(A four minute read)
It’s not every day one sees a giant cross overhanging a valley. When it burst into view as we walked up the River Darent, we stopped in our tracks. But that comes at the end of the story, not the beginning.
The beginning of the story was the Great War.
Men suited up and shipped out, knowing death might await them. We remember them now: the sons, the brothers, the fathers, the friends.
Some of the elderly among us undoubtedly remember specific ones. Perhaps he was a grandfather or someone more removed by blood, yet perhaps even one whose hand they once held.
For us younger ones, they are pictures in dusty albums, whispering their stories in quiet voices that drown out the thunder of the cannon that flung death across the blasted wastelands of Verdun and the Somme.
Their voices whisper to us from Flanders fields, from the names etched on a hundred cenotaphs. Far away in memory, but still close to the heart.
As an American living in Britain, I’m touched by these memorials in perhaps a different way than the native-born. I moved from a nation that celebrates its patriotism to one that lives comfortably within its own history. It’s quite a shift. For me, every walk here is a walk back through time.
An unusually chilly October Saturday found me and my wife Melanie paying our respects at St. Peter & St. Paul’s Church in Shoreham to kick off our weekend ramble. It’s astonishing and humbling to stand in a place full of 800 years of prayer.
St. Peter and St. Paul’s held the runway for our ramble: A brickwork walkway; a corridor through trees sheltering the cemetery.
Shoreham is not on the shore; it’s in the middle of Kent, 50 miles from the Channel. As we walk, we travel further back in time as we head uphill through Dunstall Woods. The name seems Saxon: Dunn staell, probably ‘brown building’. Just like Shoreham: scor ham, possibly ‘dwelling at the foot of a steep slope’, that same slope now graced by a memorial cross.
OS Maps showed us more history descending to the river: a tumulus, a Roman villa site and where a Palace once stood. I was sad about stupidly forgetting the lunch, but pleased that a fine Otford establishment was open to give us fare.
It was full of steam, hot coffee and the type of conversation that’s an eavesdropper’s dream. Small towns are the same the world over. Full of intertwined lives and drama to match. There are no secrets there.
That reality undergirds the memories, and explains the memorials. Lives intertwined.
So it was, with stuffed bellies and hearts full of reflection, that we wandered downriver and, with surprise, beheld the cross overhanging the valley of the Darent. The beginning of the story and the end are the same. We find ourselves at the cross.
We lingered, thinking on the loved ones’ blood spilled for freedom: earthly freedom in a free land, and our heavenly freedom in Christ.
Let us never forget man’s sacrifice, nor the Son of Man’s.
Photo of soldier: Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons