Somewhere in an English village — amid the cul-de-sacs and pubs, vegetable patches and garden gnomes, the GP’s surgery and the miniature steam railway — lies the spot where the Virgin Mary came down from heaven.
Walsingham, Norfolk, is a sleepy place (though not as sleepy as the neighbouring village of Great Snoring). Nonetheless, it was here in 1061 that the Virgin supposedly appeared to Richeldis de Faverches, a Saxon noblewoman. Mary instructed her to build a replica of the house at Nazareth where archangel Gabriel had brought her news of the immaculate conception.
You might wonder if there were more urgent prophecies to relate to a Saxon in the England of 1061 — but, in any case, the noblewoman set about following her instructions. It is said that one night, while she prayed, the building materials she had provided miraculously assembled themselves into the “Holy House” of Walsingham.
For half a millennium, Walsingham thrived as a centre of pilgrimage, alongside Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago. English kings came to pray here. The Milky Way became known as “The Walsingham Way” because its celestial sweep recalled the movement of pilgrims towards the bright star of its shrine. Walsingham, so the saying went, was “England’s Nazareth”.
Then, in the 16th century, that all stopped. Henry VIII’s eyes wandered. The English Reformation saw the Holy House ruined, the statue of the Virgin burnt, the superstitious tradition of pilgrimage outlawed in a new, austere Protestant age. As centuries passed, spires soared in other places where the Virgin was beheld by mortal eyes — Lourdes, Fátima and elsewhere. Meanwhile, little Walsingham settled down for an afterlife of quiet obscurity in the Norfolk farmland, the story of Mary’s visit receding from memory.
It is a bright morning in early May when I set out from Norwich on a 40-mile bike ride to Walsingham. Drifts of cow parsley line the roadsides and wisps of freshly shorn wool waft weightless about the still air. Unlike the rolling hills of Galilee beyond Nazareth, Norfolk is a land untroubled by contours. It is perfect for cycling. I coast down country lanes too narrow for lorries, too obscure for Google Maps, hiccupped by potholes and patrolled by pheasants. Flanking the lanes are untrimmed hedgerows — green ramparts of bramble and thorn rising to a blue sky. April showers are over. The world stirs with twittering and twitching. This, according to Chaucer, is the traditional time of year for pilgrimage.
In 1921, Walsingham got a new Anglican vicar: Alfred Hope Patten. He was a lively figure — he cycled around on a ladies’ bike, wore a beaver hat and had a fondness for parlour games. But Hope Patten had a serious plan — to wake the Marian shrine from its four-century slumber, to bring pilgrims back to Walsingham. In 1922, he had a new statue of Mary installed in the village and later rebuilt the Holy House.
These actions drew thundering letters of disapproval from the Bishop of Norwich — but pilgrims soon began to flock here as they did in the Middle Ages. Hope Patten restored a missing piece in the jigsaw of English spirituality: pilgrims’ lodgings were built, Walsingham station was expanded so that trains could run from London’s Liverpool Street (including services for sick children on iron lungs). Other denominations put down roots in the village. Walsingham’s star shone again. For some, it is still twinkling.
These days, pilgrims tend to come on coach tours organised by churches, or in their own cars. Nonetheless, 2021 saw the establishment of the Walsingham Way — a pilgrims’ footpath from Norwich, whose route I am vaguely following by bike. Here you can get a small sense of a landscape trodden by medieval pilgrims. I freewheel through flint-clad villages, past bluebell-strewn woods, over sluggish streams.
True pilgrims follow the straight path to God. Mine is the pilgrimage of the lapsed Anglican — full of dawdles, dithering and occasional cheating, succumbing to the temptations of pints in pubs and a giant detour to eat fish and chips by the sea. Walsingham is only vaguely signposted (though adverts for the farm shop are fairly prominent) but even an atheist might feel a tremor in their heart on arrival.
The village lies half-hidden in a shallow valley — a dimple in the Norfolk flatness. At the centre are the remains of a priory destroyed during the Reformation, with a singular stone arch left to frame a crescent of sky. A chalk stream muddles along through trout ponds, footbridges and fords. Red-brick cottages line narrow streets; wisteria escapes over garden walls. It is a slice of the England depicted on biscuit tins and in teatime murder mysteries: the sort of idyll that, to a homesick exile or expatriate, possesses its own sanctity. Phone reception is erratic. You sometimes feel you have slipped off the map.
“Pilgrimage is about stepping out of your routine into another space,” says Father Kevin Smith. “It gives you an opportunity to reflect and to get things back in order in life.”
Father Kevin is the priest administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham — the Anglican Church within which you can find Hope Patten’s revived Holy House and the statue of Mary he commissioned a century before. Father Kevin first came to Walsingham aged 14 to attend the National Pilgrimage, an annual summer event that has been taking place here since 1923. The Virgin’s statue was carried aloft through the streets in an elaborate procession: Father Kevin remembers the Malta lanterns that glittered before his adolescent eyes.
“I’d never seen anything like it before,” he says. “I was hooked — bowled over by the crowds, the devotion. Some people leave here in tears, because they’ve been so moved by the experience.”
As the grandson of a vicar, my own experience of the Church of England is a softly spoken kind of faith: one of Victorian hymns and croquet on vicarage lawns, where dealings with the Almighty are done on a personal, interior basis. Walsingham, by contrast, sits at the lofty heights of the high church: I hear Ave Marias, step into mists of incense and listen to stories of miracles — pilgrims whose cancer went into remission, families reconciled.
The best story concerns a British Army sniper who came to Walsingham and recognised the German officer he had shot carrying a roast turkey out of a mess tent one Christmas Day during the second world war. The pair embraced in another Walsingham miracle.
It’s not to everyone’s taste: every year a handful of militant Protestants come to the National Pilgrimage to wield banners and heckle the Virgin — “Behold the wobbling doll . . . Satan’s farce!” No one pays much attention any more. There are other things to worry about.
Late one afternoon I cycle a mile south of the Anglican shrine, past patchwork fields, oak copses and lengthening shadows, to the Slipper Chapel, part of the Roman Catholic presence in Walsingham. Here, pilgrims take off their shoes to walk the last stage into the village barefoot, not in an act of penance but in recognition that they are entering sacred ground. Sam Baker, who is director of operations at the chapel, first came to Walsingham when he was six months old. His mother had struggled to conceive, so she brought her miracle baby here to give thanks and, with no cot available in the pilgrim’s house where they stayed, made him a bed in a chest of drawers. Today, Sam hopes for another kind of miracle.
“Walsingham’s purpose is to welcome hundreds of thousands of people,” he says. “And right now it’s missing that purpose. We know from evidence the average Anglo-Saxon Christian doesn’t know about this place, or if they’ve heard of it they’ve never been. That goes for clergy too. Reconnecting with that past is something I take seriously.”
Both Catholics and Anglicans are frank that pilgrim numbers are declining; coaches aren’t filling the car parks as they did decades ago, and the Anglicans have advertised some of their pilgrim accommodation to regular tourists on booking.com. Walsingham mirrors a nationwide pattern for declining church attendance: the 10,000-strong crowds Father Kevin remembers at the National Pilgrimage when he was a teenager have shrunk to about 2,000 today. The pilgrims I see are almost all elderly: it’s thought that Covid-19 precautions are keeping many regulars away.
Paradoxically, public interest in pilgrimage is surging: Lindisfarne and Iona lure thousands to their windswept islands; Glastonbury exists in its own intoxicating fog of Celtic Christianity and New Age belief. In 2014, the British Pilgrimage Trust was set up, while a new BBC TV series focuses on the transformative benefits of pilgrimage for those of limited faith. Some 350,000 annually make the hike to Santiago in Spain. I saw no other pilgrims on the Walsingham Way.
Over two days I potter about the village’s churches and wonder if Mary’s apparition risks being forgotten a second time. My church visits follow a familiar pattern: the heavy clunk of an iron latch, stepping out of May sunshine into the ice-house coolness of the interior, eyes calibrating to darkness. There is the squeak of a hinge, the creak of a pew, a suppressed cough, an echo of footsteps (often my own). And there is a mnemonic echo too of Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going”: a cyclist’s meditation on detours to country churches, pondering a future when they lapse out of use.
Walsingham offers an unexpected coda to Larkin’s pessimism. Walsingham has traditionally been regarded as a uniquely English Holy Land but today there seems to be an increasingly international dimension. In the Anglican shrine I hear prayers muttered in Brazilian Portuguese. In the Catholic church I meet Augustine, a member of a Latin American congregation in Sheffield who took a taxi here to pray for Ukraine (and for good exam results for his sister). Sam Baker says that in the summer, 20,000 members of the Tamil community make their pilgrimage to Walsingham — including a few Hindus who are simply curious — and Sri Lankan delicacies are served in the Roman Catholic café. Irish Travellers call up to give notice they are coming in their caravans.
At opposite ends of this English village stand an Orthodox chapel and church — one adorned with the glittering gold that murmurs of Byzantium and the salty airs of the Golden Horn, the other with an onion dome that could be dusted by the snows of Kyiv or Moscow. The latter is set in a former railway station: the iconostasis marks the symbolic threshold between earth (the old waiting room) and heaven (the former ticket office — still a place to consider options for onward travel). Romanians, Greeks and Cypriots travel to the village to worship. Walsingham is regarded as a uniquely English Holy Land, but other identities have entered its orbit.
In all the churches, my conversations follow a common trajectory: yes, all the denominations get along; yes, everyone would be delighted if more secular pilgrims turned up; no, Walsingham’s two pubs aren’t what they used to be. Everyone also says that, although they can’t be sure what a Saxon noblewoman saw a millennium ago, the waves of pilgrims have charged this Norfolk postcode with a sacred energy that cannot be denied.
“When something heavy, like a hammer, is dropped on to a wooden floor it leaves a mark,” says Jeremy Dearling, warden of the Orthodox Church. “When walking across wet sand, footprints follow the walker. That space is changed. When people pray, wherever they pray, they leave something behind.”
On my last night in Walsingham I head to the Anglican Shrine Church. Inside is Hope Patten’s replica of the Holy House at Nazareth, containing a gilded figure of the Virgin radiant against candle-blackened walls. Father Kevin presides over a moving service: I wonder if I am the only person attending without faith. A cynic might argue that secular pilgrimage is a ritual stripped of meaning, travel garbed in the vocabulary of self-help, a fad for those more invested in their own personal journey than their ultimate destination. But I wonder if the idea of pilgrimage rests on a truth older than religion — that on every journey, however small, you can find waymarkers for navigating the far greater distance of a life.
The members of the congregation are each handed candles, and step outside to form a procession of flickering light in the shrine gardens. Out in the dusk, wood pigeons are cooing under a crescent moon. The scent of lavender hangs heavy in the air as we walk. There is just one bit of housekeeping from Father Kevin: there’s a breeze this evening, so don’t worry if your candle goes out. Just carry on along the path.
For information on visiting Walsingham Shrine, including accommodation for pilgrims, see walsinghamanglican.org.uk. For details of visiting the ruins of the medieval priory, see walsinghamabbey.com; for more on the Slipper Chapel see walsingham.org.uk. The Wells-Walsingham Light Railway runs from Wells-next-the-Sea to Walsingham in summer, see wwlr.co.uk. For more details of hotels and rental cottages in the area see visitnorfolk.co.uk
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