ACCORDING to the
programme of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, the thirtysecond Walsingham Walk ended on Sunday September 18, 1983.
This may be true on paper but the idea of a walk ending is foreign to most of the walkers themselves.
To them the Walsingham Walk is an integral part of their lives and when they gather once more next September to set out on the road to Our Lady's shrine it will, to them, simply be a continuation of their previous journey.
As they greet each other it will be as though the twelve months just passed had never existed.
Since the first pilgrims set out from London 31 years ago, led by the founder of the walk, Mgr Laurance Goulder, an ongoing tradition has been established.
`The day's walking is preceded by the recitation of a decade of the Rosary'
The bond that unites the Walsingham Walkers, and keeps them going cheerfully in all conditions is the conviction that they are taking part in one of the most important functions in the Catholic calendar.
The walk acts as the focal point of the annual novena of prayer, organised by the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom, principally for the conversion of England and Wales, although other special intentions are added each year.
When the men are on the road they know that thousands are following them in spirit and are praying for and with them.
In their rucksacks, in addition to their needs for a week's walking, the men carry petitions sent in by Catholics (and non-Catholics) from all over the country.
Each walker receives a large brown envelope of petitions before the pilgrimage starts and undertakes to carry them to Our Lady's shrine at Walsingham. He has no idea what they are about or who they are from, but he knows that each petition means a great deal to someone and that he will carry on his back a great deal of woe and heartache as well as happiness, During the days that lie ahead the petitions and those that sent them will often be in his thoughts and prayers.
Along with their petitions the supporters of the Walsingham Walk send offerings for the Guild's charitable work. This year the total contributions amounted to £36,000 and will form a major part of grants to poor country parishes in December.
The route to Walsingham was set at the outset by Mgr Goulder who reconstructed, as far as he was able, the old medieval route from London. This route has been followed as far as possible, ever since. The current distance is 30 miles. The overnight stopping places are: Hoddesdon, Buntingford, Sawston, Newmarket, Brandon, Necton (Swaffham), Fakenham and Walsingham : Each day follows the same general pattern. It starts with Mass and the recitation of the Novena Prayers, usually at 7.30am, followed by breakfast.
Then before setting out, the hall or school in which the men have spent the previous night is tidied and any mattresses (when available) carefully stacked away. The day's walking is preceded by the recitation of a decade of the Rosary.
Then begins an hour of silence. It is an hour for prayer and reflection. Not everyone finds this an easy time; there may be many and varied distractions but it forms an essential part of the spiritual discipline of the pilgrimage.
Once the hour is ended normal conversation ensues until the first stopping place is reached. At each stop the men always change partners so that in the course of the week everybody will have walked with everybody else at least once.
`It has been the tradition to follow the customs of the mediaeval pilgrims'
After the lunch stop the afternoon repeats the pattern of the morning. It starts with the next decade of the Rosary and another silent hour. On the road to Walsingham there are 15 walking periods which are conveniently covered by the 15 decades of the Rosary. When Mgr Goulder started the tradition he saw the Walk as "a living Rosary stretching from London to Walsingham". The day ends with Benediction and a second recitation of the Novena Prayers.
On Friday evening, seven walking days after having left London, the men have almost reached Walsingham and by ancient tradition they spend the night, not in the church hall at Fakenham, but in hotel beds.
They also have their 'secular celebrations' in the form of a dinner held now at the Limes Hotel, but older Walkers will remember this event at the Red Lion.
It is rumoured that some pilgrims find beds so uncomfortable after the past week that they get out their sleeping bags once more and sleep on the floor. The distance from Fakenham to Walsingham is only five miles, almost a leisurely morning's stroll in comparison with what has gone before. Most of this section is taken up by the last silent hour which ends at East Barsham Manor where Henry VIII stayed when he visited Walsingham as a pilgrim and then as a penitent, in his Catholic days.
On the road into Walsingham itself the walkers are met by the administrator of the Shrine who leads them through the village to the church of the Annunication in Friday Market.
There, after the customary prayers of thanksgiving for a safe arrival and prayers for those who have helped along the way, he welcomes them to Walsingham and to the beginning of the final and most important part of their pilgrimage.
It has been the tradition of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom when visiting Walsingham, to follow the customs of the medieval pilgrims in not immediately visiting the Shrine.
Instead they spend Saturday afternoon walking around the village, absorbing its atmosphere and history, trying to imaging what it must have been like at the height of its popularity in the fourteenth century.
It is heartening that over the past decade or so, it has been possible to see clearly growth of the Catholic presence.
On Sunday morning the Walkers wake early and process slowly down to the Slipper Chapel, reciting the whole fifteen decades of the Rosary as a form of recapitulation of the preceding week.
On arrival at the Shrine the men immediately place the petitions, carefully carried from London, into the large wooden box which has been opened in anticipation. They then recite, once more, the Novena Prayers before Our Lady's statue and then they have a little time for private prayer and devotion before Mass.
It is easy to forget in those moments that they are not a private party, but representatives of thousands, acting as the centre of a truly national novena. But they are human, they have also come to pray for themselves and their loved ones, particularly for those who put up with their disappearance from home for one week, often each year, during the month of September.
After Mass, the newest walkers having made the journey for the first time, are presented with their badges indicating their full integration into the comradeship of the walkers.
Before returning to the village, the walkers take the opportunity to visit the Shrine Shop and now, the new Chapel of Reconciliation. a magnificent piece of architecture with its large pantile roof, blending so well into the Norfolk countryside.
After breakfast a visit is made to the site of the old shrine in the priory grounds. On the site of the original Holy House, the Novena Prayers are said for the last time and then after a quick tour of what remains visible above ground the men hear those words which they would rather not hear: "That is all for this year gentlemen, our pilgrimage is over for another year."
There is nothing more, except to say goodbye to those who can remain for a while and get on the bus back to London where in 51 weeks' time the whole Walsingham Walk will be repeated all over again.
The great success of the Walsingham Walk and the reason why most of the walkers return year after year, is I believe, in its balance of penance, spirituality and good company. The men set out with three things: a love of Our Lady, an appreciation of the aims of the Novena and a determination to finish what they start.