Walsingham – You Only Live Once…

It wasn’t difficult to find our way to Walsingham but when we arrived it wasn’t clear what we should do. I had persuaded my partner and our three children to come with me to visit Walsingham. My partner was interested in going but the three children had asked me “what is it?”. It’s the site of one of the most important mediaeval pilgrimages I explained.  That didn’t seem to cut much ice with them so I decided to offer them a treat when they got there. I’d give them a little money to spend in the gift shop. Everybody was quite happy with this so we negotiated the small roads and found ourselves following narrow lanes towards Walsingham. There was nothing obvious about the signage, nothing to indicate that we were heading towards anything other than a small village in Norfolk. The road arrived suddenly somewhere that we assumed must be Walsingham.

To the left there appeared to be a long stone wall that reminded me of an estate village, very uniform in its construction. To the right a road climbed gently through what again appeared to be an estate village, well ordered, well kempt. And just to the right a new church building that reminded me of some of the recent monastic buildings found in Italy. All of a sudden I didn’t know what to do, that this may well be the shrine to my right was clear that it had come upon me too certainly, with no warning, no build up to it and I needed to drive past and start again. And so we drove past the shrine on our right and right up to park in a small square just beyond in what appeared to the heart of the village. I had been led astray by a friend who had already visited Walsingham. When I said I really wanted to go, she said, Oh that place with all the gift shops? So in my minds are the place was a bustle of tacky gift shops hence my idea that the children would relish their little gift. However in the square there was a rather formal religious gift shop to the right and what appeared to be a sweet shop on the other corner. So I was slightly concerned about the bargain I had struck with the children.


We left the car and stood in the main square considering how best to conduct our visit to Walsingham. We needed to eat something so I crossed the road and went into what turned out to be the local tourism office. This also acted as the gateway to the ruins of the Priory which lay in the grounds beyond. I asked the man and the woman where we might find something to eat and village, half expecting that there was a busy village somewhere that I had yet to discover. They explained to me that normally I would be able to go into one of the village pubs and find something to eat. However, they said, what with the travellers here it’s not so straightforward. I asked them what they were talking about? What travellers did they mean? Irish Travellers they said. They come here and cause trouble. They steal and they fight. It’s the same every year, they come for the feast of the Assumption on the 15th. Last night they were in the village and the public had to close. They always cause trouble. They all move on in a few days, they always do but until then it is not easy for the shops and particularly for the pubs and when they are here the pubs particularly have to close.


So the pub was indeed closed. I asked the people in the tourism office where the travellers were camped? They pointed out towards the West where the slipper Chapel lay. They’re out that way they said at least they were, I don’t know if they are still there. They directed us down towards the shrine itself explaining that this was the best location for a cafe in the village at the moment. So we walked down the hill, along past some open glass fronted building and in through the gate to find ourselves inside very large open enclosure. Surrounded by buildings on all sides, different ages, gardens laid out in a complex pattern. Signs before us pointed towards the cafe and we crossed the gardens past three large wooden crosses, exterior altar, the various stages of the cross and down past a large refectory with long tables, down some steps and into the building housing a very contemporary cafe. It was little different to the cafe found in a National trust property. Except perhaps for the two robed celebrants, one in a long white robe the other entirely in black. After we had ordered our food the man in white, a robust man in his late 50s came to the bar whereupon he ordered 2 pints of beer.


With the children we sat outside so as not to disturb the rather sedate atmosphere inside the cafe. I gathered together the leaflets explaining the nature of Walsingham. These I found void of context, at least of the historical context which had brought me to Walsingham in the first place. I had read accounts of the vastness of the Walsingham pilgrimages of the Middle Ages. I had images of busy shrines, I knew about our Lady of Walsingham but I also assumed the presence of relics. I have read accounts, I believe I have read them and not imagined them, of the sacking of the shrines, of the burning of the statues in the streets of Walsingham. In my mind’s eye I had seen people crying. It had struck me very deeply at the time the notion that there had been a profound caesura in the folk imagination of religion at this period. Things that I had taken for granted in my very puritanical Protestant upbringing, that the destruction of the Roman Catholic mystical power was something good in and of itself, had been called into question. I had imagined the destruction of the shrine at Walsingham as if somehow it were similar to the sacking of the village shrine somewhere in Africa, a sort of colonial act.


The leaflets gave no indication of the historical context of Walsingham and someone arriving would only understand it as an entirely contemporary event. I reflected that this was also an act of great honesty, not selling the shrine as an historical re-enactment but obliging it to exist primarily as a living expression of faith. More cynically of course, I had to question the nature of the shrine as a Church of England shrine. The Church of England being its destructor would find it difficult to describe its own role in the downfall of the shrine. A similar problem had been observed in the CzechRepublic, where the contemporary Czech population had difficulties describing the historical circumstances of Czech history within which they were so strongly implied as both martyr and persecutor or usurper.


Whilst sitting outside the cafe Saskia fell into conversation with one of the guides. We had seen a number of people walking around the central enclosure of the shrine. Many of them were wearing a green T-shirt carrying the logo of Walsingham and we assumed them to the volunteers taking up roles in the organisation of the shrine. We could see that there were several groups who were visiting, I think we saw a group arriving, people with suitcases, the sense that we were in a place that offered accommodation, that offered organised pilgrimage events was extremely apparent. It is interesting how strongly this sense of arranged events was communicated. The site was therefore very definite form of consumption. We had a reasonably pleasant lunch although my Walsingham honey cake was a little dry. In conversation with one of the guides we returned to the presence of the travellers in the village. She explained that they came every year for the Assumption of the virgin. Her mother who was well in her late 80s, had moved into the village some years ago. She found it very difficult to go out when the travellers were here because it was intimidating. They would come to the door and knock on the door and she had learnt not to answer. It was very difficult for the pubs in particular and poor example last night there had been about 100 people in the square and they were banging on the doors of the pubs trying to be let in. Yes she can understand she said that they are good people. They come here for their religion but it is a pity that they bring trouble. It is a pity if they put other people off from coming to Walsingham.


So through the travellers Walsingham perhaps lived higher up in my expectations than might have been the case. But, rather like the absence of lurid gift shops lining the village streets, there was indeed no traveller to be seen. I have been to Ste Marie de la Mer in the Camargue in the South of France. This town brings in a very large population of French gypsies and travellers who come there to celebrate I believe possibly on the same day of the assumption. I remember in that village recognising that I needed to take care of myself. A rather useful thing to be reminded of.


We set off back through the central area and headed initially towards the visitors centre. The children were getting restless and had begun to ask impatiently where the shop was? More particularly they began to ask if that religious gift shop was the only one in the village? The visitors centre when I walked into it was very evidently precisely that. Somewhere that would welcome a visitor, somebody on a more formal pilgrimage than ours, to the site. People were there with suitcases, there were four busy looking staff at the desk one of whom directed me close by to the information centre, where there was a small display concerning the history and background to the shrine and pilgrimage of our Lady of Walsingham. The five of us sat in a small room to the back of the information centre and watched a film about 10 minutes that related the tale of Walsingham, the vision of a noble lady in 1161 and the shrines subsequent development to become the Nazareth of the North, the fourth largest pilgrimage site in mediaeval Europe. The children found this visit more interesting and we entered into conversation with another of the guides, a woman in her 60s had been taking lunch in the cafe when we had arrived. She was extremely friendly but the visit there included telling one of he children to stop pulling on the parchment (fake!).  From there we made our way across the square towards the corner where we knew the actual shrine lay.


Of course, like with that initial moment of arrival in the village, I had wanted to delay visiting the shrine until at least some form of movement around the place had taken form. By now it was beginning to drizzle and as we approached the entrance to the forecourt of the shrine, some people in front of us, part of a large group visiting, perhaps from a single parish, spoke to each other explaining to an older woman in a wheelchair that it was now time to stop talking. A sign asked for silence once in the forecourt. The difficulties of keeping small children silent were insurmountable and it led to an unpleasant and argumentative 10 minutes until eventually four of the five of us made it into the shrine. My eldest daughter present, the one who has attended a Roman Catholic school, finds churches macabre and has never enjoyed going into them.


The building is a long and I would say faux Romanesque building. It looks as if its design has been inspired by those early Romanesque buildings which still wore the traces of the truly late Roman buildings on which they were based. It was dark in size and the first thing I noticed, and which was that there to be seen, were some steps down to a well and the comforting smell of incense. This well, I remember being told by one of the guides, had been “found” when the new building had been constructed. At the top of the steps there were some earthenware pitchers with wooden lids in which was holy water from the well. There was a ladle and plastic speakers available. Myself and the two younger children partook.  In the centre of this church was a stone built building around which the church had been constructed.


Of course everything was a replica. The original shrine, reputed to be the old chapel in which the original vision had occurred, as well as the later church built over the top of it, had been entirely destroyed so that nothing stood above ground at all. It was a total replica although it appeared that the old Chapel did include some elements of stonework that had been retrieved from the site, slightly decorative stones bearing inscriptions. Inside that building was a proper shrine. By this I mean that it was dark, it was both ominous and beautiful, lit entirely by the many votive candles. Do you know I did not look to see clearly what the replica of the statue of our Lady of Walsingham actually looked like! I was more taken by the candlelight, by the dark walls with the soot of the candles and by the fact that I was inside a real shrine in a country that does not do shrines. There were niches lining the walls of the Chapel and set inside the niches in long rows were a series of votive candles that were dedicated to different parishes not just in England but it appeared across the world. Remembering the information leaflets I had read, it was probably a position that you could buy through becoming an official friend or something like that.  This too gave the shrine an air of authenticity.


The children of course wanted to light candles and did so. I went outside to my elder child asking if she wanted to light a candle and she refused. I took her candle for her to make a wish upon and lit it on her behalf. She continued to ask if the only shop in the village was that religious one.  Fair enough question I was thinking to myself, I don’t know what they would find there, I was reassured by a memory of what looked like a sweet shop. Back inside the church shrine I walked around and found a painting that had been attributed to Sodoma something I found reassuring in memory of many of his works in Italy. Encouraged by the impatience of the children we brought our visit to the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham to an end. We took smaller streets behind the shrine back towards the little square where we had left car. We had spent nearly 3 hours here and the shops were closing within the next five minutes. I went into the religious shop sending my elder daughter across to what I thought was sweet shop. In the religious shop a nun stood behind the cash till dressed in a nuns habit.  I looked around and found to my delight that for 50p I could buy it cheaply pressed metal medallion showing the statue of our Lady of Walsingham. I bought a number of them to give largely to members of my family, you included. This felt right to me because my knowledge of pilgrimage, of mediaeval pilgrimage, garnered through archaeology, led me to know that the typical gifts gathered during pilgrimage were cheap medallions and phials of holy water. The children meanwhile found gifts for themselves, each had bought clacking plastic armlets carrying words and cheap balsa wood gliders to be assembled and flown another day. Two of these bracelets I have in front of me, one says YOLO and the other SMILE.  It strikes me that this format might be more appropriate than the medallion. Sentiment remains the same.  YOLO: You Only Live Once  and SMILE the ever present requirement of our age.  Good teeth and smiles.


Back in the car we drove towards the slipper Chapel. The slipper Chapel had survived the onslaught and had come back into active service as a cult centre having been bought and maintained by the Catholic Church. As we arrived near the slipper Chapel that lies a good mile to the West of the main village, the context of the arrival of the travellers became a little clearer. The open fields that lay to the north of the Catholic shrine were full of huge marquees and it was obvious that there had been a vast religious gathering on the previous day, there was a very large exterior alter in one of the fields. Clearly the feast of the Assumption had brought very large numbers of pilgrims to the site amongst which was a group of Irish travellers. There was nobody around today however and I thought the shrine may have been closed. It wasn’t and I left everybody else in the car and made my way. The first building, and newest was a very modern church building with a large glass window behind the main alter which looked out across an open square towards the slipper Chapel. I crossed this square which like the open space at the main shrine carried three large crosses round stations of the Cross. It was obvious that there were large services held here as well with many seats arranged outside. Beyond that lay the buildings of the slipper Chapel. The shop was closed as was the cafe but to the left lay the entrance to the Chapel. I followed inside to the right and found myself in a very small room with an almost baroque little statue set in a niche. I realised when I looked at this it was the image that had captured my attention in the publicity. On reflection I wonder if this was the statue of our Lady of Walsingham. There were some sheets of white paper asking for prayers of thoughts and I filled one in and took a moment, in fact I knelt before the shrine. It was comfortable and I wanted to stay kneeling because at the moment I’m finding that sense of physical obeisance very therapeutic. But I could hear voices in the background and I was anxious not to be caught in a state of worship by someone who might observe me as if I were formally primitive. So I stopped kneeling and sat.  A man came in and went directly to the front and knelt to pray before the shrine. I heard some other voices behind me and left before the man had stood with nobody left in the building safe myself. I went into the adjoining chapel, like the old shrine building in the village, this too was lit entirely by candlelight. There was a repetition of forms here, the old simple candlelit shrine and the new. I returned to the car and we drove away from Walsingham towards the sea and back to our campsite.



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