A delightful narrow gauge railway, a farmer’s market run by a former MI6 chief and a holy site that once drew emperors and kings: The intriguing delights of heavenly Norfolk
- The Daily Mail’s Kit Hesketh-Harvey reveals the bucolic delights and religious history of Norfolk
- Walsingham, a tranquil cluster of hamlets, was once among the four holiest destinations in all Christendom
- Clovis Meath Baker, a former MI6 intelligence supremo, owns the historic abbey and runs a farmer’s market
The sight of 29 nuns shuffling on their knees along a village street might strike some as odd. Not me. I live on the Peddars Way, a Norfolk pilgrim route from Thetford, past Swaffham and Fakenham and thence on to Walsingham.
It’s hard today to believe that this tranquil cluster of hamlets, barely inland from the Norfolk coast, was once among the four holiest destinations in all Christendom.
When, in 1061, a Saxon noblewoman called Richeldis de Faverches saw a vision of the Virgin among these fields of poppies, she erected a shrine. Drawn to it over the centuries were emperors and Plantagenet kings, including Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, who prayed for a son. She was unlucky. Henry’s eye lit upon Anne Boleyn.
Magnet for pilgrims: Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in the charming Norfolk hamlet of Little Walsingham
Drawn to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham over the centuries were emperors and kings, including Henry VIII
The resulting break from Rome wrought here a particular savagery. Its two monastic houses were ransacked, their Marian altars smashed and shrines stripped of centuries of kingly offerings of gold.
A sub-prior and choristers were hanged, drawn and quartered for rebelling against the dissolution of the monasteries.
Norfolk went into a shock from which it has never really recovered, as this anonymous ballad written at the time laments:
Weep, weep, O Walsingham
Heaven’s turned to Hell
Satan sits where our Lord held sway
Walsingham, O, farewell.
But there is a happy ending. Today, the site of the old abbey is quite as worthy of pilgrimage. The snowdrops which bloom among the ruins each February are almost as celebrated. The hope symbolised by these bravely nodding flowers, springing up after even the harshest of winters, should make one fall to one’s knees in thanksgiving.
Sir Francis Walsingham was spymaster to Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth I. It seems apt, therefore, that the mansion built in the abbey precincts should today belong to the former MI6 intelligence supremo Clovis Meath Baker and his alphabet daughters, Agnes, Boadicea and Constance Daffodil. He now runs a terrific farmer’s market with produce from his estate.
From Easter to October, whether on their knees or by coach, the processions of the faithful continue.
In 1897, Pope Leo XIII decreed the refounding of the 14th-century Slipper Chapel. Two decades later, Father Alfred Hope Patten revived the pilgrimage for Anglicans.
Little Walsingham (the greater in size) and Great Walsingham (the lesser) are a confusion of charming medieval streets with an abundance of tearooms. All is peaceful and wholesome, with, every now and then, that other-worldly feel of a Lindisfarne or Iona.
Beach huts at Wells-next-the-Sea (never ‘next-to’), which has a glorious harbour
And the area offers a great deal more than just spiritual recreation. Wells-next-the-Sea (never ‘next-to’), with its glorious harbour, is near by, whether it be for crabbing, whelk-chewing or visiting its new arts centre. Boats clinking in the creeks offer promise to adventurer and water-colourist alike. Ornithologists will need no reminding that these haunting marshes count among the RSPB’s chiefest wonders.
The splendours of the North Norfolk coast — Holkham Bay, Scolt Head, Brancaster — are a bus ride away. Or ride the Wells & Walsingham Light Railway, the longest 10¼ in narrow gauge steam railway in . . . England? Britain? Christendom? Who’s counting? Choo-choo!
‘As you came from the holy land of Walsingham,’ wrote Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘met you not with my true love?’ Well, if by that he meant Walsingham itself, love it you truly will.