On a crisp winter morning, Walsingham slept. The bunting fluttered over the empty main street, with its magnificent Georgian and medieval half-timbered buildings. Tea rooms were closed, pubs closed. The gift shops were open, but they were doing poorly – there was little demand for their wonderful fridge magnets and canonical cufflinks today.
It’s hard to believe that a few centuries ago this quiet village in north Norfolk was one of the greatest places of pilgrimage in Europe.
Yes, quiet little Walsingham, set modestly in the shallow Stiffkey Valley, is English Nazareth. In the Middle Ages, it was almost as important as Canterbury, next to Santiago de Compostela and Rome. According to legend, the local noblewoman Lady Richeldis de Faverches had a vision here in 1061 where Our Lady showed her the house where the Annunciation took place and told her to build a replica.
Richeldis erected a simple wooden structure that soon became a more elaborate temple, next to which an Augustinian monastery was built. The site attracted worshipers from across the continent, including most of England’s monarchs until Henry VIII – before he dissolved the monastery in 1538 and paid off the pilgrimage industry.
“This is the place,” Elizabeth Meath Baker told me, pointing to the patch of grass in front of the ruined east window of the convent – practically all that’s left of the old church. Excavations conducted here in the 1960s found evidence of the original Holy House.
Elizabeth has lived at Walsingham Abbey since her husband inherited it from his grandparents. Getting married is quite a responsibility. “When I came to see my family, one of the cousins said we should just tear the place down,” said Elizabeth.
But fortunately, he has a sense of duty, is interested in history and keeps up with the times – new for 2023 will be the production of the first wine from Walsingham. She also appreciates what her home means to others: “Walsingham is unlike any other place. This is not another country house. While I worry about practical things like mowing the lawn, people here feel empowered.”
Modern pilgrims began to return in the late 19th century. They first focused on the 14th-century Slipper Chapel, a mile from the village and now part of a Roman Catholic temple. In the 1930s, an Anglican shrine was restored in the center of Walsingham, containing a new version of Richeldis’ Holy House. Father Kevin Smith, the current priest-administrator of the shrine, recalls visiting as a 14-year-old and being delighted: “I remember two massive Maltese lanterns – I’ve never seen anything like this, such beautiful things.”
The main pilgrimage season runs from April to September, so the sanctuary’s welcome center and gardens were quiet when I visited. So was the church, with its 20th-century Holy House perched in a red brick nave. The walls were lined with shelves with candles and dedications, and a stainless steel urn was filled with Walsingham water – “not suitable for infants and young children”. Religious pilgrimages are still a big deal, with around 250,000 visitors each year. But the numbers are declining.
“We are looking for ways to attract new pilgrims,” said Fr. Kevin. “We’re doing more on social media and our accommodation is now available on Booking.com.”
New routes have been established to encourage walkers as well – most pilgrims now arrive by coach. In 2021, the 37-mile Walsingham Way opened, linking Norwich Cathedral and Walsingham. A route between Walsingham and King’s Lynn is then planned. In September 2022, a London guide to the Walsingham Camino was published detailing the 178-mile walk from the capital’s St. Magnus the Martyr. “We hope this will increase interest, especially among people in London who lead stressful lives,” added Fr. Kevin.
But there’s more to Walsingham than the Virgin Mary, insisted local Blue Badge guide Scilla Landale, who has been organizing tours here since 1988. “It’s a wonderful village designed in the Middle Ages,” she told me. “There’s an 18th-century prison, a narrow-gauge steam railway, two pubs – less than 21 in the Middle Ages – and a Georgian courthouse, last used in 1974, but still looks like the judge just left.”
She said the main problem was that Walsingham, despite being inland from popular Wells-next-the-Sea, struggled to get promoted: “There are people in Norfolk who don’t know that.”
There is another good reason to visit this place in winter: the snowdrops. “Experts do not agree on the origin of the flowers in this country,” Elizabeth explained as we scanned the abbey grounds for green shoots. “There is a lot of folklore associated with them. They are the first sign of spring and symbols of purity. It is possible that they were brought by pilgrims and offered as offerings.
Certainly snowdrops – also known as Candlemas Bells or Mary’s Tapers – have been around at the Abbey for as long as anyone can remember; Elizabeth’s mother-in-law spent a lot of time caring for and distributing them. Now in mid-February, the estate’s approximately 18 acres are covered in delicate white flowers. A vision indeed.
How to do it
Walsingham Abbey opens for the snowdrop season on January 23 (01328 820510; walsinghamabbey.com). For guided tours of Walsingham please contact Scilla Landale (07747 693235; [email protected]). B&B rooms at Walsingham Anglican Shrine cost from £42 per person per person (01328 820239; walsinghamanglican.org.uk). Information about Walsingham Way can be found at walsinghamway.blog. The London to Walsingham Camino Guide is available on Amazon. More information can be found at walsinghamvillage.org