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Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Norfolk Lourdes: England’s misplaced Holy Land

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Somewhere in an English village — amid the cul-de-sacs and pubs, vegetable patches and backyard gnomes, the GP’s surgical procedure and the miniature steam railway — lies the spot the place the Virgin Mary got here down from heaven.

Walsingham, Norfolk, is a sleepy place (although not as sleepy because the neighbouring village of Great Snoring). Nonetheless, it was right here in 1061 that the Virgin supposedly appeared to Richeldis de Faverches, a Saxon noblewoman. Mary instructed her to construct a reproduction of the home at Nazareth the place archangel Gabriel had introduced her information of the stainless conception.

You would possibly marvel if there have been extra pressing prophecies to narrate to a Saxon within the England of 1061 — however, in any case, the noblewoman set about following her directions. It is claimed that one night time, whereas she prayed, the constructing supplies she had offered 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 got here to wish right here. The Milky Way turned often known as “The Walsingham Way” as a result of its celestial sweep recalled the motion of pilgrims in direction of the brilliant star of its shrine. Walsingham, so the saying went, was “England’s Nazareth”.

Then, within the sixteenth century, that every one stopped. Henry VIII’s eyes wandered. The English Reformation noticed the Holy House ruined, the statue of the Virgin burnt, the superstitious custom of pilgrimage outlawed in a brand new, austere Protestant age. As centuries handed, spires soared in different places the place the Virgin was beheld by mortal eyes — Lourdes, Fátima and elsewhere. Meanwhile, little Walsingham settled down for an afterlife of quiet obscurity within the Norfolk farmland, the story of Mary’s go to receding from reminiscence.

View from Walsingham’s Shrine Church into the Quiet Garden © Photographed for the FT by Sandra Mickiewicz

A bishop in pink vestments
Bishop Will Hazlewood, Bishop of Lewes, in Walsingham for the National Pilgrimage in May

Religious items and devotional articles on sale within the village’s Pilgrim Shop  © Sandra Mickiewicz

It is a vibrant morning in early May once I set out from Norwich on a 40-mile bike journey to Walsingham. Drifts of cow parsley line the roadsides and wisps of freshly shorn wool waft weightless in regards to the nonetheless air. Unlike the rolling hills of Galilee past Nazareth, Norfolk is a land untroubled by contours. It is ideal for biking. I coast down nation lanes too slim for lorries, too obscure for Google Maps, hiccupped by potholes and patrolled by pheasants. Flanking the lanes are untrimmed hedgerows — inexperienced ramparts of bramble and thorn rising to a blue sky. April showers are over. The world stirs with twittering and twitching. This, in accordance with Chaucer, is the standard time of yr for pilgrimage.

Map of Norfolk

In 1921, Walsingham acquired a brand new Anglican vicar: Alfred Hope Patten. He was a full of life determine — he cycled round on a women’ bike, wore a beaver hat and had a keenness for parlour video games. But Hope Patten had a severe plan — to wake the Marian shrine from its four-century slumber, to carry pilgrims again to Walsingham. In 1922, he had a brand new statue of Mary put in within the village and later rebuilt the Holy House.

These actions drew thundering letters of disapproval from the Bishop of Norwich — however pilgrims quickly started to flock right here as they did within the Middle Ages. Hope Patten restored a lacking piece within the jigsaw of English spirituality: pilgrims’ lodgings have been constructed, Walsingham station was expanded in order that trains might run from London’s Liverpool Street (together with companies for sick kids on iron lungs). Other denominations put down roots within the village. Walsingham’s star shone once more. For some, it’s nonetheless twinkling.

Priests walk in procession along a country road
The National Pilgrimage procession leaving Walsingham Abbey  © Sandra Mickiewicz

These days, pilgrims have a tendency to come back on coach excursions organised by church buildings, or in their very own vehicles. Nonetheless, 2021 noticed the institution of the Walsingham Way — a pilgrims’ footpath from Norwich, whose route I’m vaguely following by bike. Here you may get a small sense of a panorama trodden by medieval pilgrims. I freewheel via flint-clad villages, previous bluebell-strewn woods, over sluggish streams.

True pilgrims observe the straight path to God. Mine is the pilgrimage of the lapsed Anglican — filled with dawdles, dithering and occasional dishonest, succumbing to the temptations of pints in pubs and a large detour to eat fish and chips by the ocean. Walsingham is barely vaguely signposted (although adverts for the farm store are pretty outstanding) however even an atheist would possibly really feel a tremor of their coronary heart on arrival.

The village lies half-hidden in a shallow valley — a dimple within the Norfolk flatness. At the centre are the stays of a priory destroyed in the course of the Reformation, with a singular stone arch left to border a crescent of sky. A chalk stream muddles alongside via trout ponds, footbridges and fords. Red-brick cottages line slim streets; wisteria escapes over backyard partitions. It is a slice of the England depicted on biscuit tins and in teatime homicide mysteries: the type of idyll that, to a homesick exile or expatriate, possesses its personal sanctity. Phone reception is erratic. You typically really feel you’ve gotten slipped off the map.

A man pours wine at an outdoor lunch near a church. behind him people eat and drink at picnic tables
Attendees on the National Pilgrimage on May 2, 2022 © Sandra Mickiewicz

“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 inside which you’ll find Hope Patten’s revived Holy House and the statue of Mary he commissioned a century earlier than. Father Kevin first got here to Walsingham aged 14 to attend the National Pilgrimage, an annual summer season occasion that has been going down right here since 1923. The Virgin’s statue was carried aloft via the streets in an elaborate procession: Father Kevin remembers the Malta lanterns that glittered earlier than 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 very own expertise of the Church of England is a softly spoken sort of religion: one in all Victorian hymns and croquet on vicarage lawns, the place dealings with the Almighty are carried out on a private, inside foundation. Walsingham, in contrast, sits on the lofty heights of the excessive church: I hear Ave Marias, step into mists of incense and take heed to tales of miracles — pilgrims whose most cancers went into remission, households reconciled.

The greatest story considerations a British Army sniper who got here to Walsingham and recognised the German officer he had shot carrying a roast turkey out of a multitude tent one Christmas Day in the course of the second world conflict. The pair embraced in one other Walsingham miracle.

Crowds of people stand near a stone arch, the remains of an old priory
Pilgrims collect close to the stays of Walsingham Priory, destroyed in the course of the Reformation © Sandra Mickiewicz

It’s to not everybody’s style: yearly 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 a lot consideration any extra. There are different issues to fret about.

Late one afternoon I cycle a mile south of the Anglican shrine, previous patchwork fields, oak copses and lengthening shadows, to the Slipper Chapel, a part of the Roman Catholic presence in Walsingham. Here, pilgrims take off their footwear to stroll the final stage into the village barefoot, not in an act of penance however in recognition that they’re coming into sacred floor. Sam Baker, who’s director of operations on the chapel, first got here to Walsingham when he was six months previous. His mom had struggled to conceive, so she introduced her miracle child right here to offer thanks and, with no cot out there within the pilgrim’s home the place they stayed, made him a mattress in a chest of drawers. Today, Sam hopes for an additional sort 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 automobile parks as they did a long time in the past, and the Anglicans have marketed a few of their pilgrim lodging to common vacationers on reserving.com. Walsingham mirrors a nationwide sample for declining church attendance: the ten,000-strong crowds Father Kevin remembers on the National Pilgrimage when he was a teen have shrunk to about 2,000 at the moment. The pilgrims I see are nearly all aged: it’s thought that Covid-19 precautions are protecting many regulars away.

Priests in white and gold vestments walk along a treelined path, holding aloft the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham
Ordinands carry the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham into the Abbey grounds © Sandra Mickiewicz

Paradoxically, public curiosity in pilgrimage is surging: Lindisfarne and Iona lure hundreds to their windswept islands; Glastonbury exists in its personal intoxicating fog of Celtic Christianity and New Age perception. In 2014, the British Pilgrimage Trust was arrange, whereas a brand new BBC TV collection focuses on the transformative advantages of pilgrimage for these of restricted religion. Some 350,000 yearly make the hike to Santiago in Spain. I noticed no different pilgrims on the Walsingham Way.

Over two days I potter in regards to the village’s church buildings and marvel if Mary’s apparition dangers being forgotten a second time. My church visits observe a well-known sample: the heavy clunk of an iron latch, stepping out of May sunshine into the ice-house coolness of the inside, eyes calibrating to darkness. There is the squeak of a hinge, the creak of a pew, a suppressed cough, an echo of footsteps (typically my very own). And there’s a mnemonic echo too of Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going”: a bike owner’s meditation on detours to nation church buildings, pondering a future after they lapse out of use.

Walsingham provides an surprising coda to Larkin’s pessimism. Walsingham has historically been thought to be a uniquely English Holy Land however at the moment there appears to be an more and more worldwide 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 right here to wish for Ukraine (and for good examination outcomes for his sister). Sam Baker says that in the summertime, 20,000 members of the Tamil neighborhood make their pilgrimage to Walsingham — together with just a few Hindus who’re merely curious — and Sri Lankan delicacies are served within the Roman Catholic café. Irish Travellers name as much as give discover they’re coming of their caravans.

Families becoming a member of the afternoon procession © Sandra Mickiewicz

Statue of the Virgin supported by a cloth-covered trestle table in church grounds
The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham . . .  © Sandra Mickiewicz

Statue of St Thérèse of Lisieux
 . . . and a statue of St Thérèse of Lisieux © Sandra Mickiewicz

At reverse 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 opposite with an onion dome that could possibly be dusted by the snows of Kyiv or Moscow. The latter is about in a former railway station: the iconostasis marks the symbolic threshold between earth (the previous ready room) and heaven (the previous ticket workplace — nonetheless a spot to contemplate choices for onward journey). Romanians, Greeks and Cypriots journey to the village to worship. Walsingham is thought to be a uniquely English Holy Land, however different identities have entered its orbit.

In all of the church buildings, my conversations observe a standard trajectory: sure, all of the denominations get alongside; sure, everybody could be delighted if extra secular pilgrims turned up; no, Walsingham’s two pubs aren’t what they was. Everyone additionally says that, though they’ll’t ensure what a Saxon noblewoman noticed a millennium in the past, the waves of pilgrims have charged this Norfolk postcode with a sacred power that can’t 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.”

A statue of the Virgin Mary in a golden painted shrine in a church
The shrine itself, contained in the reconstructed Holy House © Alamy

On my final night time in Walsingham I head to the Anglican Shrine Church. Inside is Hope Patten’s duplicate of the Holy House at Nazareth, containing a gilded determine of the Virgin radiant towards candle-blackened partitions. Father Kevin presides over a shifting service: I’m wondering if I’m the one individual attending with out religion. A cynic would possibly argue that secular pilgrimage is a ritual stripped of which means, journey garbed within the vocabulary of self-help, a fad for these extra invested in their very own private journey than their final vacation spot. But I’m wondering if the concept of pilgrimage rests on a reality older than faith — that on each journey, nevertheless small, you’ll find waymarkers for navigating the far better distance of a life.

The members of the congregation are every handed candles, and step outdoors to type a procession of flickering gentle within the shrine gardens. Out within the nightfall, wooden pigeons are cooing beneath a crescent moon. The scent of lavender hangs heavy within the air as we stroll. There is only one little bit of housekeeping from Father Kevin: there’s a breeze this night, so don’t fear in case your candle goes out. Just keep it up alongside the trail.


For info on visiting Walsingham Shrine, together with lodging for pilgrims, see walsinghamanglican.org.uk. For particulars of visiting the ruins of the medieval priory, see walsinghamabbey.com; for extra on the Slipper Chapel see walsingham.org.uk. The Wells-Walsingham Light Railway runs from Wells-next-the-Sea to Walsingham in summer season, see wwlr.co.uk. For extra particulars of lodges and rental cottages within the space see visitnorfolk.co.uk

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