PINK rose petals descended in their thousands from the tall bell-tower, their colour caught by candle light as they floated down through clouds of incense.

There was total silence among 600 pilgrims in the abbey church.

This was the scene at the candle-lit pilgrimage procession at Belmont Abbey, the monastery's 20th annual May pilgrimage, which honours the Virgin Mary.

Pilgrims came from as far afield as Harrington in West Cumbria. A fleet of buses brought others from Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Central and South Wales, as well as Worcestershire and Herefordshire.

Several local schools sent coachloads of pupils. The youngest pilgrim was probably Kristian Messenger, aged three, from Whitehaven, Cumbria.

Abbot Paul Stonham led the pilgrimage with prayers for world peace, especially among all peoples in Iraq. As darkness descended pilgrims set off, each with a lighted candle, through the monastery gardens.

The procession passed through yew-hedged pathways while pilgrims sang eight traditional hymns and recited the rosary. A statue of Mary on a bed of spring flowers was carried on the shoulders of a group of lay workers at Belmont.

The pilgrimage sermon was given by the Rev Father Cenydd Marrison, a Belmont monk who is also parish priest at St Joseph's, Bromyard.

He pointed out that Roman Catholics do not regard the Virgin Mary as a goddess but as an outstanding symbol of humanity. She suffered grievously as she watched Jesus crucified on the cross.

He emphasised the power of prayer and urged pilgrims to pray regularly. He concluded by stressing the need for people to show love to others.

At the end of the final hymn, one of the monks opened the bell tower door. Rose petals cascaded down on to the statue of the Virgin Mary.

The monastery provided refreshments for all pilgrims.

The Bishop-elect of Hexham and Newcastle, Canon Kevin Dunn, on his first Belmont pilgrimage, commented: "It was a magnificent, memorable evening."