When a friend invited me on to a Yatra (Hindu Pilgrimage) hosted by NHSF (UK) along the Seven Sisters cliffs I jumped at the chance. The gentle rolling chalk hills of South Downs are so quintessentially English they’ve inspired many a writer and painter; Wordsworth, Dickens, Turner, and Constable to name but a few. To combine such a scenic walk with a chance to discover more about what many believe to be the most ancient religion in the world and get some exercise – who could resist?
Saturday 19th August 2023 started misty. Arundel’s mediaeval castle was shrouded in a magical mist that swirled up from the River Arun. Worthing and Brighton were just getting going with barely a car on the bypass. We decided to breakfast in Seaford as we’d made excellent time covering the three-hour run in just over two. We arrived for the walk at the “Birling Gap” (sounds like a set from Bridge of Spies”) a chalk stream valley that divides the mass of Beachy Head to the east from the Seven Sisters around 9:30am and the walkers were already mustering in the car park.
A good number of old acquaintances were being refreshed as the stewards in named T-shirts began the formal meeting and greeting. After a few selfies with the ruffled white cliffs of the Seven Sisters as a backdrop and a coffee from the visitor centre, we were off up the first of the hills heading west with Eastbourne and Beachy Head behind us and Brighton and a fresh breeze ahead…
The Yatra consisted of around fifty or more walkers – mostly university students, and a smattering of their parents along with a few experienced organisers and invited friends like ourselves. There was a mackerel sky high above and big muscular cumulus drifting in from the slate-grey of the Channel threatened but thankfully, the rain held off
Reaching the top of the cliff we were gathered in for a spot of yoga. Two athletic male students demonstrated a sun salutation, and we dutifully did our best to keep up as a further ten salutations were performed in quick succession on the tufts of dewy grass as bystanders looked on in quiet bemusement. The men explained why they were carrying a metal statue of about fifty centimetres in height – the Hindu Goddess Saraswati. She is the Hindu Goddess of knowledge, particularly apposite to the plight of the students.
Pushing along the waltzer-like curves of the Sisters, stewards numbered us off into five sub-groups and cards were circulated to encourage us to mix with people we may not know as we considered questions of a spiritual nature. My group led me to meet a man from Leicester, another from Hertfordshire and a woman from Manchester before we turned inland up the east flank of the Cuckmere Valley and ran into a small herd of ponies – Shetland mostly but also including a few Exmoor – the oldest horse breed in existence and a beautiful crossbreed young bay colt. It was amazing to see how tame the ponies were with the many walkers. I breathed a long and gentle “hello” into the flaring nostrils of the colt and ran my hand firmly down his forearm; he just looked softly straight into my eyes in a most knowing way – not a hint of nerves or even a nod towards any possible food as usually happens. He seemed satisfied to just be.
A woman I wrongly took to be a student (she was in fact the mother of a student) had been carrying the testy weight of Saraswati for quite some time and was struggling so I tentatively offered to take a turn carrying the statue. I was most pleasantly surprised to find there were no objections to “outsiders” helping in this way and I was genuinely honoured to walk a while with the Goddess of Knowledge.
We graded down to take a picnic lunch near a bend in the coast road close to the visitor centre that offered a toilet stop for those, unlike myself, shy about going in the “great outdoors”. Rejoining the group some of the party began sharing their food before a few young men spoke about the challenges of life and how their Hindu faith could play a part. Although some of the speakers were reading off their mobiles it was clear they had thought about their messages and were passionate believers. I was impressed by one man who advocated the wearing of charity shop clothing – something I have long been practising. I reflected on Mahatma Gandhi and how he’d advocated the wearing of homemade clothing in his long struggle for India’s independence, of how the choices we make impact more widely than we may imagine…
I thought about how this event was providing a fantastic opportunity to address the needs of students. As a parent of four grown-up children and having had a son drop-out of his university course during the pandemic on account of, among other things, loneliness, I could understand the relevance of the massive organisational effort the event entailed. Students living in strange places with no family or established friends; huge challenges quite apart from the stress of the academic work there is the often-problematic finding time to cook proper food and a safe suitable place to live once any university accommodation transpires – if you’re lucky enough to be offered halls in the first year. One speaker even addressed the thorny issue of climate change and offered an insight into how his Hindu faith could help him, or any of us, find a personal pathway towards living our lives in a way that reduces our impact on nature. As he spoke I spotted a kestrel hovering effortlessly over the meadow and as the sun glistened of the sinuous lazy meandering of the Cuckmere stream, I couldn’t help think how lucky we are to be surrounded by such incredible beauty and how we really do need to change the way we live more urgently – towards a seeking prosperity that doesn’t depend on economic growth, towards wanting less material stuff and appreciating the things we have more. Given we only have one world, and its resources are finite, it seems clear enough to me…
Working our way back through the beechwoods north of the road I chatted with walkers about their life journeys – where they came from and their working lives. It seems a lot of the group had solid professional jobs or aspirations for work in the health and IT sectors. Not altogether surprising given it was a walk for students ostensibly. I spoke to one steward about how I found the general atmosphere so convivial, how I could feel a definite sense of shared purpose and a warm love among the group as we approached the end of the Yatra. It wasn’t just the glorious scenery or the improving weather or the smooth organisation – it was more than this. This “something” is often missing from so many of the group walks I’ve experienced, something quite special. It was easy to understand why the Yatra is so popular. I wondered if such enriching experiences could be extended to others and how this may come about. As the Yatra was drawing to a close, we saw a shooting star whizz across the night sky – a brilliant magnesium ribbon of brightness, disappearing in an instant.