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8th July – Feast of St. Withburgh

Photo : Simon Knott

St. Withburh, or Withburga, established a monastery at Dereham in the year 653 or thereabouts. Tradition remembers her as the youngest of King Anna’s sainted daughters. Her older siblings – St. Etheldreda and St. Sexburh of Ely, and St. Ethelbuga and St. Sethryth of Faramoutier – also followed the religious life.

Photo : Simon Knott

In 10th Century the Withburga’s body was stolen from Dereham by monks of Ely and laid to rest beside her sisters. Whereupon, though some doubt this, a miraculous spring appeared in the churchyard!

A spur to connect East Dereham with the Walsingham Way would allow pilgrims to start, finish, or break the journey at Dereham. Dereham has an express bus service linking the town with Norwich and Kings Lynn.

In the future, it would be good to establish a Withburga Trail linking Holkham (where she is said to have grown-up); via North Elmham the site of Norfolk’s first cathedral, to Dereham; and on to Ely.

Churches Begin to Open After Lockdown

For Private prayer and meditation

St. Mary, Walsingham

Please note: S. Mary’s Church will be open from Monday 15th June from 9am – 5pm for private prayer.

Fr. Harri

Elsing to Swanton Morley

Leaving Elsing, the pilgrim sets out towards Swanton Morley. If they have time to saunter, they may go the pretty way and take a sharp right at Penny Spot Beck Bridge to follow the Wensum Way through green pasture, by quiet waters…

On the way the route passes St. Mary, Bylaugh on the opposite bank and climbs to All Saints, Swanton Morley from the river side. ‘Ever so flat, Norfolk!’ They say!

As pilgrims enjoy the upward path through a flower rich meadow, verses of Psalm 24 may come to mind “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?……………”

Wildlife Corridor

The River Wensum is a whole river SSSI and Special Area of Conservation  from source to Hellesdon Mill. They combine with the Wensum Valley Local Nature Reserve to create a Wensum wildlife corridor right into the heart of the City of Norwich.

And there is a bypass too!  As the river winds its way past Ringland it passes close to the River Yare, a quick hop over the Ringland Hills,  takes birds and animals into a valley that skirts the city’s southern fringe.

Since becoming a Special Area of Conservation great strides have been made to restore the Wensum, work that continues to the present day through the Wensum Alliance ,  Norfolk Rivers Trust  , Broadland Catchment Partnership

The co-operation between local landowners, drainage boards, academics and NGO’s is making a difference and Norwich Diocese/ Norfolk Wildlife Trust  Conservation churchyards have also helped.

But there are new threats :-  the run off of pesticides from agricultural land, is one. The demands of increasing road traffic and the creation of new roads compromising the wildlife bypass, is another.


Mary’s Month of May

Protestant doctrine does not favour the feasts of the Assumption, nor the celebration of Mary, Queen of Heaven on 1st May! They are not biblical! The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth on 31st May is a different matter!

The place of Jesus’mother in the overall scheme of things was once a burning issue – burning, as in the burning of heretics! It remains a matter of importance .

Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower

May’s flower of the month is Lady’s Smock, alternatively known as Cuckoo Flower. Pilgrims will find it on the Walsingham Way in damp meadows and conservation churchyards.  Does the alternative name suggest some disagreement around the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? You would do well not to enter into a “Yes, it was/No, it wasn’t ” pantomime argument; be it conducted outwardly, with a companion; or inwardly, with one’s self. More creatively it could be used like the unsolvable problem – a koan – given by a Zen Master. By tussling meditatively with the unsolvable paradox, pilgrims can find themselves lead beyond contradictions, into a deep understanding of of a mystery. It is a mystery at the heart of Christian faith; in which, it is said, God was incarnate, took flesh, became Man, in Jesus.

The actual reality of living in a human body – conception, birth, breathing, eating, drinking, defecating, learning, thinking, working, praying, friend and foe making, enduring through boredom, temptation, betrayal, abandonment, victimhood, threats, bullying, suffering, bleeding and death.

In another age, a fellow pilgrim travelled these roads on route from Lynn, via Walsingham, Norwich and Yarmouth to visit the relic of Our Lady’s Smock, across the North Sea at Aachen.  Relic and flower, Our Lady’s Smock,  provide a symbolic link between the lived experience of women over the centuries – child bearing, feeding, washing, clothing, home-making, caring for others – and that of Jesus’ mum. It reveals a sisterhood that extends across time and space.

 As humans we are loved and touched into being. Such is the way with us humans. For all the love and care we have received from our mothers and other nurturing, caring women; and for the mystery of human- being thank God.

Women supporting one another in the practical aspects of human living and loving happened then and happens now. One imagines it was this common bond that led Mary to visit Elizabeth.   By the end of May,  3 months after the Annunciation, Mary would be beginning to show with the unborn Jesus. Did the two women, an older and younger first time mother, work together to made that smock!?

The Marienschrein at Aachen  contained the smock Mary had worn on the night of Jesus birth, his swaddling bands, the cloth that held St. John the Baptist’s severed head and the loin cloth Jesus wore when he was crucified.

In the days of Margery Kemp, many lay women expressed their spirituality in practical ways by engaging with the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy

feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners and ransoming captives, and burying the dead

The Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy

Jesus words, ‘…. in as much as you did it to any of these little ones, you did it to me’ ( Matthew 25.40) gave a sense that in performing  practical acts, they were one with Mary, the Mother of Our Lord , Mary Magdalene and the other women who cared for Jesus during his life on earth. The experience of handling the Body of Christ, so to speak,  providing a route towards what might be termed  holy communion.

In 2016 Pope Francis suggested an additional  Act of Mercy – Care for the Creation! 

St. Edmund, the King

In the shade of a lone tree (on the right next to the red tractor), above the mad/May/green of a hay time Wensum Valley, are the last remains of Edmund’s Church. There’s not much still standing.  Yet I was able to look out through the last surviving window.

They have found evidence of Roman and earlier  occupation on this ancient site.  Telltale inch wide Roman brick can be see in the last surviving quoin.

The holy women who once prayed on this hill transferred to Thetford in 1176 CE, under the protection of the Abbot of St. Edmund’s.  The Priory of St. George at Thetford had been established in memory of the English and Danes who fell in a near by battle. Perhaps this  was the purpose of the church and community that lived  here on the western flank of Easthaugh Hill. 

Some, like local historian Joe Mason,  believe this was the first resting place of the martyred St. Edmund, the King.

Norfolk Heritage Explorer’s circular walk takes the pilgrim up through the woods to pass close by the King’s Stone and through the Grove where the dead warriors are thought to be at rest. It quotes an article in the EDP of 13 March 1939 that records:-

the fascinating legends attached to this supposedly dark, lonely and mysterious place, and suggests that the name indicates a place where in ancient times secret religious mysteries or magic-working were practised, and which was possessed by ghosts.

I walked it on a summer’s day 

And sat by the Stone to rest.

It did not feel spooky to me in the least. But, if you like atmosphere and  poetry then this piece in Lost in a Landscape is for you.


Mission to the East Angles

The story of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham begins with the lady Richeldis de Faverches in 1061, but there is a back story. The Conversion of the East Angles began in the 7th Century with missionary monks establishing bases on the coast and along river valleys. It was all going swimmingly well, until the Viking Great Heathen Army saw the minster churches – the hubs of Christian faith and practice – as being rich for plunder. A recent study by the University of East Anglia’s Prof Tom Williamson and Austin Mason of Carelton College – Ritual Landscapes in Pagan and Early Christian England – provides the most complete geographical account.

An interactive map accompanies the report

If a pilgrim travelled from the start point of the Norolk Saints Way at Burgh Castle; along the valley of the River Yare to Norwich and continued on the Walsingham Way, in the Wensum Valley, through North Elmham ; before cutting across the watershed at Little Snoring, to Walsingham in the valley of the River Stifkey; they would have visited many of the most important sites.

Spong Hill Man – the picture of existential angst. This sculpture forms the lid to a cremation urn from the Anglo-Saxon Cemetery close to North Elmham can be seen at the Castle Museum Norwich .
Norwich Castle Museum c.c BY-SA 4.0

Along the way are churches said to have been founded by St. Fursey, at Burgh Castle; and by St. Felix at Reedham, Loddon and  Elmham (if it was North rather than South Elmham)  as well as the two cathedral churches  in Norwich (Anglican and Roman Catholic), and the former cathedral at North Elmham, close to the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill.

All history has a back story, a past, and a future. We continue to write the history today.  Is the church now on a journey back to the future by re-creating minster churches as mission hubs for the 21st Century?