[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

The afternoon in 2006 when we reached Lower Brixham on the coast of Devon, the sea was quiet and calm. We drove to Berry Head, now a hotel. Built as a hospital but never used as one, it was where Henry Lyte lived for 23 years as the rector of the town’s All-Saints Church.

By the time we checked in the afternoon was getting late, so Jill and Paul and I went out to watch the sunset and take some pictures. Berry Head is on Torbay (p. 20 in the book) and is a gorgeous setting as you face west.

Brixham is pretty far south, and—contrary to what people would expect—palm trees grown here. Next to one tree is a bench facing west, and today there was a solitary man sitting there watching the sun drop over the shore across the bay. He had his legs crossed, and one arm was draped over the back of the bench.

Paul went behind the bench to shoot a picture while we watched. As nearly as I could tell, the man never knew about that shot. Now his picture (page 20 again) is in 10,000 books distributed from America to Australia. I wonder if he’s ever seen it and now knows that his image has become one of the favored pictures in the primary photographic book on British hymns?

[Today’s article is by Paul Seawright, the award-winning photographer for the newly released book, Abide With Me, from New Leaf Press.] 

Our first exploratory trip around Britain on the trail of sites relevant to great hymn writers was almost four years ago. I was living in Wales at the time, yet most of the places we visited were as new to me as they were to John [Parker] who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s always better to photograph unfamiliar places as they inevitably surprise you. We had both researched the sites and thought we knew what we might find and photograph. In reality it was often incidental moments and situations that presented the most inspirational subject matter.

Close to the end of our first tour of England we arrived in the small coastal town of Brixham in Devon. We had been fortunate enough to secure rooms at the Berry Head Hotel, perched on a rocky peninsula overlooking a beautiful bay. It was late afternoon and as John descended the path from the garden down to the sea, I began to make photographs of the evening sun playing on the side of the sprawling Victorian building, once the home of Henry Lyte. As I worked in the fading light a man sat on a bench in the garden to enjoy the setting sun over the water. It was as I photographed him silhouetted against the sky that I knew the project would be a success.

Henry Lyte wrote the words, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide, when darkness deepens, Lord with me abide,” in this very garden. He, too, had looked out over that exact view all those years ago as the sun fell. The seascape I was photographing was as unchanged as the words that it inspired; words still sung in churches all over the world. At breakfast I showed John the picture of the anonymous man in Lytes garden and immediately we started making new plans…

[Today’s post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Abide With Me, by acclaimed photographer Paul Seawright and Professor of English John Parker. The book and its CD with 20 classic hymns, will be released in April 2009 by New Leaf Press.]

On the coast of Devon, England, lies Lower Brixham, an ancient fishing village built on the inlet known as “Torbay.” Brilliant sunshine glitters like diamonds across azure blue calm water and pastel houses perch on terraces overlooking the harbor.

Henry Francis Lyte was born in Scotland in 1793 to a military officer and his wife and the family moved to Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars. By the time he was 9, Henry was orphaned but was befriended by several benefactors. Eventually he was admitted to Trinity College to study for the ministry where he demonstrated excellent scholarship, a lovable personality and notable skill as a poet. 

In 1823, having married Anne Maxwell, Henry became rector of All-Saints Church in Lower Brixham where he was beloved by fishermen’s families whom he and Anne served. His church was full on Sundays and he ensured a Bible was on every boat leaving the harbor. Henry also composed many hymns, including “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” and “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” 

Henry’s frail health deteriorated with tuberculosis, however, and he began spending winters in the warmer climate of the French Riviera. On Sunday, September 4, 1847, just before leaving his home of nearly 30 years, Henry painfully climbed the steps into his pulpit at All-Saints, probably knowing this could be his last sermon before the humble people of Brixham. Later that afternoon he walked the familiar shore below Berry Head, gazing fondly at the town and the quiet bay he had come to love. At last, returning to his room, he penned the hymn expressing his most fervent prayer as evening closed over him. Based on Luke 24:29, it began…

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

A few days later Henry left Lower Brixham, crossed the choppy English Channel, and headed toward Rome. He carried with him his new hymn, continuing to revise it as he traveled. In Nice, France, Henry’s weary lungs succumbed to the racking tuberculosis and he died at the Hotel de Angleterre, attended by a minister also staying there. Henry was buried at Nice in the English cemetery of Holy Trinity Church, while his last and most enduring song was sent back to Lower Brixham and given to his son-in-law. “Abide With Me” was sung at Henry’s memorial service in All-Saints Church.

Today nets and fishing gear symbolic of the parishioners Henry and Anne served hang in the vestry of the large church built later at Brixham. Meanwhile, his hymn is sung throughout the world by believers seeking the Lord’s abiding presence, especially at eventide.