Meeting at St. Matthew’s and piling our bags into a mini-bus in the middle of a grey Friday felt rather too like a school trip, with Father Peter at the helm to make sure all were present and correct and that we all had our meal vouchers tucked away safely. There was also the same sense of excitement: at going away with a new group of people, to a new place for most of us, and at bunking off work early.
Many of us assumed the others were familiar with Walsingham, while hiding our own slight sense of nervousness about what might be involved, but it soon emerged that most of us were equally unsure of what to expect. On arrival we were greeted by one of the staff at the shrine centre, and after dumping our things in our rooms went for our first visit to the Holy House. This is a reconstruction of the mediaeval shrine, the original of which was miraculously constructed one night in 1061, following the vision by a Saxon noblewoman, Richeldis de Farverches, of the Holy Family’s house. Its successor was constructed using more conventional building methods in the 1920s, some 500 feet from the remains of the original (which are inconveniently located in the grounds of an exquisite Queen Anne house). Our first visit involved a brief liturgy, and was followed by a said Mass, both inside what is a simple, small brick house, standing in the middle of the larger shrine church, and which is filled with candles and icons. I found it hard to connect with what other pilgrims clearly found to be a profound sense of holiness: while I could see that the Holy House was intended to evoke the same sense of mystery as, say, an ancient Russian Orthodox church, for me it felt just a little too manufactured. Still a fascinating insight into the energetic Anglo-Catholicism of the 20s though.
All rather a world away from the gloriously light and modern refectory where we then eat supper and got to know the group we shared the pilgrimage with from near Durham. The ladies of Christ Church, Lumley, and their younger companions, had a refreshingly no-nonsense approach to the whole thing, alongside a real sense of piety. Many had been before, and all had their difficulties with different aspect of the place, while drawing great consolation at the same time. This feeling of honesty about the limitations and strengths of Walsingham was deeply refreshing, and something which I came across in most of the people there: this is certainly not the kind of cultish centre for the initiated which I had feared it might be, but somewhere to come face to face with one’s own cynicism and doubt.
On the Saturday we walked the ‘Stations of the Resurrection’ to the Roman Catholic Slipper Chapel just over a mile away (and so called because it is where mediaeval pilgrims would leave their shoes as votive offerings): a delightful example of the peak of the Oxford movement. After supper there was then a procession of the statue of Our Lady round the grounds of the shrine centre. Having been asked to help carry her, I caught a fraught look from Father Philip as I came close to dropping Her at one point! While being rather wonderful in its own way, and trying to evoke something of the mediaeval sense of devotion, there is also a slight sense of the kitsch: upon lifting up Our Lady we also had to switch on the LED lights attached to Her base, and, as we carried Her, music drifted up from the speakers embedded in the immaculately landscaped garden.
After this I’m afraid to say that I missed the healing service which followed, and snook off on my own to read by the fire in the local pub with a comforting dose of whiskey; there was no sense of obligation to be present at each stage of the pilgrimage, and there were plenty opportunities for space throughout the weekend.
On the Sunday morning we joined the parish church for a gloriously uplifting Mass, before walking back together through this idyllic Norfolk village. After lunch there was a simple blessing with water from the Holy Well at the shrine, followed by time to soak up the sun and read in the garden, before Benediction and our departure.
While being slightly sceptical about Walsingham, I felt a real sense of encounter with its sense of devotion, whilst also being grateful for the space and time that the pilgrimage offered. I think we all also made what I hope will be enduring friends with the group from Lumley: sharing the weekend with other people who weren’t necessarily sure what to make of the experience made for a very unstuffy and open exploration of the Walsingham tradition. I would certainly urge anyone who may have thought that it isn’t really for them to reconsider, and at the very least to take advantage of a great opportunity for a delightful weekend away with very jolly companions.