I crossed a footbridge over the Valkenburg to Heerlen railway line and climbed a wide path, sloping up quite steeply by Dutch standards, through a dense wood from which was emanating a constant concert of birdsong. No woodpeckers, I noticed.
I arrived at a somewhat muddy clearing to the right of the path - the middle of June had been quite rainy - which was full of people. To my right was a sort of improvised church altar on a stage protected by an open-sided white garden marquee. A white-robed preacher was addressing the crowd, about a hundred mostly elderly people, seated on wooden folding chairs, neatly arranged like church pews, with a central aisle. Behind their backs was the main feature of this hilltop glade: a little whitewashed chapel, surrounded by a walled garden.
Keeping to the path which skirted the clearing, I sneaked to the back of the sylvan congregation. It was a Roman Catholic service, the people mumbling in unison from time to time, responding to the preacher's formulas. But some features made it stand out from a run-of-the-mill mass: for one thing, the open-air location, making the meeting look like a clandestine church gathering or a druids' ceremony. Also, there was a women's choir, some twenty good-looking ladies with modern hairdos, dressed in contemporary black dresses, skirts, trousers even, with red accents like a shawl or an artificial flower tucked behind the ear.
On the right, on the path along which I had arrived, a lone cyclist appeared, climbing the slope, in professional racing gear, not casting the merest glance into this chapel in the glade. We might as well not have been there; conquering his natural adversary was all that mattered to him. In return, no-one on the wooden seats paid the slightest attention to him.
A tallish woman with short straw-coloured hair, seated on one of the seats in the rear was wearing a pair of oversized plastic ears, as if she had dressed up for carnival. But she looked quite sensible otherwise, her weatherproof coat buttoned up against the chill. Nobody took any notice, just like they hadn't with the cyclist.
Looking over the rows of seated believers towards the raised wooden stage with the altar, I spotted the backs of four uniformed men seated on the front row, wearing over their black tunics something looking like symbolic silver armory - shiny plates, loosely linked by chains. Any good marksman could have planted a poison arrow in the wide chinks between the armour plates, had this gear been worn in a conflict.
The preacher, a bald tubby man who must have been at least 80, vacated his central position behind the altar to make way for a lay preacher of about the same age who read a lesson.
The congregation again obligingly muttered a response at the required places. I was beginning to think that this was a regular mass after all, and my gaze wandered to the other side of the clearing, to the left of the stage. Neatly lined up with the ends of the pews was a regiment of some ten men, smartly turned out in what looked like 19th-century police uniforms. Some of them were armed with blunderbusses, others carried drums, one having a snare drum strapped to his belly. These men, and the armoured officers in the front row, I later learnt, belonged to the local archery.
As the robed preacher, who had embarked on the next part of the service, reached some significant point in the ritual, one of the archers sounded a brief drum roll. The chapel bell responded, striking twice, its clear sound reminding the people in the pews that the little chapel was still there, right behind them.
The liturgical part of the service seemed to be coming to an end. The elderly preacher and his lay sidekick exchanged a few short remarks, which made the believers chuckle. The effect of the subdued laughter rippling over the crowd was not as startling as John Cleese saying "fuck" in his valedictory speech at Graham Chapman's funeral, but it still felt odd.
After a few more pleasantries, about twelve loud shots were heard in slow but regular succession, in a salute from somewhere in the woods.
The crowd began to get up and leave, folding their chairs and handing them to an attendant who appeared from behind a tree and neatly stacked them up. But the villagers were not leaving, as I thought. They sauntered past the side of the little chapel to the other side, to another clearing. The archery lined up and marched in the same direction. One of the uniformed men held up his inverted cap, inviting contributions towards the upkeep of uniforms and instruments.
A small fairground was laid out on the wet grass on the other side of the chapel. Stalls were lining the perimeter of the open area, their backs to the forest edge. Some sold food or drinks, others knickknacks created by local artists. Long tables in the central area invited the punters to add some food and drink to the spiritual nourishment they had just received. At regular intervals, a Wheel of Fortune was spun, and the winners duly came up to collect their prizes, supplied by local businesses. A one-man orchestra was churning out popular songs, accompied by his singing-and-dancing magic synthesizer, all in two-fourth time. One of the stalls was run by the Netherlands' National Trust, the owner of the land on which the little hermitage stood. Volunteers were handing out propaganda leaflets; the woman with the plastic toy ears held a basket containing freshly picked herbs in front of visitors, challenging them to identify them.
I went back to take a closer look at the little chapel. Two guides, both retired men, explained that the building had been a hermitage: the living quarters and religious shrine of a hermit. Inside was everything you would expect to find in a full-blown church, only smaller: a bank of votive candles quietly burning, a colourful decorated ceiling, real wooden pews, an altar and a small organ.
One of the guides, a distinguished-looking gentleman called Mr Tissen told me that on one of the guided tours he regularly gave here, he had had a church choir from Aachen. "They had brought their local preacher, and it turned out he could play that thing quite well," he said, pointing to the harmonium with its two pumping pedals driving the bellows. "I went outside, and the German choir stayed inside singing the most beautiful Gregorian chants I've ever heard. It gave me goosebumps." Mr Tissen looked at me. "Isn't it fantastic?" I agreed.
A succession of devout hermits had lived here for over 250 years. All alone, living a life of religious observance and deprivation. The last one, Brother Lutgerus, left the little hermitage in 1930, disgusted at becoming a tourist attraction. The annual mass in honour of St Leonard and the fair were held to raise money for the hermit and for the upkeep of the hermitage. Though the hermitage lay deserted, the tradition was not discontinued until 1939. Thirty years and a World War later, a local group resurrected the annual event.
I left the dark, cosy chapel to have a slice of bread with scrambled egg and bacon at one of the stalls outside. No big city pizzas or shawarma here. Somehow, the snacks were in tune with the simple life that the hermits must have led here.
It was just what I needed.
(See Footnotes for additional information)