Simon Caldwell tracks
down a well-hidden gem
OF TIIF MARIAN shrines destroyed during the Reformation, Ladyewell in Lancashire is among the few fully restored to its former glory. The Mother of God is venerated there as Our Lady of Fernyhalgh, Queen of Martyrs.
Indeed, the latest addition to the nearby reliquary is a fragment of the skull of Thomas a Becket, one of England's best-loved saints, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 at the behest of Henry H.
The relic had until just two years ago been secretly kept in Castelfiorentino, Tuscany, where Becket had spent time in exile. It was evacuated from England., along with more of his bones, at the outset of Henry WTI's persecution, in fear of their desecration by a man, who, like his namesake some four centuries earlier, was involved in a fierce row with the Church.
In many ways, the relic remains hidden at Fernyhalgh. Tucked away at the end of a dirt track in farmland near Preston, there are a great many people in Lancashire who would not be able to direct a pilgrim to the shrine, a place not located on any ordnance survey map, though it has existed since the 7th century.
Fernyhalgh (pronounced ferny-huff) is Anglo Saxon for "ancient shrine" and has always stood aloft a natural spring used as a baptistry for the masses of pagans who converted after the King of Northumbria was received into the Church at York on Easter Day, 627.
Shortly afterwards, a small chapel was built in honour of Our Lady, but over the years it fell into ruin. Then, in 1100, an Irish aristocrat, mariner Fergus Maguire, sought out
the shrine after he promised God an act of piety while caught in a tempest at sea.
Maguire, son of the chief of Fermanagh, was told in a dream to "go to Fernyhalgh and there you shall find a crabtree having coreless fruit hanging over a shrine — build me a chapel".
He set off for Liverpool but no-one could tell him where Fernyhalgh was — or that they had even heard of it — so he wandered until, by providence perhaps, he heard the name mentioned when he overheard a milkmaid say it was where she had retrieved a lost cow.
As the story goes, Maguire found his crabtree and the shrine — along with ruins of the chapel. While he was looking around the site of the future church, he picked up a large stone and observed a tracery on it in the shape of a mother and child. At once, he realised that Our Lady had been honoured there before, and that it was her wish to have this place again for herself.
The chapel he built lasted four centuries until it was plundered and destroyed during the reign of Henry's son, Edward VI. But as soon as persecution began to abate, it again became a place of pilgrimage. As early as 1685, on the accession of James II, a house was built there as a Mass-centre, in which Bishop Leyburne confirmed 1,099 people in one day in 1687.
Today, it remains a place of prayer; tranquil and serene. Steps lead down to the shrine where an august, crowned figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary holds her Son (the Holy Child Jesus sisters brought the statue from Bolzano, Italy, after the restoration of the Hierarchy). Beneath her flows the spring which has bubbled down the centuries and to the side of her waves a crabtree.
Beside the shrine, is a prayer room called Stella Mans, built in 1996 in the shape of a ship. Behind it, lawns roll away to the Martyrs' Chapel, which houses huge statues of Ss Fisher and More and facia board bearing the names of more than 300 English and Welsh Catholics who made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.
More impressive is the reliquary situated upstairs in Ladyewell House. This, besides Becket's relic, is also home to the Burgess Altar, which folds away as a sideboard and upon which martyrs St Edmund Campion, St Edmund Arrowsmith and Bld John Woodcock celebrated Mass during the Reformation. It also displays vestments worn by the priests in the years of their executions.
There is no written evidence of any English martyr going to Ladyewell, though it is hardly surprising that the shrine became a place where they are honoured along with the Mother of Christ. Certainly, it would be unrealistic not to suppose that some of the pathways leading there were untrodden by at least some of their feet.
After all, many lived within a few miles. George Haydock, martyred at Tyburn in 1584, came from Cottam, Preston, and William Marsden, martyred in the Isle of Wight in 1586, came from Coosnargh, near Preston, as did George Beesly, who was martyred at Fleet Street in 1591.
Richard Herst from Broughton, one of the nearest villages to Ladyewell, was martyred in Lancaster in 1628; John South worth (whose remains are in Westminster Cathedral) of Samlesbury, near Preston, was martyred in Tyburn in 1654; John Wall of Preston was martyred in Worcester in 1679, and Gemianus Helmes, the last priest to die for the faith in England, was martyred in Lancaster Castle in 1746.
Nowadays there are two ways to get to Fernyhalgh. Most people, coming off the M6 at Junction 32 would head for Haighton until they picked up roadsigns before turning down Fernyhalgh Lane.
This route would take them past St Mary's Church and school, whose luminaries include Alban Butler, the author of Lives of the Saints. The car park is a couple of hundred yards from the shrine and house.
However, the traditional pilgrims' route is the recommended option, though it is far more difficult to pick up as it involves driving through a housing estate with no signs, parking up in a country lane. then determining which dirt track of two is the correct one to take.
That established, the remainder of the journey is a treat: a walk up a timeless, Arcadian path flanked by steep wooded embankments, in May cloaked with bluebells. This is England at its best. It puts the pilgrim in an ideal frame of mind for arrival at the shrine and without doubt as to why so many spiritual sons of the Holy Queen died pro Petro et Patna.