The New Jerusalem
Descending into the Widecombe Valley, the lane wound into a dense wood at the heart of which stood Elton Manor. As my car crunched to a halt on the gravel forecourt I understood why Conan Doyle would have been so inspired by the building. With its castellated façade and decorated chimneystacks, the black and white half-timbered building was the ideal setting for any Gothic chiller. I almost expected to see a hunchbacked butler appear on the porch to inform me that his master awaited. Instead, a smiling lady in a heavy tweed suit emerged to greet me.
“No trouble finding your way?” She beamed, striding forward and seizing me firmly by the hand. “Margaret Timmings.”
After the customary discussion about the weather, I followed her into the house. The musty hallway was paneled in dark wainscoting, framing heavy oak doors that led to the many ground-floor rooms. Facing the entrance, a broad staircase wound upward to a balustraded balcony, its newel posts carved with heraldic beasts and family crests. Mrs. Timmings’s voice echoed through the building as she told me of the manor’s strange history.
“Besides the Lady of Light, other odd things go on in the house,” she said. “Electrical appliances are always going wrong, light bulbs keep blowing, static on the TV and radio--you name it.” Mrs. Timmings led me into what I discovered was the dining room. “This is where it all began,” she continued. “The first appearance of the lady in 1805.” It was like stepping into the past. Buff-papered walls, leaded windows, and a great fireplace with a panel above bearing the opening verse from William Blake’s famous hymn, “Jerusalem.”
“The lady has given the manor quite a history,” Mrs. Timmings said. “Blake actually stayed here in 1810 in the hope of seeing her for himself. They say he wrote ‘Jerusalem’ while he was here. And, of course, there’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This was where he started to write The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
I didn’t know what to make of the story. What possible connection could the apparition of Elton Manor, real or imagined, have with Benedetti’s search for Mary’s tomb? Although he may have caught vision fever once he was staying at the house, something more substantial must have made him go there in the first place. But what? As far as I could gather, even those who thought they saw the Virgin Mary at the manor never said anything about her tomb. If Mrs. Bowen was right, it had something to do with whatever it was that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote while in the house. But what could have made the Vatican archaeologist take the story of Elton Manor seriously? I could see Conan Doyle, a spiritualist, lapping it up, and I could understand William Blake, a self-confessed visionary, visiting the manor, but . . .
Suddenly it struck me: Benedetti had not seen the apparition at all. He never said he had. Like Mrs. Bowen, I had got it all wrong. His visit to the manor had nothing to do with the apparition.
“What is it?” Mrs. Timmings said, as I stood before the fireplace.
“That,” I said, pointing to the verse from Blake’s hymn. “How long has it been here?”
“Since the early eighteen hundreds. The Reddingtons put it up because Blake had composed ‘Jerusalem’ while he was staying with them.”
I asked Mrs. Timmings if I could use her phone and called Mrs. Bowen to ask her if the famous nineteenth-century person who had written something while he was staying at the manor was William Blake.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t recall,” was the response.
“Blake wrote a hymn,” I said. “I think that . . .”
“A hymn!” said Mrs. Bowen excitedly. “Yes, that sounds right!”
That confirmed it. I had assumed that Benedetti had gone to Elton Manor because of something Conan Doyle had written there. But it had been William Blake that had drawn him to the place. There, above the fireplace, was the verse that said it all:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
I had sung those words so many times as a schoolboy: it had never struck me what they meant. Not until now. The Holy Lamb of God is Jesus. Blake is implying that Jesus Christ came to England.
That must have been the reason Benedetti visited Elton Manor. If Jesus had come to England, then perhaps Joseph of Arimathea had built his chapel where Christ had founded a church. Benedetti must also have hoped to discover the location Blake had in mind when he wrote the hymn. The hymn is all about building a new Jerusalem in England: evidently, in the same place that the “Holy Lamb of God” had walked. Unfortunately, Blake never publicly revealed where he had in mind. But here was the answer. Below the verse was a faded little painting of a solitary hill with a stone tower on top. At the base of its gilded frame was a panel bearing the title, the artist and the date: “Jerusalem--Emily Reddington 1810.”
“Emily, she was the first person to see the lady,” said Mrs. Timmings. “The painting has hung over the fireplace for almost two hundred years. I think it’s quite valuable.”
It was valuable all right. And not just because it was old. Blake had been a guest of the Reddingtons when he composed “Jerusalem.” Emily Reddington would no doubt have known the location he had in mind. Benedetti said in his letter that he saw something in the dining room that told him where to look. We had assumed that he was referring to an apparition speaking to him. It was the painting that he must have seen. It had told him where to look. And the scene it depicted was the unmistakable profile of Glastonbury Tor.