RADIO / A holy place on your dial

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The Independent Culture
IN 1511 Henry VIII, that first, famous Defender of the Faith, went on a pilgrimage. His destination was Walsingham in Norfolk, at that time the third- ranking shrine in Christendom, only one step down the league table from Rome and Compostella. He went there to see the Holy House, a replica of Mary's home in Nazareth where the Annunciation had occurred. This House had first appeared in a dream in 1061 to its builder, the Lady Richeldis, and almost immediately began to draw crowds. It was to be destroyed, however, together with the splendid abbey which enshrined it, on the same king's orders in 1538. The town slipped back into obscurity, its stout medieval buildings crumbling a little but never replaced.

Over the last hundred years Walsingham has been rediscovered. Nowadays it attracts crowds of pilgrims of every faith, drawn there by the sense that it is a holy place. In the half-timbered shops, the souvenir sellers are doing as well as they did in the Middle Ages. The latest pilgrim was Sean Street, who went there for Radio 2's World of Faith week. He was visiting three Touching Places, sites of ancient miraculous events which are once again becoming centres of pilgrimage for people who long for something more than modern materialism can offer. He found it, though even at the end he was not sure what it was. A sense of silence and peace came over him, a restorative moment of reflection.

In the disused railway station, which has now become a tiny Orthodox church, a priest offered his own explanation. Places where people have prayed for a long time, he said, acquire a divine energy - overlaid with the patina of centuries of human habitation. On his next stop, Street looked for the same feeling in Glastonbury, with its myriad crystal sellers, where the legends of Avalon and Joseph of Arimathea meet the New Age. It seemed a little more elusive there, but his final stop gave him the authentic thrill. At Penrhy in the Rhondda valley, a vast, hideously misconceived Sixties housing estate endures 90 per cent unemployment, but the residents have developed a new sense of pride in their shrine. This, too, is the site of a destroyed abbey, where a holy well and a miraculous statue once attracted pilgrims, and a modern priest has revived the tradition. It was inspiring: hope growing from the slag- heap of despair.

Radio 2, now apparently Britain's most popular radio station, never does things by halves. If it's 'World of Faith' week, the whole network joins in.

True, they sent Jimmy Young off to Moscow to play old Seekers records and do his chirpy best with a succession of gravelly Russians, but most of those left behind entertained a bishop or a Dalai Lama. Even Brian Hayes found himself having to consider the question of an afterlife. It made him even tetchier than usual. He hurried his callers briskly through their out-of-body experiences as if they'd been routine dental check-ups, when all they wanted was to hover hopefully in Hayes over Britain.

On Sunday night, Roger Royle hosted an extra-long, multi-cultural Singing the Faith (R2) from the Commonwealth Institute. It was a right old hotch- potch of songs, chanting, drums and harmoniums, prompting the irreverent thought that God must be endlessly tolerant, or else tone-deaf, if he resisted sending a thunderbolt to Kensington to restore some silence.

Happily, Hugo Gryn, the reliable rabbi, brought his genial wisdom to bear on it all and the Rev Royle concluded with an early Syrian prayer: 'It is written that God preserveth the simple.' And the noisy, and the complicated, and Brian Hayes.

Radio 4 joined in the racket with half an hour of Bells. They must be the most universal of instruments, ranging from tiny ones put on ferrets as they raid rabbit warrens to a vast eighth- century Korean one, weighing five times as much as Big Ben. Bells are magical things, calling the faithful to prayer, sending away plague and storm, burning the dead. Martin Buckley's celebration of them was a glorious cacophony, interrupted by extraordinary facts. Here's just one: if every possible permutation of changes of the 12 bells at York Minster was rung in succession, it would take 38 years.

Finally, to another place of pilgrimage: Glyndebourne, home of Sir George Christie. He was Sue Lawley's castaway on Desert Island Discs (R4), and a jolly fellow he is. Among the records he chose was a splendid song called 'What Do You Give a Nudist for her Birthday', and his choice of luxury warmed Radio 4 hearts. To keep him happy, he would require nothing less than the entire archives of The Archers.

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