Driving through ye olde villages of Norfolk, we happened upon Walsingham, or as it is allegedly better known, "England's Nazareth". I had never been anywhere quite so surreal, except perhaps Berck-sur-Mer in northern France. Berck is hospital city, France's A&E, where the chronically sick are wheeled through the streets in their hospital beds by their more able- bodied colleagues, with drips, catheters, the works, down to the seafront to take the air. It is not easily mistaken for Cannes, I can assure you. Ever since old Richelidis de Faverches, one-time lady of the manor, had a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1061, Walsingham hasn't looked back. It has become a pilgrim's paradise - a Pontin's for priests and a Nevada for nuns. A walk through the streets reveals "The Little Way Association", "St David's Guest House", "The Marist Sisters", "Pilgrims Progress Bookshop", "The Eikon Shop" and a house bearing the improbable name, "The Little Portion".
Walsingham is a Christian consumer's heaven on Earth. The Shrine Shop abounds with men of the cloth, who come to buy themselves a treat: travelling mass kit, pounds 200; sick call kit, pounds 295; or a hand chased incense burner, for pounds 75. My husband, I could see, was toying with the pounds 20.75 black shirt and dog collar set, but I forbade this, cringing at the thought of him fabricating a flowery tale about his dwindling congregation at Our Lady of the Immaculate Crouch End, then handing over his gold card to the righteous cashier. He will have to hire for vicars' and tarts' parties.
Determined not to leave England's Nazareth without chattels, we proceeded to the Guild Shop. Hallelujah! - this place was just heaving with religio must-haves: plastic rosaries (in pure white, baby blue or angel pink), 20p, or Holy Family magnetic car badges, pounds 1.24. We just couldn't resist the fill-your-own plastic Virgins (for holy water) at 70p, and a click- on plastic camera which revealed 14 different saints, pounds 1.50.
It was difficult fully to appreciate all that the shop had to offer, as we were somewhat overcome by a coach party from Wigan, with bad perms and pastel anoraks, whose sole purpose was to stock up on pounds 1 first communion cards with stick-on gold crosses.
My best buy was a car sticker for an acquaintance who spends his weekends scrubbing his white sports car with his toothbrush: "Is prayer the steering wheel of your life or just the spare tyre?" 95p.
On the way back to the car, I saw something that made me wonder whether the shopkeepers of Walsingham knew no bounds: in a vitrine, with various holy samplers, was an embroidery, bordered with angels: "MOT HERE." Is nothing sacred? When I made him drive past to witness this item, my husband pointed out that it was, in fact, rather badly executed needlework of a prayer entitled "MOTHERS".
Spending those pennies from heaven: The Shrine Shop, Common Place, Walsingham; The Guild Shop, High St, Walsingham, Norfolk.Reuse content