WALK OF PURITY
A pilgrims’ route through the Norfolk village of Walsingham to its ancient religious shrine passes among carpets of snowdrops
ASHEEN OF FROST sparkles on the timber-framed houses of Walsingham, the damp cold of dawn lingering in the air. Lights flicker inside a shop, whose window is filled with statuettes of holy figures, gleaming chalices and ornate crucifixes. In the grounds of Walsingham Abbey, ancient monuments stand regal and silent. Soon, lining up at the entrance, will be people on pilgrimage, either to the ancient place of worship or to see the thousands of snowdrops that spring up in its grounds.
Walsingham lies approximately 4 miles inland of Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk and has welcomed pilgrims for 950 years. In the middle ages, it surpassed even Canterbury in its importance, and during the years of the Crusades, when travel overseas was only possible for a scant few, it was considered to be as holy as Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrimage continues today, but visitors also come to admire the beautifully preserved medieval and Georgian architecture, the ruins of the 14th century priory, and the abbey house and grounds, which, in February, glow white with carpets of snowdrops. This 4-mile walk begins in the village, visiting places of worship and natural beauty before following the Holy Mile through quiet countryside to the Slipper Chapel.
Of the two linked villages, Great, or ‘Old’, Walsingham and Little, or ‘New’, Walsingham, the latter is actually the larger. Considered to be an early planned town, it was designed to accommodate increasing numbers of visiting pilgrims in the 13th century. Many of the buildings were originally inns, with a public room and tavern downstairs, and a single room upstairs, where pilgrims would sleep.
Set in an area of fertile farmland, Walsingham was also a thriving market town, and Common Place, near the centre, has long been a hub. The walk begins here, outside The Shrine Shop, one of many fine medieval buildings with stucco timber-frame, its frontage now painted a glossy cobalt blue. Overhead, the jettied first and second floors overhang the street, allowing more floor space inside without increasing the footprint on ground level. Once a saddlery and chemist, it is now a Christian gift shop.
Across the road, occupying a small island, is an octagonal structure, broken in places, dotted with moss and crowned
with an iron brazier. This is the Town Pump, which once supplied water to a large part of the community. It is partly constructed of stone taken from the priory following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and was built to replace a medieval cross. The original pinnacle was broken off during revelries to celebrate either the Relief of Mafeking in 1900 or the coronation of Edward VII two years
SAINTS AND SINNERS
Beside Walsingham’s main car park is a Georgian red-brick building, with a tall chimney and glossy painted sign, reading ‘Walsingham Mill’. This is, in fact, Bridewell, or the Walsingham House of Correction, built in 1598 to house ‘vagrants and beggars’. Though the intention was initially to train detainees in useful trades, it soon became a prison, where inmates were kept in irons on straw-covered floors. Redesigned in 1787, five treadmills were installed in 1823 to grind corn and provide the prisoners with hard labour. According to records, the regular meals and exercise improved the health of some, which indicates their very poor health on arrival. The prison remains as it was when it was closed in 1861 and can be visited on a self-guided tour with a key from the Shirehall Museum. later, reputedly due to the weight of the bunting attached.
Georgian red-brick frontages were added to a number of medieval buildings, such as the Bull Inn in the eastern corner and the Shirehall across the road, which is the next stop on the walk. Quarter sessions were held in the courtroom here from 1778 until 1861, and it has since been converted to a local history museum. Visitors can peer in at the narrow prisoners’ lock-up, with its benches and urinal; the wood-panelled courtroom, with its original candlesticks; and examine objects of 19th century ‘discipline’, such as a cudgel, knuckleduster and handcuffs. It is also the usual entrance to the abbey grounds, but the Gatehouse has started to be used more recently, and the walk now turns onto the High Street to find it.
Dating from circa 1440 and set in crumbling flint-dressed walls, the Gatehouse was the original pilgrims’ entrance. Callers would have been challenged by the porter, who inspected them through a small latticed window, to the left of the arch, known as a squint. From the top of the tower, above the arch, a carved figure with an anguished expression and hollowed-out eyes still gazes down on visitors: the stonemason’s portrait of the gatekeeper at the time. Though much eroded, the deep, wide archway and its square tower herald a sense of transformation as visitors pass through its cool shade into a quiet garden.
Here, the air is scented with leaf mulch; the yew trees at the entrance are a dark, polished green, and beneath them are the first stray snowdrops. A wide path runs ahead to a lawn, in the middle of which stands the towering East Window Arch. Though this is a commanding view, it is easy to be distracted by the smaller trails leading off the main path, edged by a diversity of snowdrops. Each variety is planted in a patch demarcated by logs with a hand-written label. Among them are
“As you came from the holy land Of Walsingham, Met you not with my true love By the way as you came?”
Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘Walsingham’
galanthus ‘Blewbury Tart’, with its double flowers a fresh green edged in white; galanthus ‘Betty Hansell’, with the tips of its white petals dotted with a tiny green smudge; and galanthus ‘Hill Poe’, with a rosette of green-striped petals inside a snowy bell. These tiny gardens have been designed to showcase the range of forms the snowdrop can take. Most of the flowers in the grounds, however, are naturalised sweeps of common Galanthus nivalis and common double Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’, and will be discovered in the woodland beyond the priory ruins.
The 20 acres of grounds also include the 18th-19th century abbey house and two wells, believed to contain holy, healing water. Very little can be seen these days of the original Saxon Holy House, save for a tile bearing a cross set into the grass and a small sign. This was, however, the most venerated building and the reason the site was considered so holy, and the culmination of all pilgrimages until it was burned down in the Reformation.
Inside the original chapel was a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, and a relic of her milk. So venerated was it that by the late middle ages, it was considered to be the duty of every Englishman that, once in his life, he should make a pilgrimage here, and monarchs were no exception. King Henry III was the first to visit in April 1226, and his son Edward I visited 12 times. Though he would later order the Dissolution of the Monasteries,
leading to the destruction of the chapel and priory, King Henry VIII made several visits, once walking more than 2 miles from East Barsham Manor without shoes. Despite its fame and riches, the Saxon chapel was never replaced, but was instead encased in another stone building for protection. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the chapel was burned down, the priory destroyed and the whole site sold for £90, or approximately £38,000 in today’s money.
Behind the site of the chapel is the magnificent arch. Once the east window of the priory church, it was transformed between 1805-6 into a grand folly. During this time, John Haverfield, the keeper of Kew Gardens, and the architect Sir John Soane were employed to entirely redesign the house, built in 1720, and grounds. Many of the ruined remains were incorporated into the informal landscape design, while others, such as the packhorse bridge, were newly added.
Beyond the arch, the narrow River Stiffkey burbles through the grounds, and a kingfisher darts across the water in a flash of turquoise. At the rearmost quarter is The Dell: a woodland grove accessed via a sunken arch. It is here that the snowdrops and bright patches of yellow aconites can be seen in their greatest magnificence, and a sense of hushed
reverence falls like soft winter sunlight on the multitudes of flowers.
Glowing in drifts of pure white beneath the leafless canopy, these tiny quivering bells have become a symbol of purity and rebirth, emerging from the still-frozen ground near the Christian festival of Candlemas in early February, which commemorates the ritual purification of the Virgin Mary. Also known as Candlemas bells, or February fair maids, snowdrops are frequently found around former monastic sites, including the ruins of Greyfriars Priory in Suffolk and St Mary’s Priory in Surrey. Though the origins of snowdrops at Walsingham is unclear, it is likely they first appeared in Roman times and may have once been brought as offerings to the medieval shrine. Today, a profusion of snowdrops extends to the furthest reaches of woodland, and rarer varieties are being introduced, including the honey-scented ‘Colossus’, the dazzling white ‘Mighty Atom’ and the delicate bells of ‘Tiny Tim’.
After exploring the grounds, the walk returns through the Gatehouse to rejoin the High Street and turn right back to Common Place. From here, it turns downhill along Holt Road to the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which contains an ornate modern rendering of
the Saxon chapel. The new Holy House was built in 1931 inside a shrine church with a sacred, healing well, and contains a statue based on the seal of the priory. There are also plenty of provisions, with places of residence, a café and gardens.
Past here, the walk continues along Holt Road and turns right onto Sunk Road, which runs several feet below ground level on either side. The lane was dug out in 1805 to extend the views from the house, and is now a peaceful walk between flint-dressed brick walls, crossing the abbey grounds and passing over the sunken arch that leads to The Dell.
This is another opportunity to enjoy the swathes of snowdrops and a picturesque, carefully designed view of
Anon (sometimes attributed to Saint Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel), ‘Lament for the Priory of Walsingham’
the abbey from its long driveway.
Soon, St Mary and All Saints’ Church comes into view. Rebuilt from 1961-64 after being almost completely destroyed by fire, evidence can still be seen inside in the patches of pink limestone: a discolouration which occurs in extreme heat. There is also a 15th century Seven Sacrament font, little damaged in the Reformation.
Sunk Road bends right and crosses the River Stiffkey to become Church Street. Near a 17th century house, with a distinctive Dutch gable end, it turns right onto the High Street. Very shortly, a narrow lane, lined with red-brick Georgian and timber-framed houses, turns left up to Friday Market. Hidden up an alleyway on the left stands Walsingham Methodist Church; built in 1794 it is the oldest in use in East Anglia.
Some of the more unusual architecture in the village is found in the square at Friday Market, in the middle of which stands an old red K6-style, cast iron telephone box. The Tudor Gothic Pilgrim’s Bureau was previously a school, with separate entrances for boys and girls, and still bears the signs over its two doors. Behind it is a modern Roman Catholic Church of Annunciation: Britain’s first carbon-neutral church.
In contrast, next door is the Black Lion Hotel, one of the oldest buildings in Walsingham, built in 1310. The route turns left here, up Station Road to a red-brick building, with three tall chimneys and a silver onion dome. This unexpected sight is St Seraphim’s Orthodox Chapel. It was originally the
“Level, level, with the ground The towers do lie, Which, with their golden glittering tops, Pierced once to the sky”
village’s old railway station and retains most of its features, including the platform edge along Sandy Lane.
Here, the walk leaves the village, following the Pilgrim Way along the old Wells and Fakenham railway line to the 14th century Slipper Chapel. The sounds of the village soon fade away as it passes between tree-lined fields, leaving only the soft rustle of the wind and a robin’s bright song. When the road bends left, the Pilgrim Way continues ahead along a level, gravelled path. In February, hares can be spotted racing across stubbly fields, and cock pheasants strut, feathers gleaming, as they begin to gather harems. In some sunny patches, the pale yellow flowers of an early primrose fold out of the earth.
At a signposted junction, the walk turns left to the Slipper Chapel, the final site of pilgrimage. This small, flint-dressed chapel is set in much larger grounds, surrounded by trees and carefully tended borders. Inside, pilgrims and priests stroll the paths between the chapel, the Cloister Garden, with its baptismal font, and the much larger Chapel of Reconciliation. Completed in 1982, it was constructed from local materials to sit sympathetically within the farmed landscape. As well as quiet footsteps and the low murmur of voices, a trickle of water can be heard coming from the Holy Water Font.
Originally a wayside chapel for pilgrims on the way to Walsingham, following the Reformation, the Slipper Chapel became a poorhouse, forge and cowshed. It was in use as a barn when it was bought by Miss Charlotte Boyd in 1894, and three years later, on 20 August, opened as a site of pilgrimage once more. It was traditional for pilgrims to remove their shoes at the Slipper Chapel and walk the Holy Mile to Walsingham barefoot as an act of penitence, giving the place its name, although it is also possible that the name of the chapel comes from the word slype, meaning ‘a way in between’ and indicating the chapel’s position between the holy ground of Walsingham and the rest of England.
Shod or not, the return to the village along the Holy Mile, as the sun dips below the spindly treetops, is a chance for peaceful contemplation. Back in Walsingham, restoration can be found in the way of tea and cakes.
As night settles over the abbey grounds, the Barn owl emerges from her roost to begin the night’s hunt, and carpets of snowdrops continue to glow in the low light of the moon.
Please note that in light of the current situation, restrictions should be observed, so please check before travelling.