It must be 25 years since I’ve last picked up a hitchhiker. Or two: computer programmers on their way to Devon, if I remember correctly. Soon afterwards I read a gruesome newspaper story about a dismembered driver that put me off letting thumb-waving strangers into my car ever again. But Walsingham has evidently softened me.
It’s early August and I heading back into this north Norfolk village after registering for the annual New Dawn in the Church conference, held in a farmer’s field full of marquees directly opposite the Slipper Chapel, a 14th-century staging post that once marked the last leg of the Pilgrims’ Way to the medieval Marian shrine of Walsingham. On the grass verge, I spot a middle-aged woman wearing a bright red anorak and peach-coloured trousers, making the traditional hitchhiker’s hand gesture. I know at once she is a fellow New Dawn delegate from the blue wallet hanging by a ribbon round her neck.
And, anyway, why else would she be walking along this particular country lane? It must, I suppose, go somewhere but the only people who appear to use it are those coming or going between the Slipper Chapel and the centre of Walsingham – more properly Little Walsingham, though perversely it is bigger than its near neighbour, Great Walsingham. Somehow it feels wrong not to stop and offer this hitchhiker a lift, as if I will be violating the fellowship that I have just signed up for in the marquee, albeit making clear that I will only be an observer.
“Are you from New Dawn?” she asks cautiously, peering short-sightedly in through the open passenger door window. She must have read the same stories as I did in the papers. It doesn’t seem like a time to start making fine distinctions – angels dancing on pinheads and all that – so I answer “yes”, though lingering slightly on the “s”. She apparently misses the nuance, blossoms into a grin and gets in, bare ankles first.
“Is this your first time?” she asks. So she did register that sibilant note of uncertainty in my voice. “Yes,” I reply, repeating it, and peering ahead with exaggerated concentration at the narrow lane. “And yours?” We are now evens because I know what her answer is going to be. “Oh no. I’ve been coming for years. Lots of us have. This is like a family gathering. I wouldn’t dream of missing it.” It is quite a claim, but one she is happy to unpack without any further probing. “The Holy Spirit is here,” she explains in the same matter-offact voice she might use to tell me that the hedgerows we are driving past are green or that the summer breeze is warm and pleasant through the open car window. “And not elsewhere?” I ask. “You can see him here.” I am just registering the masculine pronoun when she adds: “If you are willing to look.” And shoots a look at me.
Desiderius Erasmus didn’t take to Walsingham when he visited in 1512, though he returned to take a second look in 1524. “Falsingham”, he labelled it in A Pilgrimage for Religion’s Sake. The Dutch Christian humanist was, in the early decades of the 16th century, one of the leaders of the movement within Catholicism that wanted the Church to reform itself and so heal the rift that had opened up with Martin Luther. And part of that reforming process, Erasmus believed, was to “clean up” abuses at places such as Walsingham so as to answer Luther’s specific criticisms of the trade in relics and the commercial activities of monks at sites of pilgrimage. Erasmus was therefore horrified by the legion of salesmen he encountered in Walsingham who were attempting to sell a square of tattered cloth by passing it off as the Virgin Mary’s veil, or a bottle of white liquid as her breast milk. This wasn’t what Catholicism was really about, he raged.
At the time Walsingham was the Lourdes of its day, the grandest of Marian shrines in Europe, visited by every English king from Edward I onwards. Its story as a sacred place had begun in 1061, before the Norman Conquest, when the local lady of manor, Richeldis de Faverche, a widow by some accounts, deeply devout by all, claimed to see a vision of the Virgin Mary. Christ’s mother, Lady Richeldis reported, made only one request of her – to build an exact replica of the Holy Family’s house in Nazareth at Walsingham.
She did and pilgrims and riches followed. For almost half a millennium. However, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries swept away the vast priory church in 1538. Only its enormous and gravity-defying “Lonely Arch”, the remains of the east window and wall, continues to stand, all alone in the grounds of the small stately home built on the site of the medieval abbey. The arch seemingly reaches up to the heavens, as was the way with architecture when it was built, every spire aspiring to reach out to paradise in imitation of Jacob’s Ladder. The sheer scale of it gives some idea of the monastery that was established here by Augustinian canons here in 1130.
The Slipper Chapel also survived and was rescued in 1863, all but intact under a protective coating of straw and animal droppings, by another devout local gentlewoman, Charlotte Pearson Boyd. She was an Anglican at the time, though in the High or Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England that admired much of what Rome stood for – especially the historical continuity it represented back via the first apostles to Christ. Subsequently, she converted to Catholicism and so it was to her new church that she gifted the Slipper Chapel. She took part in the first post-Reformation Marian pilgrimage in 1897.
In the early decades of the 20th century, a modest (in comparison with past glories) revival washed over Walsingham. As well as seasonal Catholic activity around the Slipper Chapel (there was still no resident priest), the Rev Alfred HopePatten arrived in 1921 as the local Church of England vicar and set about encouraging like-minded Anglicans to restore the practice of Marian pilgrimages to Walsingham. He spent the rest of his life here, building a series of buildings to receive pilgrims, including another replica of the Holy House – or, more precisely, a replica of the original replica.
To this day Walsingham has separate Catholic and Anglican shrines, something that will inevitably harden the hearts of secular visitors. In the Lonely Arch they see the remains of a church ruined by past religious divisions. At either end of the village High Street they can still witness those divisions living on.
Ireturn at 10 o’clock on the morning after registering and join the estimated 3,000 New Dawners gathering in bright sunshine outside the main tent for a scheduled rosary walk from the Slipper Chapel into Walsingham itself. Through the open flaps of the marquee I spot a group of twentysomething musicians rehearsing a liturgical song on a small stage in one corner. The sound of acoustic guitars, simple harmonies and upbeat choruses puts me in mind of the anthem about “the dawn of the age of Aquarius” from the late Sixties musical Hair – though here the lyrics are God-centred (and the performers have their clothes on).
New Dawn is an organisation firmly rooted in that charismatic branch of modern Christianity which has long had a difficult relationship with Catholicism. The two stand, by and large, at opposite ends of the liturgical spectrum. Many in the Roman hierarchy remain sceptical of the emotional disinhibition of charismatic services, the touchy-feely nature of their liturgies, and the movement’s empowerment of the laity. But New Dawn exists within the Catholic fold, facilitating a spiritual exploration usually unavailable in most parish churches. This is its 21st annual gathering at Walsingham.
In the field young and old, male and female are gathering in one long line behind a statue of Our Lady of Walsingham that is to be carried into the village. I manage to attach myself to a group of older women. They nod their assent as we set off. I’d imagined that on the rosary walk there would be the chance to chat and listen to the experiences of these contemporary pilgrims on this ancient road, but the rosary, I should have remembered, doesn’t leave much room for small talk. It demands that your lips are always moving in praise of God, Mary and the Holy Trinity.
The members of my group all have their beads ready in their hands and are praying out loud as we go through the gate. The grass ledges between the hedges and the tarmac road are steep banks and my immediate experience of the procession is of being funnelled, geographically and in my thoughts. The hum of prayers hovers over our heads like a lid on this strangely familiar world I have entered.
I am self-conscious when I first start joining in, saying the words to myself, but leaving my voice cords untroubled. This gradually grows, though, into a whisper as the memories of the central place of the rosary in my Catholic education trickles back. Finally, inexorably, I find myself trotting it out with the best of them as we used to in the Christian Brothers’ chapel. And rather enjoying it, though whether it is just nostalgia or something more, I can’t yet tell.
The lane is utterly deserted but for our posse of pilgrims. Despite the absence on onlookers, we are, however, participating in the kind of public demonstration of faith that is extremely rare in this country nowadays. In the “Catholic” nations of Europe, such processions are a much more familiar sight. In Britain, however, the Reformation made us cautious of such emotional displays, and now that is overlaid by a secular orthodoxy and the fear of standing out from the crowd as “religious”.
I remember once interviewing the novelist and biographer, Peter Ackroyd, a cradle Catholic who had long ago detached himself from the Church of his birth. “Have you ever wondered what Britain would have been like if it had remained Catholic?” he mused. It was around the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Ackroyd suggested, in answer to his rhetorical question, that the public outpouring of grief and the shrines of flowers that had been heaped outside her home could indicate a long-buried Catholicism resurfacing in our national psyche.
Rosary processions might also be much more common if, as Ackroyd had briefly imagined, Britain was still a Catholic country. But it isn’t, and even here in Walsingham, arguably a place where that Catholic sensibility is buried in a shallower grave than elsewhere, the sight of 3,000 people following a statue of Our Lady up the High Street, mumbling prayers and occasionally bursting into Marian hymns, is enough to turn heads and prompt quizzical glances.
On a few special occasions, the grounds of the abbey can still be used for services and today is one. As our procession climbs the gentle hill of the High Street, the statue of Our Lady is borne through the gateway. We follow, still praying and singing, but once we reach the lawns that stretch out around the Lonely Arch, the formation breaks up as everyone gets ready for an open-air Mass.
All available space in front of the altar platform is filling up quickly so I walk over to the foot of the ruined arch and find myself a perch on a large square lump of its masonry that now rests in a flower bed. A middleaged couple come over and point at some other lumps of masonry alongside mine. “Room for two more,” the woman asks cheerily? Her accent is Scottish and she is walking with a stick. She settles down next to me while her husband goes off to find her some water. “It took more out of me than I’d expected,” she beams. “I must be getting old. I used to be able to do it without even noticing.” Marie – not her real name, for reasons that will soon become apparent – has been coming here, she tells me, for two decades. “My daughter was brought up on New Dawn,” she says proudly. “Ask anyone. Diana. They’ll know her. She’s a beautiful girl. They all loved her. Coming here was the highlight of her year.” The use of the past tense strikes an odd note. “Is she here with you now?” I ask, looking around as if to spot her?
“No, she’s in India,” Marie replies. Nothing in her tone forbids a followup question.
“On holiday or gap year?” “No, she’s married a Sikh.” It may be the accent but the final word doesn’t come out with any warmth. “She was married here first in a Catholic ceremony, and then in India.” “Did you go?” I’m assuming she will say yes and describe a colourful meeting of cultures.
“No. We concentrated on the organising the wedding here. And it would have been expensive.” Marie is now staring into the distance. “My sister offered us £250 towards the fares. She had just won £2 million on the National Lottery.” She pauses, then adds: “Life doesn’t always work out as you want it to.” Her husband returns with a bottle of water before I can ask anymore. Her face conveys that she has said too much already and doesn’t want him to know she has been confiding to a stranger.
A passing usher hurries past and urges us to “tuck in”. The priests are gathering on the other side of the arch ready to make an entrance by processing through it and up to the altar. Over the public address system someone announces that the choir, now assembled on the stage, will start the Mass with the very same Salve Regina that was the last thing heard here before the abbey was dissolved.
That connection with the past is tangible as the clergy come though the arch, as countless other processions must have centuries ago. The congregation, in spite of the chaos of the seating arrangements, stands still and dignified. In the silence I can hear history being rewritten. Henry VIII could not, after all, put an end to Walsingham or shape religious belief in these islands in his own image and likeness.
Later on I head off to the Slipper Chapel. The inside is tiny, with pews for no more than 20. When it was built in the 14th century the chapel was dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, martyred on a wheel, a death remembered today only in the spinning, sparking firework named after her. In the context of medieval Walsingham, though, she had been honoured because she was patron of pilgrims to the Holy Land.
From the outside, the chapel’s antiquity is obvious, especially given the blandness of the modern buildings that surround it. Purists might argue that the early 20th century exterior repair work was a little over-zealous but, once inside, they would weep in frustration. It looks and feels like an elaborate Victorian chapel of rest. There is scarcely a nod at its medieval past.
In fairness, when the neglected structure was rescued by the pious Miss Pearson Boyd nothing would have remained of its original decorations. But other abandoned, preReformation sites – such as the medieval London chapel of the bishops of Ely, now, as St Etheldreda’s, a Catholic church near Spitalfields – have been sensitively restored and brought back to life in a way that makes tangible that connection with the past. Here, even the stained glass above the altar unmistakeably belongs, in style and colour, to the mid 20th century.
The history of the place, the bare footsteps of past pilgrims who would walk without shoes into Walsingham from the Slipper Chapel (where they cast off their slippers), is utterly eluding me. I go with little expectation along the short corridor that joins the Slipper Chapel to the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. This was added in 1938 – the year the shrine was re-consecrated by the local Catholic bishop – and so makes no claim at all to antiquity.
Inside, it radiates heat from the banks of lighted candles placed here day in, day out by visitors who wish to remember and commend to God, though Mary’s intercession, the sick, the dying and the dead. I stoop to take three new candles from a box at the back of the chapel, putting my coins in the slot (and thinking only for a fleeting second of Erasmus and his concerns about “trade” in Falsingham). One candle for my mother, one for my father, one for my mother-in-law, all dead and sorely missed.
I move forward silently in the blackened chapel to find a ledge for them. Once they are alight, I stand before them and pray silently. If the prayerful hum of the rosary procession at New Dawn hadn’t quite managed ever to still my thoughts, these three flames, amid so many others, do.
One of the hardest aspects of grief is that feeling of being so powerless in the face of death. Raised in a world that celebrates, even lionises humanity’s ability to make things happen, to change, correct or cure what we don’t like or want, even within ourselves, we are brought up short by the death of loved ones and reminded quite impotent we are. It may be a tiny, futile gesture, but lighting a candle for them, and placing it in among the candles of so many others, is a comforting act of solidarity. I am not alone in mourning or in struggling to find an explanation, and they are not alone in death. As a ritual, it effortlessly gets to the core of the questions that underpin religion – questions of life, suffering and death that have no straightforward answers. In this Chapel of the Spirit, that word – Spirit – so often heard at Walsingham but so seldom defined – finally acquires a weight.
The Extra Mile: A Twenty-First Century Pilgrimage by Peter Stanford is published this month by Continuum at £16.99. Besides Walsingham, he goes on seven other pilgrimages within Britain – to Bardsey Island, Holywell, Glastonbury, Iona, Lindisfarne, Stonehenge and the well-dressing sites of Derbyshire. Catholic Herald readers can order a copy at the special price of £13 + p&p. Please call Orca Book Services on +44 (0)1202 665432, quoting the ISBN number 9780826434043 and the discount code 06DR01. The offer is valid until April 7