When Walsingham came to Plymouth

By Doreen Baker

Walsingham – England’s Nazareth – a-a-h! That’s the place my late husband and I visited several times during the 80s and 90s. We’d always stay for a couple of weeks covering the Feast of the Assumption (August 15th). That day was like no other. With bunting flying, a certain feeling descended on the place with everyone looking forward to the finale which started late afternoon with a short service at the parish church with its floor strewn with crushed lavender – a heavenly fragrance to begin with – then a grand procession round the village, stopping at various points for prayer and hymn singing, finishing in the dark back in the church grounds for food and fireworks.

Most days we would join the midday procession which walked the Holy Mile from the village to the Slipper Chapel reciting the Rosary en-route. Other days we would go visiting, and what great places to visit, such as The Lavender Farm at Heacham, the worlds collection of theatre organs, Wurlitzers and steam engines at Thursford, West-facing Hunstanton for its glorious seas, Houghton Hall, built for Sir Robert Walpole, and where outside one would find heavy horses, ponies and peacocks strutting the lawns and spacious park. The National Trust property at Blickling Hall with its fabulous Long Gallery; Holkham Hall, built in the Palladian Style ad home of the Earl of Leicester and containing Gainsborough, Rubend, Van Dyck and others: West Runton for its Shire Horse collection and churches too numerous to mention but mostly all steeped in pre-reformation history. I could go on but last of all I must mention the coastal town of Blakeney where we visited its Seal Island, where I bought a very expensive dress in a very posh shop and where I leaned that Baroness Orczy got the inspiration for the surname for her “damned elusive pimpernel”.    

Back to Walsingham and its Holy Shrine; sadly, during the time we were going there, the golden crown from Our Lady’s statue was stolen and a plea went out to members of the Walsingham Association to donate any old pieces of jewellery they might be prepared to part with. These could then be sold on to help pay for the replacement. I remember having quite a large silver snuff box and stuffing it with a gold bracelet, a chain and a few other odd pieces and sending it in.

Now- come our weekly newsletter here at Seaton when I read in church that Our Lady’s Statue was coming to Plymouth Cathedral as part of her Dowry Tour I immediately thought I must go! I spun around in my pew to tell the person behind me – and that turned out to be a newcomer to our church – Paul Bennett. I really gave him an earful, telling him all about the crown, my connection with it, as much as I could about Walsingham and my need to get to Plymouth and the dear man promised to get me there if all else failed. A notice appeared at the back of church for names to go by coach. We put our names on it, but no-one else did. Father Anthony then told us to contact Joe Harrison for he was going and offering seats, so that is what we did.      

Well come 7am on the 18th May slowly up my drive purred one Audi Quatro. Wow! What a sight! How I wished my neighbours were up early enough to see it, but they weren’t. Joe turned off the engine while we discussed where we were picking up Paul, turned it on again and away we purred to Seaton. Paul got in and away again quietly until we picked up the A38. Now I had only known Joe as the quiet, gentle “incense swinger” who served on our Seaton Altar on High Day Vigils. Mind you, he created such a fug some of us at the back had to fan ourselves to stay alive! However, once he hit the A38 he became like a madcap racing driver, swerving, cutting in and letting nothing overtake us. I hung on to my Miraculous Medal for dear life thinking we’d never make it- but we did and in good time.

At 9am the Exhibition opened with a guide explaining certain artefacts and relics and whilst I was writing out a petition, I became aware that he was telling the story of the crown theft and the people who donated jewellery to help get a replacement. It was then that good old Paul shouted out “There’s a lady here that was one of them!”. Well, that did it. The guide was on me for all I could tell him and asked if I would remain behind at the end for a photograph.

The program for the day included the Rosary, sung litany of the English Saints and Martyrs, Adoration of the Bless Sacrament (reconciliation available), an extremely interesting talk on the Dowry of Mary given by Monsignor John Armitage who is the Rector of the Walsingham Association and with whom I am very privileged to be photographed.

As requested we remained behind while all the Tour items were packed away into a van. I was placed in front of certain staging expecting just to be photographed when on to my hand was placed the crown. I could hardly believe what was happening to me until, looking away from the camera I looked again at the crown and thought to myself “this is nothing like the crown I contributed too. It can’t be a real one. Its too flashy, too many so-called jewels on it. It must be a mock up just for show, not genuine! Yes, that is what I thought.

Well, I picked up a booklet from the souvenir table and at home later that night I opened a page and quite by chance read, “fortunately – if it can be put that way- it was the “daily” crown and not the precious one which is only used on Great Feasts. “Yes, it was the daily crown I had donated to and not the precious one which I had never known about. Finally, in a phone call from HQ I just had to find out which crown I had been photographed holding and was told it really was the Precious one – and the value of it? I dare not tell you.

Thank you, Joe and Paul, also thank you Blessed Mother.