Margaret Laird on the revival of a Cornish Pilgrimage
Long before the development of the ‘Eden Project’ Cornwall was often described as ‘God’s own country’ Certainly, in recent years, there seems to have been evidence of divine intervention in the extremities of the county, where events of a particular religious significance have had a powerful effect upon both the Cornish and the tourists, who have witnessed them. Consequently, a keen interest has arisen in the ecclesiastical history of mediaeval Cornwall where the Church retained its distinctive character through the recognition of its Celtic heritage and the honouring of the local saints.
The new millennium saw the revival of the Cornish mystery plays, which were performed at St Just in Penwith in the west of the county. In the east, at Liskeard, the cult of ‘Our Ladye at the Park’ has been rediscovered and an annual pilgrimage established the ‘Cornishness’ of these revivals has been reinforced by the retention of the vernacular in certain passages of the English translation of the plays and by a chorus, in the Cornish language, in the hymn sung by the Ladye Park pilgrims.
Compostela and back
In her book, In Search of St James: Cornwall to Compostela, Ada Alvey demonstrates from mediaeval sources the popularity in the Middle Ages of that pilgrimage route amongst the Cornish. They sailed from Fowey or Mousehole and followed ‘The way of St James’ to Compostela in Northern Spain For them this was preferable to the overland routes leading to the English Shrines It must be noted that in undertaking any pilgrimage beyond the peninsula, the Cornish encountered language difficulties but at least, in Spain, they shared a common Celtic ancestry with the inhabitants. Weather conditions too were favourable and the route was protected by the Knights of Compostela.
For pilgrims from Cornwall who wished to venerate the Blessed Virgin (at Walsingham perhaps) the distance overland was frightening, so the local shrine at Ladye Park was definitely the more attractive option. Consequently, the Cornish pilgrims flocked through wooded valleys, over bleak moorland and along coastal paths to the shrine of ‘Our Ladye of the Park’. At the Reformation, in common with other shrines, it was destroyed and little remained to show that it had ever existed.
Our Lady appears
The story of the revival of the Ladye Park cult is remarkable. It began with an apparition of the Blessed Virgin witnessed by Dr Peggy Pollard1 who was the great granddaughter of William Gladstone, the nineteenth-century Prime Minister. Dr Pollard, who died in 1996, was a brilliant but eccentric academic, a Cornish Bard, a skilled linguist, artist and musician. In her own words which were carefully recorded at the time, she described how in November 1955 in her home in Truro, she suddenly noticed ‘a woman sitting in an armchair. She was dressed in a variety of shades of blue, full flowing, draperies and she wore a tiara-shaped crown with projecting rays that appeared to be jewelled with dull opaque stones like pearls and opals. She had dark hair … she spoke in Russian … “I want to come back to Liskeard”.’ Dr Pollard was sceptical by nature and replied; ‘If you are who you seem to be, I need some sort of proof. So I ask you to stay there long enough for me to make a sketch of you, then tomorrow, I’ll start painting a picture based on that sketch. I’ll submit it to the Paris Salon and if it is hung, which is most unlikely, I will accept that you are genuine and try to do something about your request.’ Dr Pollard did a quick sketch on an envelope and the woman disappeared.
The painting, ‘La Vierge à la Porcelaine’ was completed and duly accepted for an exhibition in the Paris Salon! Dr Pollard then began her research at the Cornish record office and found that a shrine in honour of the Blessed Virgin had existed on a site in Liskeard called ‘Ladye Park’. Records from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries proved that the pilgrimage spot was situated in a clearing between two woods: ‘one with deer and the other without’. A series of extraordinary events (outlined by Claire Riche in ‘The Lost Shrine of Liskeard’) led to the restoration of the shrine and at the turn of the new century an annual pilgrimage to Ladye Park was established, organized by the Cornish branch of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The shrine is situated in the grounds of a house which has frequently changed hands. It is now safely in the ownership of Mr and Mrs John Wilks, Evangelical Christians, who in a truly ecumenical spirit enthusiastically support the pilgrimages. Although most of the initiative for the restoration of the shrine was a Catholic venture, it is envisaged that it will become an ecumenical centre for all who search for religious truth.
The popularity of the pilgrimage has already increased and this summer two groups of pilgrims (from Cornwall and elsewhere) merged, one from the ancient ‘Mass path’ and the other from the lane which leads to the shrine from the old Liskeard road. The pilgrims proceeded through the spectacular countryside behind the banner of ‘Our Ladye of the Park’ (woven by Dr Pollard) singing the hymn she wrote with its Cornish chorus:
Hayl Marya! Hayl Marya!
Hail Mary! Hail Mary!
Col orthyn warn as ow-crya
Heed us as we call to you,
Agan lelder owth-affya
Our loyalty affirming,
Hayl Marya, lun a ras
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Perhaps, now that most of the traditional Anglo-Catholic parishes in Cornwall have been taken over by ‘the other integrity’, the shrine of tour Ladye of the Park’ might become a place of regular pilgrimage for those Anglicans from Cornwall and beyond who profess and maintain the historic and orthodox faith. There is no doubt however, that the Blessed Virgin’s request ‘to go back to Liskeard’ has been granted, for her shrine, once lost, has been rediscovered. It is hoped that in future generations, Our Lady will once again be honoured there with the devotion and enthusiasm shown in past ages by the countless Cornish pilgrims who venerated her in their native tongue:
‘Hayl Marya! lun a ras’.