“Nothing but sea between us and the North Pole” I remember being told as a child as we shivered and complained on the rain-drenched ‘beach’ at Blakeney,North Norfolk. We sat on piled up fist-sized cobbles for four hours while Grandad, in his enormous great coat, tinkered with his fishing tackle, the wind and rain lashed us, our eyes streamed in the bitter wind, we saw not another living soul. When finally he packed away his rods Grandad had caught nothing but a cold.
So when Tim, my husband, and I decided to take a week off from running our crazed, chaotic, circus-like Pagan Bookshop in Cambridge, a self-guided out-of-season walking holiday/belated honeymoon in Wells-Next-The-Sea seemed just the ticket. We were searching for something-that’s-nothing-likeCambridge’s madMill Roadon a saturday. We wanted peace and solitude, marshes, mills and winds to soothe our frazzled Goddess-worshiping spirits.
For days we rambled on lonely coastal paths to Blakeney, and to Cley. Buffeted by wild elements we gazed out at distant seascapes across indeterminate miles of uninhabited tidal marshland. We beachcombed expanses of sea damp sand betweenHolkhamBayand Wells life boat station, and we spoke to nobody. In early March everything is shut, even the chip shop opens for only a few hours in the early evening. It was blissful.
On the Wednesday morning, as we packed our picnic, the March winds grew salty. The local TV news, whimpering in the corner of the holiday cottage, announced high winds reaching up to 70mph in coastal regions. That day we decided to head inland. We plotted a walk 5 miles to thevillageofLittle Walsinghamto visit the Shrine of Our Lady. To Catholics Our Lady is the Virgin Mary; to Wiccans it is one of the names of the Goddess, the Earth Mother, the Creatrix. A wholly appropriate connection since the early Christian church tended to requisition existing Pagan shrines and re-dedicate them. Our Lady became the mortal Mother of God and our ancient Horned God became The Devil, and the rest, as they say, is bloody, war-filled monotheistic history.
We set off at around ten o’clock in bright sunlight, via Wells harbour where the high tide filled the channels and gullies, floating the moored boats that are stranded on mud-flats for most of the day. We followed a cycle network path which took us out of the town, past a cemetery, out into hedgerowed countryside, bordering a dairy farm and up into woodland. At a cross-paths marked as Gallows Hill on the map, we took the left-hand path (of course) which was signed as the Fakenham road. The path dipped around the edge of the woodland, where huge trees swayed and groaned and whooshed in the high winds. And then we were out in open farmland, the wind seemed to recede, the humanless silence of countryside lulled us as we tramped the rutted path, studded with huge flints, the green crop fields stretched enormously, sweeping away into the windy distance. Hares frolicked on the path ahead, and in the fields we saw four or five of them cavorting through the nascent crops. By an isolated barn we spotted a large raptor battling to rise against the fierce winds. We stopped on a bench in the village of Wighton to eat the chocolate in our picnic and discuss what we knew about Walsingham. The village clock showed midday.
There has been a shrine to Our Lady at Little Walsingham since 1061, when a local widowed noblewoman – Richeldis de Faverches – dreamt on three occasions that the Virgin Mary transported her to the place of the Annunciation and directed her to build an exact replica, giving precise dimensions and instructions for the “Holy House”. The legend has strange magical qualities, in particular the uncanny outlines in the morning dew which corresponded to the Marian directions for the house. Originally, the building was started there, but three times it was undone, mysteriously moved, by unseen hands, in the dead of night. Later, natural springs were recorded on that original site. Many Pagans still see springs as sacred, liminal places.
Beyond Wighton the walk, still following the cycle network, followed a narrow unmarked tarmac road between fields, it was still horribly windy, but the sun shone and we felt that this was quite a lovely springtime ramble. The road lead down into Great Walsingham. We crossed an unbridged ford, and threw sticks into the river from the footbridge, but they disappeared into the boiling rush of water, a huge uprooted tree on the river bank reminded us of the power of the elements in this open country. From here it is a short walk into Little Walsingham, and following sign reading OLW (Our Lady of Walsingham) we soon came to the modern Anglican reproduction of the shrine.
The Anglican shrine was built in 1931, and is a replica of the 11th century “Holy House”. In the 1960’s a further natural spring was discovered underneath the reproduction, which I guess gives it some spiritual validity for sacred spring revering modern pagans. Thankfully we quickly found a refectory, where we sat warmed our bones, drinking coffee and cakes. Finishing our coffee break we gathered ourselves up and went in search of the shrine amongst the sprawling gaggle of modern buildings, chapels, altars, and stations of the cross.
The replica is housed within the nave of the modern church. A tiny dark windowless room where numberless votive candles were the only lighting. We sat on the only two chairs in the shrine and gazed about to get a feel of the place. A reproduction of the original Blessed Virgin stands no more than two foot tall on the altar, behind her head is a gilded clam shell which flickered and undulated, catching the wobbling light of the votive candles. Even though we knew it was modern, it felt old and unlike an English church, dark and candlelit, like an ancient European site, and we would have stayed longer, but a school party arrived and the teacher began to teach the children to sing “we are pilgrims” to the tune of Frere Jacques. Before we left, we found a plastic jug of water beside the caged in underground spring, we anointed pentagrams on our foreheads, imagining it was water from the spring. Then we left, looking for the real, old Walsingham.
The shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham became a place of Royal Pilgrimage, second only to Canterbury. For five centuries the tiny Norfolk village grew rich and powerful, in 1120 a great Abbey was established beside the Holy House. Thirteen consequent English Kings undertook pilgrimage to Walsingham, paid penance and dues, including a young Henry VIII. In 1538 it was he who ordered Walsingham Abbey and shrine razed to the ground, “The statue of Our Lady was carried off and publickly burnt”.
The ruins of the old abbey are enclosed behind a tall thick wall in the centre of the village, entry is through a huge old gateway, into the Abbey book and gift shop, where we bought a guide book and began to wander.
The only remaining architecture is the west wall, vast mullioned and craggy, standing alone in a greensward of lawn. Nothing of the “Holy House” remains at all. The Abbey grounds are extensive, a rolling woodland of mature oaks, yews, flowering cherries and ash trees, the woodland floor was ablaze with daffodils, a lazy stream meandered through the trees. We strolled through the idyllic woods, over a pack horse bridge spanning the stream, but due to high winds much of the grounds were out of bounds. As we re-traced our steps we came upon the springs over which the Holy House wasn’t built. The springs had been made into wells and a small square garden with benches built around them. An archway lead into the garden and we sat beneath a creaking cherry tree and pondered our day. I had hoped to cleanse my crystals in the wells, but they were padlocked off, the water a dark murky depth, out of reach, below the earth. As we sat the cherry tree creaked and groaned in wind, until I looked up at its upper branches to ask it what it wanted. And as I tipped my head back, I saw the tiny crescent of the new moon, pale in the blue blustery sky. The Goddess newly arisen overhead.
At four o’clock the Abbey grounds closed and we bought snowdrop and winter aconite bulbs from the gift shop, made our way to the Walsingham Farm Shop, where we bought cloudy local apple juice and organic yoghurt. Then we caught the bus from the bus stop beside the Farm shop, back into Wells, arriving in good time to catch the chip shop by the harbour.
First printed in Silver Wheel Journal 2