Holy Holidays: Pilgrimage to Walsingham

Easter is a crucial time for a small village in Norfolk where, over the centuries, religious significance has continued to build.
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The Independent Online
When Dr Beeching took his famous axe to a branch line in Norfolk, he couldn't have guessed that his pruning would be so productive. Today, where once the regular service ran, a tiny, gleaming steam engine called the Norfolk Hero pulls visitors up a narrow-gauge track for five miles, from Wells-next-the-Sea to Little Walsingham. But they no longer alight at the old station, for that too has been reborn. Instead of withering rustily away, the diminutive Victorian building now proudly accommodates the Eastern Orthodox church of St Seraphim. Inside, in the soft light of thin, yellow tapers, the old booking-hall is full of spring flowers, glowing with sad-eyed, brightly painted saints; in what was probably the waiting-room, an icon workshop flourishes.

And that's not all. St Seraphim's is only one of three centres of Eastern Orthodoxy within a couple of miles. Take the road towards Snoring and turn off to the left, and you'll come to the minuscule hamlet of Great Walsingham, where in 1986 a handsome Methodist chapel became the Church of the Transfiguration. More of those distinctive icons decorate the rood screen - St Seraphim, again, St Withburga and St Fursey.

The third and smallest chapel was the first to open. It occupies an upper room in the Anglican shrine and originally catered for locally held prisoners of war. That's an awful lot of orthodoxy for a small town in the middle of farmland, miles from anywhere. But Walsingham is a strange and, you might say, rather unorthodox spot.

In 1061, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a woman called Richeldis de Faverches and instructed her to build a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth, at Walsingham. Richeldis obeyed and, as the news of her vision spread, visitors began arriving. An Augustinian priory was built beside the Holy House, and its reputation grew. Miracles were reported; in the enormous flint wall surrounding the priory grounds there is still a little doorway, known as the Knight's Gate, barely 2ft high. They say that a knight was fleeing from his enemies who were right at his heels. A despairing appeal to Our Lady of Walsingham resulted in his finding himself, and his horse, safely in sanctuary on the other side of the wall, and the baddies unable to pass through the tiny door.

All the mediaeval kings came here on pilgrimage, from Henry III up to and including Henry VIII. The shrine became second only to Rome as a major destination for pilgrims, and the town grew accordingly. But everything changed abruptly with the dissolution of the monasteries. The Holy House and its priory were pulled down and a famous statue of Mary sitting with her child on her knee was smashed up; the great seal of the place, which showed a carving of the statue, disappeared.

No longer were new houses needed, so nobody bothered to pull down many of the old ones. As the place slipped back into insignificance, the buildings remained, dozens of superb examples of medieval and Tudor architecture lining the narrow streets - built of virtually every material available, from something that looks suspiciously like wattle and daub, through half- timbering, brick and flint to carved stone.

The place began to stir again towards the end of the 19th century when a Benedictine oblate called Charlotte Boyd discovered the Slipper Chapel. This perfect little church, built in 1325, was then in use as a cowshed, but it had originally been the place where pilgrims left their shoes to walk the last mile into town barefoot. From the print of the ancient seal, a new copy of the famous statue was made and installed in the Slipper Chapel, and pilgrimages recommenced.

These days, everyone has a stake in Walsingham. High Anglicans rebuilt the Holy House inside a new church and installed another statue; the abbey ruins were opened to the public and, gradually, the place reawakened. The Slipper Chapel became too small to take the numbers of Catholics flocking there, and in 1982 a new church, a lofty building whose sweeping lines are taken from the design of old Norfolk barns, rose from the adjoining fields. There is also a rather splendid Methodist church where Wesley once preached, and the Sue Ryder foundation runs a hostel, a tea-room and a tiny hermitage. Religious souvenir shops abound.

In the Common Place is a well, sometimes grandly called the Conduit House. It is a hilarious little blob made of old bricks, chunks of limestone and sprouting grasses. On top of it is a mini-brazier where bonfires are lit to mark important events: there used to be a smart finial, but that collapsed in 1900, under the weight of the bunting tied to it in celebration of the relief of Mafeking. This is the place where the Walsingham Witnesses tend to gather, to jeer at any evidence of the idolatry they despise, an atavistic dissenting pastime that is hard to imagine elsewhere.

At the Black Lion, a pub which once gave a bed to Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III and friend of Chancer, the talk was of spring. You can tell when it's arrived because the Easter pilgrims descend upon the town - young men carrying crosses. A sturdy farmer in a knitted cap was sitting at the bar, his upper lip adorned by the kind of long and lugubrious blond moustache that his Viking ancestors probably wore. He told us that there was not a single family in the village which didn't benefit in some way from the increasing popularity of the place. But he grumbled, too, about the fact that parking restrictions were back in force now that the pilgrimage season had started, and that the village looked terrible with double yellow lines all down the street. A rumble of assent greeted this remark. How long had they been there? Oh some years - couldn't say exactly. We'd have to ask Basil.

We'd already heard quite a bit about Basil. He was so old, they said, that he'd probably been there when Richeldis saw her vision. There was nothing he didn't know about the place; we could ask him anything. He'd probably turn up, they guessed, in a minute or two.

Basil didn't show up, and we had to go. The lane out of the town lies deep between hedges; on that quiet sunny morning, celandines and primroses brought a golden sheen to the bright new grass, giving the countryside the look of an illuminated manuscript. We reached Wells and turned westward. Here a forest of gnarled and twisted conifers called Abraham's Bosom protects the land from the encroaching sea. This was planted hundreds of years ago, some time during the last great heyday of Walsingham, but I'm not sure of the exact date. Next time, I must remember to ask Basil.