I have been wanting to go to Walsingham for ages, and spent a while trying to work out how pilgrims got there from Bury St Edmunds in the Middle Ages. We had walked the Peddars Way a few years ago, but this continued West from Castle Acre. The Revd. John Merrill describes a “Walsingham Way” from Ely, which goes via Brandon- so this would be it! Bury-Thetford, then Brandon, then Swaffham, Castle Acre, then another 28miles to Walsingham, with a short detour to Fakenham if preferred.
Unfortunately none of this seemed straightforward as my husband was recovering from eye surgery and in the end we agreed to go by car. This at least made me realise how important the walking experience is to me- the journey usually being so much a part of the arrival. However, there were opportunities to spend more time at places along the way, and there was plenty to see.
Our first stop was a picnic by the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin at Cranwich . The graveyard was circular and the church lay at its centre on a little mound surrounded by trees. Sadly the area behind it is so tangled with nettles it is no longer possible to see the gravestones. The tower was narrow and circular, with a circular knotted window. Three circles!
Next, Castle Acre. We had been there before, but there had not been time to explore the Priory, so we needed make amends. The former Cluniac Benedictine Priory is truly beautiful lying in the gentle valley of the river Nar with the village behind it, the Parish church beside it and the castle at the other end. English Heritage have done a good job in trying to demonstrate how things were before the Dissolution, but as ever I was trying to get a sense of it without the words. I was struck by the number of squares in the design: square window frames, square tiles, square fireplaces, even a square drain-pipe cover on display at the entrance. And the biggest square: the cloisters.
What was the significance? I am often suspicious of meanings in symbols. Carlota’s “Dictionary of Symbols” talks of firmness and stability, the seasons, the points of a compass and the four Elements. Whatever the intention I find this shape very satisfying and am content to believe it represents earthly matters. I had been shown how to draw a square using a compass back in Astoria using circles.
Circles have a host of “meanings”, too, but I digress. Staying in Holt we set out for Walsingham the following day, starting near West Barsham. Gentle countryside made me wish we had walked further, as before we knew it we had arrived at the “Slipper Chapel” at Houghton St Giles, a Catholic Shrine beautifully kept. I was distracted by the display of tiny relics in lockets- one was labelled Saint Edmundo- was it a piece of hair? or a bit of toe-nail? A tiny scrap on a disc.
Henry VIII had visited this spot on several occasions before he ordered its destruction. Along with others he had removed his slippers and walked the final mile to Walsingham bare-foot. In due fashion, therefore, this was to be repeated. My husband, not normally known for his piety, was the first to take off his shoes and set off down the “holy mile”.
Needless to say there was much moaning along the way- presumably King Henry had not had to put up with gritted tar-mac, but we arrived in Walsingham with a small sense of achievement..
What can I say about Walsingham? It has a serious feel to it. Not enough profanity? Too many shops selling images of the Virgin Mary? I would happily have stayed longer in these- I can fully understand why people wanted toe-nails as souvenirs, but was restrained under pressure, so readers you have been saved (this time) from Mary with Baby Jesus in a snow-storm for Christmas.
There was plenty to see. The Anglican Shrine, the Russian Orthodox church, the old court-house and the Abbey ruins in landscaped gardens. It was very quiet- not at all like Santiago. It was as if the place was asleep amongst the fields.
On the way back along the disused railway line we passed a nun wearing a grey and white habit- she looked very elegant walking along. It reminded me of the ongoing political arguments over the veil. Back in 2007 when I was in Syria I did a small art project thinking about the veil, and wrote in my sketch-book: Reveal/conceal, mask, cover, mystery, decoration, seclusion, symbol/label, make a statement, allure, suggestive, bridal, hiding, secretive, protection, propriety, modesty, seduction, dignity, ceremony, women, shame, holiness, piety, tradition, oppression, Taking the Veil, consecration, virginity, Veil of the Temple, partition, veiled in mystery, lifting the veil, sensuality, eroticism, the Unknown, veiled beauty, Dance of the Seven Veils, a label. Public/private spaces; valuing the interior. Since then I have had more respect for veils in their various forms.