A week ahead of time, the weatherforecast for Flanders was "variable cloudness, thunderstorms". Not Good. I stuck a watch on the web site and worried a lot. By Thursday thunderstorms had abated to "chance of rain". Still not promising and I didn't want to get my hopes up. I emailed my favourite list "We're heading out for the Hanswijk procession. if it's cancelled again this year I probably won't get another chance. So please think clear skies for Belgium for Sunday”. We had a friend, Christina, with us, who pointed out that there was nothing I could do about anything now, but in my heart I knew this was it: if I'd messed up anything or the weather was as bad as last year, my wife Sue, long-suffering though she is, wouldn't want to make another trip.
The Eurostar meal and service was as good as ever and a delay that wasn't their fault was instantly and with good grace compensated by an offer of reduced rate travel later - Stagecoach please take note. I should have been starting to feel relaxed, but thunderstorms throughout southern England and squalls around Lille put - literally - a damper on my mood. The sky was overcast as we left the station and I confined my comments as we walked the short distance to the Egmont to pointing out the best route across the crossings and traffic filtering on red. This being asparaugus season, we ate from the Royal's special menu, then wandered around soaking up the atmosphere before retiring to De Oliphant for a last drink before bed. At about five I got up. The sky had lightened and I felt mildly optimistic. We ate breakfast and it clouded over, so I started to worry again. Our itinerary for the morning was to see the Hanswijk statue and look round the exteriors of the churches we'd seen before, and wander round the Begijnhof area once again. It drizzled and I fretted.
Of course, all the worry was unnecessary: my friends must have been thinking hard and as we walked back to the church it started to brighten. We watched them dismantle the altar and prepare the image for carrying. Once it was all set up, even I decided that they wouldn't cancel it now and we hurried off to see the formed-up procession. There were the Burgundian horsemen, there were the sheep, a far cry from the bedraggled balls of wool of last year, being herded along the dual carriageway by two sheepdogs. There was Jesus, riding a very reluctant donkey and there at last was The Boat. My step became more<italic> as we moved along the Ring to the start point. Last year I expected a small procession similar to the Pardons I've seen in Brittany and northern France. Three elements of this procession might feature in such an event and I've described them separately (there's another link further down) but the whole is much bigger.
A blare of trumpets and they were off. The town's history is portrayed first and the highlight of that section for me was the boat, preceeded by a set of dancers in blue, representing the water. We were at the first performance point and the effect is something between a set of mystery play floats and a carnival. In the biblical section, some of the performances were very complex, including people getting off one float and interacting with the characters on another. The procession was extremely well organised and superbly marshalled – I've performed in many processions including the Midosuji in Osaka, but I don't remember seeing anything this well done. It made me even sadder for the everyone's wasted effort last year.
The highlights for me, though, were little vignettes. The sheep, of course, and the boat, but Joseph and Mary looking for Jesus who is discovered teaching in the temple, all without props. In terms of the bigger floats, I remember the interaction between the Annunciation and the Visitation, or maybe Moses' gold tablets (as I had walked up, a Roman Centurion had quipped that I should have auditioned). And then the tiny details: anointing jars in front of the tomb, the beaming face of one of the ladies waving palms when they warmed up and finally got the sequence absolutely spot on, the shire horses timing it exactly to catch up to minimum safe distance behind the youngest set of dancers as they completed their spot and moved off.
And, of course Our Lady of the Hanswijk, accompanied by Her Portable Carillion, but that's another story. We walked back round and caught the procession a second time outside the Basilica. This was pure self indulgence, all three of us were tired but Sue and Christina put up with me. Standing here, I realised why it's so difficult for an outsider to organise a visit. The start and end are Mechelen's festival: rows of plastic chairs alongside wheelchairs in the parking bays outside a bar; two young and very tired pages who'd already finished giggling and waving at friends in the last set of dancers. They expect people like me to book a coach trip that will include a seat in the stands in the centre of town.
Not that anyone minded English interlopers: that's something I've always found particularly wonderful about Mechelen. I'd already been assured that it was fine to go into the service, so we crowded into the back, peering round the pillars as friends greeted each other: a fine coda. Monday dawned fine and clear. Our schedule was a visit to Dendermonde to see the other sort of Begijnhof, followed by shopping. The day grew very hot and would have been very uncomfortable for the participants had it been procession day. I'd like to think that Our Lady provided the people of Mechelen with weather appropriate to the occasion and hope that She will give them a fine summer, just hot enough and with just enough gentle rain to keep the plants healthy.