Even the untrained eye can establish its ancient origins. Periodic excavations have uncovered flint tools suggesting habitation as far back as the Neolithic period. The post holes of a Bronze Age structure have also been uncovered, along with more tangible finds from that era, animal bones, fragments of pottery and a gold ring.
Occupation continued on Highdown throughout the Iron Age and in the fourth century the hilltop was fortified by the Romans, one of whom built a villa that still awaits excavation somewhere on the western side of the hill. Later still in its history the enclosure was used as a cemetery by a pre-Christian Saxon community. It is the excavation of the cemetery, which yielded a rich find of glassware, pottery and jewellery, for which the hill is best known.
On the north-west point of the enclosure, perched upon the top of the bank is a trig point. From here, on a clear day, you can see the spire of Chichester Cathedral outlined on the horizon. The medieval Cathedral is eighteen miles away from Highdown and a thousand years distant from the Saxon people who were buried there. They, in turn, were a culture far removed in time from the early Bronze-Age Briton who once wore the gold ring and he or she was many generations removed from her flint knapping, subsistence farming forebears.
Gaze out again, this time across the town ofWorthingand the neighbouring villages that lay directly below and you can see other Christian churches. Some have modest spires that mimic the Cathedral whilst the architecture of others speaks of a more modern age and the enduring worship of the man fromNazareth, the Jewish Son of God transfigured into a universal saviour. The diversity of congregations these churches serve Anglican, Baptist, and Catholic to name but a few mirrors the greater diversity of faiths that have also arrived in recent years. Within the range of our vista, for example, you encounter Buddhist and Islamic centres, aHinduTemple and Jewish synagogue.
It is all but impossible to stand on Highdown Hill and not be aware of the beliefs that have crowded in throughout its history. Like the people who have lived on or around the hill, the gods have come and gone, some staying longer than others, but all leaving a sense of their presence, a physical or emotional mark upon the landscape; a spiritual background radiation. The gods of the Stone Age farmers we can but make informed guesses about. The Bronze and Iron Age deities remain distant, though a little clearer, perhaps, whilst the gods ofRomeand those from the north, Woden, Loki, Freya and Thor are accessible through the writings of their followers. Highdown, to use modern parlance, is a god-rich environment.
Half way down, as you descend the hill on its gently sloping eastern side, heading back towards the car-park and tea shop, you encounter, unexpectedly, a tomb sheltered by trees and fenced by wrought-iron railings. It is the resting place of John Oliver (1709-1793), an eighteenth-century eccentric whose alleged atheism led him, so one legend has it, to choose to be buried in un-consecrated ground. Other stories present different portraits of Oliver; one claims that he was so devout that he wished to be buried upside down so that when the world was turned topsy-turvy on the Day of Judgement he would be standing the right way up. Others suggest he was a smuggler and that his grave, during and after his life, was a meeting place for his compatriots.
The tomb of John Oliver is a useful place to stand and reflect. The grave and the confusion of stories about him remind us that in the bigger scheme of things the history of religion, like the story of John Oliver, is as much a history of dissent as it is a history of faith and as often born of legend as of fact; that, like joy and regret, faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin.
As you continue down the hill almost the last view before you reach the car park is one that encompasses the newest building in the area, a huge sports and leisure centre built in homage to the twenty-first century neo-Olympian ideals of health and beauty; ideals which have become to the current generation almost a religion in themselves. The secular world has, in part at least, driven sacredness and mystery from our everyday experience, replacing it with seemingly more material concerns. Sunday is now supermarket day with spiritual desire sublimated into retail therapy, the ever elusive Grail transformed, for a limited period only, into the most alluring of special offers – three for the price of two. But all things change, nothing is forever – a walk across the hill teaches you that.
Highdown, on a warm spring morning brings its own stillness and plenitude. By the car park there are benches and a picnic area where, if we choose, we can give in to temptation, stay a little longer, deepen our meditation or just delight in the Sun for a while like a heretic Pharaoh. But take care, this is the age of global warming and Phoebus burns too bright these days. Our regard of the Aten must be orthoprax as well as orthodox, it is not just what you believe it is how you live that is important; that is another lesson we have learned, forgotten and learned again. We are in the world and of it, depend upon it, in fact. Thirty more paces and we have arrived back at the car park. But the ending of one journey is the beginning of another; it is time to begin again….