A delightful narrow-gauge railway and a sacred site that once attracted kings: the mesmerizing delights of heavenly Norfolk
- The Daily Mail’s Kit Hesketh-Harvey reveals the bucolic joys and religious history of Norfolk
- Walsingham, a tranquil collection of hamlets, was once one of the four most sacred destinations in all of Christianity
The sight of 29 nuns shuffling on their knees on a village street may seem strange to some. Not me. I live on Peddars Way, a Norfolk pilgrimage route from Thetford, past Swaffham and Fakenham. From there you can drive to Walsingham.
It’s hard to believe today that this serene cluster of hamlets, barely inland from the Norfolk coast, was once one of the four most sacred destinations in all of Christianity.
When a Saxon noblewoman named Richeldis de Faverches saw a vision of the Virgin under these poppy fields in 1061, she built a shrine. Over the centuries, Plantagenet kings were drawn to it, including Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, who prayed for a son. She was unlucky. Henry’s eye shone on Anne Boleyn.
Magnet for pilgrims: Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the charming hamlet of Norfolk in Little Walsingham
Over the centuries, kings such as Henry VIII have been drawn to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Walsingham
The resulting break from Rome led to a particular savagery here. The two monastery houses were searched, their Marian altars smashed and shrines freed from centuries of royal gold offerings.
A subprior and choristers were hanged, dragged and quartered for rebelling against the dissolution of the monasteries.
Norfolk fell into shock from which it never really recovered, as this anonymous ballad, written at the time, laments:
Cry, cry, oh Walsingham
Heaven has become hell
Satan sits where our Lord ruled
Walsingham, O, farewell.
But there is a happy ending. The location of the old abbey is just as worthy of pilgrimage today. The snowdrops that bloom among the ruins every February are celebrated in much the same way. The hope symbolized by these valiantly nodding flowers that emerge even after the harshest winters should make one fall to one’s knees in thanks.
From Easter to October, whether on your knees or by bus, the processions of the faithful continue.
In 1897 Pope Leo XIII decreed. The reestablishment of the Slipper Chapel from the 14th century. Two decades later, Father Alfred Hope Patten enlivened the pilgrimage for Anglicans.
Little Walsingham (larger) and Great Walsingham (smaller) are a mix of charming medieval streets with an abundance of tea rooms. Everything is peaceful and healthy, with the otherworldly feeling of a Lindisfarne or an Iona.
Kai for a wonderful vacation: Wells-next-the-Sea (never “next to”), which has a wonderful harbor
And the area offers much more than just spiritual relaxation. Wells-next-the-Sea (never “next-to”) with its wonderful harbor is nearby, be it for crabs, pustules or a visit to its new art center. Boats clinking in the streams promise adventurers and watercolorists alike. Needless to say, ornithologists need to be reminded that these haunted swamps are one of the RSPB’s main wonders.
The splendor of the North Norfolk coast – Holkham Bay, Scolt Head, Brancaster – is a bus ride away. Or take the Wells & Walsingham Light Railway, the longest 10¼ narrow-gauge steam train in.. . England? Great Britain? Christendom? Who counts Choo Choo!
“When you came from the holy land of Walsingham,” wrote Sir Walter Raleigh, “did you not meet me with my true love?” Well, if he meant Walsingham himself, love it, you really will.