A Dame of the Order of Our Lady of Walsingham looked back, 1932-77.
Those Were The Daysfrom Walsingham Review Number 63 December 1977 To the dwindling number of people who knew Walsingham in the early pilgrimage years you have only to mention the lady pilgrims wafting about the village in blue or white veils, the Laleham Sisters who ran the Hospice (and lived in one small corner of it), the long queues for Confession after the Saturday evening Procession and Benediction, that special smell that greeted you when you entered the Shrine by the heavy oak door from the garden (compounded of incense and beeswax and an odour of sanctity!), the oil lamps and candles in the Parish Church, the cawing of rooks and screaming of peacocks in the Abbey grounds, Miss Martin, the weaver, in her tiny cottage with her loom and her cat and her dove, the Pilgrims’ Refectory with its long trestle tables covered with red, white and blue checked seersucker, the Hospice beds with spreads of the same material, the candles and the old-fashioned washstands in the bedrooms, the large enamel jugs standing on the corridor windowsill, the creaking boards along that corridor, leading to the bathroom and hot water tap, the stone-flagged entrance hall with the front door that was seldom opened, the sitting room with its coal fire - you have only to mention such details as these to see the light of recognition in their eyes and a hint of nostalgia for the good old days!
There have been so many changes over the years that I think it can do no harm to share these memories with the Few and to show the Many who have come later what it was like to be a Walsingham pilgrim before World War II.My own memories go back only to 1932—I never saw the shrine in St. Mary’s Church, but when I went on my first parish pilgrimage the Holy House was less than a year old and its covering Shrine Church was of the same dimensions as the mediaeval "Novum Opus". (If you stand with your back to the window of the Holy House, you will see the demarcation line on the floor showing where the 1938 extension began.)The altars of the Annunciation, St. Edward and St. Hilary were already in their present positions, so was the feretory of St. Vincent (the veneration of the relic it contained being a regular feature of the pilgrimage) and so of course were the steps leading down to the Holy Well. In the centre of the Shrine garden there is now a square flowerbed, but this was once a pool, fed by the water of the Well, and this was sometimes used for the Sprinkling. (I recall Fr. Reggie Kingdon of blessed memory taking off his shoes and socks to bathe his feet in this pool.)top of pageThe layout of the gardens was much as it is today. The Way of the Cross was already there, but no pavilion altar until after the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1933 when it was used at Hickleton, Yorkshire, the home of the first Earl of Halifax (also of blessed memory) who presented it to the Shrine. There was of course no All Souls Chapel, but on its site stood a wooden hut, used as a sleeping place (arctic in Spring and Autumn!) for pilgrims and (later) as a chapel for the Sisters. Where the modern Refectory stands [the second one, which was in use 1967-2000], there was, discreetly hidden by trees and shrubs, a little cluster of sanitary cubicles—visiting which was known to the more ribald among us as "making a pilgrimage to St. Elsan"! There was also a very primitive provision of washbasins.There was no main water supply or drainage system in the village. The Hospice boasted the one bathroom already mentioned and one W.C. leading out of it. As you may imagine, there were legends in circulation of a priest emerging from the lavatory to find a lady in the bath—and vice versa! Even without such dramas, the situation was awkward enough and all the water had to be pumped up by hand—this was one of the manifold duties of William Frary, one of the Seven Wonders of Walsingham, who did the garden, acted as a dignified beadle in scarlet gown at all processions and remained a humble, loyal and devout supporter of the Shrine and its Administrator until he died, fittingly enough on the Feast of the Assumption, 1953. The Pieta in the garden near the Pilgrims’ Hall is his memorial.Another of the Seven Wonders was Mother Margaret, SSM, who came from Haggerston to take charge of the Hospice in 1947 and eventually became the first Mother Superior of the new Priory. Thin and frail-looking, with a skin like parchment, she had amazing reserves of energy and enthusiasm, always found time for a little talk with old friends, however busy she might be, had a remarkable gift for finding "little jobs" for visitors willing to help the Sisters by giving lifts and so on, always saw the best in everybody and took an optimistic view of every situation.The Hospice Mother Margaret took over had none of its present amenities. Until 1956, when the New Wing was completed, the house extended only as far as the present main porch and gateway. Where you now find bedrooms for disabled and invalid pilgrims there was a ramshackle open barn which provided space (with luck) for parking a car or two. The Sisters still had to live in the wing that had been built on at the other end of the house.Many pilgrims had to be billeted in the village. Those who slept in the Hospice might find themselves in a large double bedroom or in a tiny attic reached by the steep wooden staircase which still leads unobtrusively from the first floor. There was no hot water unless one fetched it from the bathroom. And those beds! The worst ones were in the attics, but there were some iron-framed instruments of torture in the first floor rooms too.On the ground floor the space now occupied by the larger green reception lounge comprised a sitting room, cosy with an open fire in cold weather, next to it Mother’s small office, then the hall (with the existing main staircase leading off it), then the dining room used by visitors who outstayed a weekend pilgrimage. The present red lounge, shrine of Television, was the kitchen, equipped with old-fashioned dresser, scrubbed wooden table and a huge Aga stove. Here was prepared and cooked all the food which had to be carried across to the Refectory (once a barn, now the Pilgrims’ Hall). Here there were only hotplates, no stoves, and yet the plates of food handed round by willing helpers were always piping hot.We sat on chairs and benches at those long tables, chatting to pilgrims from other churches all over the country as well as our own, sometimes the victims of banter from our own clergy seated at the "high table" on the platform. Here notices were given out and Fr. Derrick Lingwood, Assistant Priest of the Parish and Bursar of the Shrine, would brief us on the geography and arrangement of the place (not forgetting St. Elsan), remind us that the Knight’s Gate Cafe would be open for refreshments after the Saturday evening Procession and, in those far from affluent days, make eloquent appeals for money.As Administrator of the Shrine, Fr. Hope Patten himself would often preside at meals, but addressed the pilgrims less often. At this point, something must be said about this remarkable man, the Restorer of the Shrine, who, nearly twenty years after his death, is already a shadowy figure to many of today’s pilgrims.The only account of his life is to be found in Fr. Colin Stephenson’s Walsingham Way. Although this is obviously well researched and entertainingly written, it seems to some of us who knew Fr. Patten as pilgrims rather than fellow priests to over-emphasise his eccentricity. Eccentric he undoubtedly was, as all men and women of genius are to some extent, but to the early pilgrims he was a figure of great spirituality and dignity and charm. In his later years he became more remote, but up to the end of the war at least he was accessible to visitors, with whom he would chat freely, displaying a delightful sense of fun and also concern for the individual—in fact the qualities that endeared him so much to the villagers when he first came to the parish.He was tall, handsome and had great dignity of bearing—not a person you could ever take liberties with. He demanded a strict code of behaviour from pilgrims and would no doubt shudder at some of the things that are tolerated in these free and easy days! A notice in the Hospice hall made it clear that early morning cups of tea before Communion were not allowed; conversation in the Shrine or Shrine garden was frowned upon and no woman entered the Shrine with uncovered head.Nevertheless, he allowed his cat, Nicholas, to pave the way for later feline incursions into the Shrine. There is testimony to this in the portrait of Nicholas which Enid Chadwick incorporated in her murals in St. Joseph’s chapel (look for it to the left of the altar). One evening, a friend and I went to say our prayers in the Shrine before bedtime and found an Office being said in choir, with Fr. Patten standing at the lectern and Nicholas at his side. Suddenly the cat crouched as though about to spring on to the lectern, whereupon Fr. Patten turned and with a stately gesture indicated that the cat should be removed. Which he was, promptly and without fuss.Fr. Derrick Lingwood was, in his own way, no less remarkable a character. Son of the village baker, he developed a vocation to the priesthood and was impeccably trained by Fr. Patten himself. Fr. Stephenson described him as a financial genius and indeed he bore for many years the full burden of the Shrine’s precarious finances. Yet he was always friendly and approachable and one remembers with what pride and pleasure he would show the Shrine’s treasures and vestments to interested visitors or explain the progress of the Shrine extension while it was in building.This new church was blessed by Bishop O’Rorke (a staunch friend of the Shrine) on Whit Monday, 1938—a great occasion indeed, described by the Church Times (never very sympathetic to Walsingham) as"“a holy beano". This was the origin of the National Pilgrimage. For many years the anniversary of the "translation" of the image of Our Lady of Walsingham from St. Mary’s to the Holy House (on October 15th, 1931) was also kept and the years 1952 (21st anniversary) and 1956 (silver jubilee) were marked by special celebrations.But this is taking a leap forward in time. We must recall the war years, when for a time Walsingham was out of bounds to visitors except in the winter months because of the threat of invasion; when at the six o’clock Rosary (now known as Shrine Prayers) all those from the village who were serving in the Forces were prayed for by name; when special wartime devotions (including all fifteen mysteries of the Rosary recited at the altars of the Shrine) were led by Fr. Patten; when in 1940, after the fall of France, rumours were rife of the possibility of German parachutists disguising themselves as priests or nuns: when in 1944 the nightly thunder of RAF bombers overhead told us that Italy was about to be raided again.There was a Pilgrimage of Thanksgiving for victory in Europe at Whitsun, 1945 and from then Walsingham began to appear on the map. In the early fifties a somewhat garbled account of the Shrine and its works appeared in a popular Sunday newspaper. The article gave the impression that the Holy Well was a kind of wishing well, but it got over the message that this was a place of healing. The result was that the following day a tide of visitors began to flow into the village, pathetic cases many of them, seeking cures for themselves or their relatives and all demanding water from the Well—requests also came by post, so that the supply of bottles soon gave out.One of the first arrivals was a boy from Cardiff who had come without his parents' knowledge, in the hope of obtaining a cure for his sick grandfather. He was told to go and sit on the Hospice lawn while some arrangements were hastily made for him. The first thing he did was to get his fingers jammed in a deck chair! While we were at lunch the next day, word came that newspaper reporters were hot on his trail and demanding to interview him. He was promptly spirited away to William Frary's cottage, but as he got up from the table, he was seen to cross himself. This much he had picked up even in so short a time among us!A young man cycled all the way from Bristol and a consumptive youth from Birmingham came with his mother. These were only a few of the people whom a certain Fr. John, then living in the College, helped to comfort and counsel during the ensuing weeks. We visitors were invited to co-operate in the good work by contacting people in our home parishes who had written to the Shrine.The ecumenical movement was anticipated in the fifties by a historic radio broadcast in which Fr. Patten and the R.C. priest, Fr. Hulme, took part. For some years an Orthodox priest lived in the village and held regular services in the Orthodox Chapel upstairs in the Shrine. He drew his congregation largely from exiled Central Europeans who were at that time doing agricultural work in the surrounding countryside. We Anglicans were always welcome at these services and on Whit Monday some of us would attend the Liturgy before our own pilgrimage programme got going. Even before the war, Russian Orthodox clergy and pilgrims had visited the Shrine and my own first encounter with any form of Orthodox worship was on an occasion when they sang a kind of Vespers of Our Lady in the Holy House.Fr. Hope Patten died at Assumptiontide, 1958, and this was the end of an era. He had given Walsingham an indelible character, but the time had come to open out "England’s Nazareth" to a wider public. This his successors have done with wonderful results, to the extent that we now see the place bursting at the seams for the whole of the ever-lengthening pilgrimage season. If you seek a memorial to the man who made all this possible, look around you.top of page