Ken Fisher

first impressions as a pilgrim, with St Augustine’s, Tonge Moor, 2008
Until recently my knowledge of Walsingham was hazy although for many years I have known it to be of major Christian significance and associated with Christian pilgrimages. I, therefore, thought it a great opportunity to learn more and to experience Walsingham by joining the parish's Annual Pilgrimage. In an attempt to improve my hazy knowledge before going, I interrogated the internet to see what I could discover. From the very informative Walsingham site, I learned about the history of the Shrine, the Shrine Church and the Holy House. With this knowledge I went forth on my spiritual journey – taking with me the prayer needs and requests of others, and my own need for God’s intervention and guidance. Instead of a hard slog on foot, we were effortlessly transported to Walsingham by coach – sprinkled with Holy Water and stopping en route for mid-morning hospitality at St Wilfred’s Church, Cantley (where we sang The Angelus) and for lunch at Byard’s Leap. As we approached Walsingham, we sang the Pilgrim Hymn. The hymn refreshed my recently-acquired knowledge about the establishment of Walsingham through the Divine Revelation of Our Lady to Richeldis de Faverche (the local lady of the manor) in the eleventh century, Henry VIII’s destruction of the Shrine and desecration of the statue of Our Lady in the sixteenth century, and the re-establishment of the Shrine by a local clergyman, Fr Hope Patten, in the late 1920s. On arrival, we gathered at the Altar of the Annunciation in front of the strikingly beautiful blue and white three-dimensional reredos on the west-facing wall of The Holy House within the Shrine Church. There we were reminded of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary as told by St Luke (1: 26-38), after which we went into the windowless Holy House which is illuminated (and heated!) by dozens of prayer candles. Although it took a short time to get used to the half-light, I was instantly aware that this space is, indeed, sacred, holy and at the heart of the Shrine. This first gathering focused my attention on the importance of Our Lady and the need for Her intercessions on our behalf. During the week I had many spiritual experiences of varying intensity. One of the most poignant was on Tuesday evening during the Liturgy of Reconciliation in the Shrine Church when the presiding Priests gave us water to sip, crossed our foreheads and poured water into our open hands. Afterwards, we went forward for the laying-on of hands with immediate prayer needs to the fore. (Regrettably, I fear my requests were inaudible and unintelligible.) At other times, the Adoration of the Relic of the True Cross, the Pilgrims’ Masses, the candle-lit procession around the Shrine grounds, and the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament had ‘special’ spiritual meaning and significance. The nightly Compline in The Barn Chapel was a peaceful way to end each day before drifting into sleep. In addition to visiting South Creake Church for Mass, Walsingham’s newly-built Roman Catholic Church for Evening Prayer and the Parish Church for the Stations of the Cross, we walked the Holy Mile to visit the Roman Catholic Shrine (the Slipper Chapel) and the stylish, relatively new, Roman Catholic Church. I took my new trainers and running kit in the hope of combining physical exercise with spiritual nourishment. What better way of christening my trainers than by running the Holy Mile (and a little more) the next morning while, at the same time, admiring the rural splendour of 'Stiffkey’s fair vale'? I can wholeheartedly recommend an early morning run and hope to have some running companions next year! Those keen to learn something of the Shrine Church’s history, art, architecture and treasures were invited to accompany a member of staff on a short guided tour after Mass on Thursday morning. This re-kindled my neglected interest in ecclesiastical architecture and sparked a determination to refresh and extend my knowledge. Similarly, Wednesday’s half-day visit to Wymondham Abbey gave us another most enjoyable opportunity to see more of rural Norfolk and to admire what is left of stunning mediaeval architecture after the Reformation took its toll. I was impressed by the Shrine gardens which are carefully and sensitively maintained. They provide a peaceful oasis away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life for pilgrims to pray, to reflect, and to sit with their fellow pilgrims and quietly chat. Of particular note around the gardens are the strategically-positioned Stations of the Cross, and on a 'Green Hill' three stark wooden crosses. When I first saw the room I had been allocated, I thought there was insufficient space for me and my suitcase. Within minutes everything was ‘sorted’ and I soon realised what a quiet and comfortable room I had. Meal times in the light and spacious refectory were particularly pleasant because there was not only very good (vegetarian and non-vegetarian) cuisine but interesting conversation and excellent fellowship. What an enjoyable social evening we had in the Orangery singing and celebrating two imminent birthdays. Throughout our pilgrimage I was aware of the demands upon Fr Tony and Fr David and how cheerfully and conscientiously they ministered to the needs of their pilgrims. I was also aware of Doris’s efficient planning, enormous enthusiasm and continual monitoring – ably assisted by Deborah. Collectively, they ensured that the pilgrimage ran so smoothly. All too soon, it was time for our last visit to The Holy House before leaving Walsingham – each with precious memories and unique experiences. What had I learned? I learned more about the importance of Our Lady, the power of Her prayers and the need for Her intercessions. I had experienced the spiritual intensity of The Shrine of Our Lady and seen a little of the beauty of North Norfolk. Many times I was asked "Are you enjoying it?". Indeed, I was. I thoroughly enjoyed the spiritual experiences, the formal and informal worship, and the fellowship of friendly pilgrims – many of whom had been to Walsingham at least once a year for a very long time. I can see why. We agreed that Walsingham is a very special place. It is 'England’s Nazareth'. top of page