I suppose it was seeing the sign advertising “Raw milk for sale” in the little farm shop at Binham Priory that made me realise why walking to Walsingham is in many ways the most authentic of all English pilgrimage routes.
This is because people can still experience the medley of different medieval routes to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. There is no one path: in fact, that is part of the charm of walking to Walsingham, as I chose to on Good Friday, whether it is from Ely Cathedral or Norwich (along the Walsingham Way), or just strolling ten miles or so to the shrine from one of the many small coastal towns along the Norfolk coast, where many medieval pilgrims would have disembarked from their pilgrim boats, especially around Easter.
“If you want to be a true medieval pilgrim start from the little harbour of Cley,” suggested my friend Guy Hayward of the British Pilgrimage Trust. “Travelling by boat was cheaper and safer.”
I had the pages of routes to Walsingham photocopied from the Trust’s brilliant spiritual travel bible, Britain’s Pilgrim Places, as I set off on Good Friday, having pretty much fasted for breakfast at the house of my parents-in-law near Fakenham. Just a cup of coffee.
So I began at Cley where the wonderful church of St Margaret’s had been laid up with Easter flowers and a cross made from hazel was rested by the main door. I could hear an organ playing but alas the door was locked. Stations of the Cross were displayed in the porch. Then it was on to Morston Quay where I picked up the North Coastal Path towards Binham Priory, which has to be one of the greatest ruins of Norfolk.
Since it was Good Friday, I abstained from the ice cream shop which sold raw milk and ate a cheese sandwich while reading “East Coker” from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets aloud. I sat on a tombstone close to where the great 12th-century stained glass windows would have fallen into the grass when the priory was sacked by Henry VIII’s commissioners. A mosaic of shards of brilliant stained glass were found in various digs in the early 20th century and the priory itself displays the fruits of the mosaic jigsaw of the great window – similar to Chartres – that has been put back together.
Fortunately, perhaps, there was nobody around as I recited Eliot’s verse, but I particularly liked the lines:
“And what you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning…
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere
At any time or any season It would always be the same…”
Actually, in truth, there was somebody around. Not far away, beside the ruin of the old gatehouse, an old man in his eighties with a weatherbeaten face and a grey whiskery beard was bent double with a spade collecting horse manure that he shovelled into a sack. He looked like a character from the Canterbury Tales. “Best manure for my garden,” he said as I wished him a good morning.
One of the most moving aspects of my pilgrimage that morning was seeing a remarkable brass cross on a side altar inside the Priory that was used at the battle of Tobruk. This cross was in use in the Military Church during the battle and after the Second World War. It is believed to have been cast from shell cases used in fighting around that port.
I plodded on towards Walsingham, passing by many churches that were alas closed but would have received pilgrims in the Middle Ages. The day included passing the ruined hermitage of Blakeney at the point of the seashore where it turns inland at the Freshes and where the River Stiffkey meets the sea. Next stop: Cockthorpe Common, on through abandoned WWII airstrips that added a melancholy flavour to the day as one thought of those who never returned and the brass cross at Binham Priory.
I reached the famous shrine – which is a mile outside Little Walsingham, along the Holy Mile that many walk bare foot – just in time to receive Communion at the afternoon Mass and then had a delightful tea meeting in the cottage of the Slipper Chapel with the new Rector of the National Shrine, Monsignor Philip Moger, and his friend Father Michael Rear (both pictured left), who is an authority on the history of the shrine, having written the authoritative history, Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage. Delicious coffee cake was supplied as well as a potted history of what makes Walsingham, to this day, such a special place and a pilgrimage site that sits alongside Canterbury, Lourdes and Santiago.
The first thing I learnt was that Walsingham was now a flourishing town and had been revitalised by a new generation of younger people living in the village. Unlike with Chaucer’s old route from London to Canterbury, which is now almost all under asphalt, motorway or bypass, little has changed in nearly a thousand years about the village and its approach through Norfolk country lanes to Walsingham and its magnificent old priory which is where, in 1061, the widow of Richeldis de Faverches had a famous vision of the Virgin Mary. He was Lord of the manor of Walsingham and she ended up – in a flight of spiritual intercession – making a Holy House, based on the design of the house in Nazareth where the Virgin Mary appeared to Angel Gabriel.
A priory – whose ruins exist today – was then built around the Holy House and the site was to become visited by a succession of English kings after Richard II gifted the kingdom of England as a gift to the Blessed Mary so that the country was always under her protection. This is why England is described as being the “Dowry of Mary” and why Walsingham is known as “England’s Nazareth”. This dedication of England as the dowry of Mary was renewed again in 2020 although, alas, much of the annual celebrations were curtailed due to the pandemic. Its also important to note that there are two shrines – one Anglican and one Roman Catholic – and the signage is such that it’s easy to end up at the wrong place (which I did).
The pretty little Norfolk village remains the most heavily visited pilgrim site in England with an estimated 250,000 pilgrims per year (both Anglican and Catholic), outstripping Canterbury. Walsingham has its own Pilgrim Bureau office and the UK headquarters of EWTN are based in an unlikely looking townhouse close to the Black Lion pub, which is to be recommended.
As Father Michael Rear’s excellent book sets out, Walsingham is unique in that it is one of the few places in England in the Middle Ages where the community knew what the king looked like as they often made a point of visiting. And it is not just a place of historic interest – it is also a vibrant “living” community today as shown by the return of the Greyfriars, who helped celebrate the Mass at the shrine I attended on Easter Day. As Bishop Alan Hopes of East Anglia and Bishop Graham James of Norwich put it in their introduction: “Like their predecessors, so today’s pilgrims discover that pilgrimage can be an occasion for the renewal of faith, an opportunity for repentance, a moment of reflection or the prompt for a change of direction on their life journey.”
William Cash is the acting editor of the Catholic Herald.
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.