As the afternoon light faded we made our way along a muddy footpath towards a simple barn-like structure that sat alone on the edge of the salt marshes. Soon small groups of people began to converge on this remote building each picking up a small candle as they filed in through the broad low doorway. Soon the tiny 7th century chapel of St Peter’s on the Wall was filled to bursting with congregants, collars turned up and hats pulled down against the cold. The red-robed choir arrived and without prompting, silence fell. In the stillness of the candle-light, a small girl began to sing that most plangent carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. In this atmospheric moment, you could feel the collective heart skip a beat as our spirits soared into the bare oak eaves of the chapel.
We had travelled for hours, but many of those present had come from the neighbouring village of Bradwell, others from the nearby Othona community, founded in 1946 by Norman Motley, an RAF chaplain as a place for people to come together for periods of reflection and spiritual renewal after the horrors of WWII. Motley had chosen wisely. This tranquil place on the Blackwater estuary is less than 60 miles from central London but feels as remote as Lindisfarne, the place to which the chapel owes its origin.
Erected when St Cedd arrived from Lindisfarne in 654 CE, despite its modest simplicity the chapel has an inherently spiritual atmosphere common to pilgrim places as diverse as Delphi and Avebury. It’s hard to articulate what that is exactly, but you know it when you encounter it.
In 1099 the community living here moved inland and the chapel was abandoned when the Great Martinmas Tide ravaged England’s east coast, an event recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as ‘the sea-flood sprung up to such a height and did so much harm as no man remembered that it ever did before’. Such events are a stark reminder that our destiny is determined by the unseen forces that shape our planet and the universe in which it spins, and why we have festivals that mark the seasons, Christmas, Easter, Samhain, Imbolc, Pesach, Pongal, Chunyun, Martinmas and so on.
With the communal voices still ringing out for the final carols, we emerged from the cosy fug of the chapel into a clear starlit night where Venus hung like a Christmas bauble. This sister planet shares many of Earth’s attributes (rocks, volcanoes, size, proximity to the Sun) but it simply lacks the all-important atmosphere that makes life on Earth possible. Venus will be visible in the night sky all through Christmas and as we peer up at its shining light, let’s raise a cheer to Earth’s cosy atmosphere!