For many the must have element of a pilgrimage is walking through nature. For such people, it can be better to travel than to arrive. Church buildings and rituals get in their way, rather than helping their exploration of the holy.
Walsingham provides an alternative – the Abbey Grounds. The ruins of the abbey, suppressed in 1538, are set in gardens where a qietly flowing chalk stream divides the formal from the informal. Beyond the stream, there are woodland walks, bird song fills the air and in early spring it is Snow Drop heaven.
In the year 855 the Great Heathen Army defeated the forces of Edmund, King of East Anglia. Refusing to renounce his Christian faith, Edmund died a martyr’s death shot full of arrows.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle places these events at a place that sounds like Hellesdon, although it is historically unlikely that Edmund’s final battle was fought in Norfolk.
Later, when the conquering Danes accepted the Christian faith, joint veneration of the martyr king was a force for unity. King Cnut, himself, endowing and visiting the saint’s shrine at Bury St. Edmund’s.
Along the Walsingham Way there are churches dedicated to Edmund in Norwich, Costessey, Taverham; and at Lyng, where there are remains of a St. Edmund’s Chapel. A St. Edmund’s Fair was held in Lyng 20th February, his feast day which is the anniversary of his death. A further legend has it that Edmund’s defeat and martyrdom took place in Lyng!
“Assumption!” roared the man with a hammer, ” We’ll see about that!” In the west porch of the parish church you can see his handiwork.
Arguments about visual images and the place of the Mother of Our Lord continue in our own time. But this church that bears her name remains high and lifted up.
What do you think ? Iconoclasts zeal destroyed an earlier century’s devotion to the woman without whom Jesus could not have taken human flesh. Mary had carried Jesus in her womb, brought him into this world, touched and talked him into being. She had fed him, protected him and nurtured him. There at his birth. There at his death. Her hands had wrapped the new born in swaddling bands; and the newly dead for burial.
In Jerusalem, Mary was part of the infant Christian Church. It is not scriptural. It is not there in the Bible. Yet, might not Mary have been taken up to heaven to be with her risen, ascended, glorified son? This writer likes to think so.
Bedstraws do exactly what it says on the tin. Before modern mattresses, most people slept on a pallisasse filled with straw of one sort or another. Beyond wheat and barley there were the wild flowers we still call hedge, marsh, heath and Lady’s bedstraws.
The story goes that on the night that Jesus was born, Mary’s mattress was filled this dried , sweet smelling herb. It became the the custom to fill the mattresses of expectant mum’s with Lady’s Bedstraw – an act of solidarity that reveals another dimension to Jesus words, “In as much as you did it to any of these little ones you did it to me.” (Matthew 25)
Cue Chrstmas carols: ” See him lying on a bed of straw” followed by Sydney Carter’s “Every Star shall sing a carol”, stopping to reflect on the line ,” When the King of all Creation had a cradle on the earth, holy was the human body, holy was the human birth.”
St. Margaret’s was the go to saint for women in childbirth, the stories told how she had miraculously been brought forth from inside a dragon that had consumed her. Mortal danger for babe and mother in childbirth were once the norm in Europe and remains so in many places still.
Here in a country churchyard, Walsingham bound pilgrims find an opportunity to consider messy practicalities of incarnation – life and death.
On the eve of the feast of St. Bridget prayers and best wishes to Walsingham Way’s sister St. Brigitta’s Trail
The Benedictine monk, subsequently Cardinal, Adam Easton was a local Norfolk boy who made good. Adam promoted the beatification of Bridgit and did much to popularise her cult in his home town. It has been suggested that Adam had been Mother Julian’s Spiritual Director and some have noted similarities between St. Bridget and Mother Julian. They were both visionaries, both writers and the Passion of Christ was central to them both.
Beyond speculation we know that Adam held the living of Heigham, through which the Walsingham Way passes as it follows the River Wensum out of Norwich on the outskirts of Norwich; that Margery Kemp and her friend and mentor the Carmelite friar Alan of Lynn, were also fans; that Bridget’s Book was widely read by educated women in 15th C Norfolk; and that she is pictured on the rood screen in the church of St. Mary and St. Andrew at Horsham St.Faith’s .
“I am grateful for the time to have been able to walk the new pilgrim route from Norwich Cathedral to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and for those who have welcomed me at churches along the way.
“This pilgrimage journey has enabled me to reflect more deeply upon these last few months during which, like so many others, I have been working at pace and handling complex issues. It has been a time to be at a different pace with God, to slow down, breath more deeply, and appreciate the beauty of the Norfolk countryside.
“At times along the way I’ve walked in the company of others, chatting things through or simply being in silence. In every church I’ve prayed for all affected by coronavirus, including those who are ill, those bereaved, and all who are living with anxiety and fear.
“I feel more rooted in the diocese as I’ve walked along lanes, beside rivers, through woodland, and entered some of our glorious rural churches. It has been a restorative and hope-filled journey as I have travelled in the direction of Walsingham, accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone in that direction down the centuries to seek God’s love and consolation, knowing, too, that that a pilgrimage isn’t complete until you return home, witnessing to that love and consolation in the days ahead.”
On Monday 13th July, Bishop Graham will set out from his cathedral church to walk the 37 miles, through the heart of Norfolk, to pray at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. He writes,
“Pilgrimage is a meaningful journey to a sacred place. It provides the opportunity to step out of the non-stop busyness of our lives, to seek a time of quiet and reflection,” says Bishop Graham. “I’m intent on using this time to seek God’s heart and healing for all those affected by coronavirus. Do look out for me if I’m passing through your neighbourhood and please do all join me in praying during this time.”
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. Sexbura of Ely, and St. Ethelbuga and St. Sethryth of Faramoutier – also followed the religious life.
In 10th Century the Withburga’s body was stolen from Dereham by monks of Ely and laid to rest beside her sisters. Where upon, 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, where St. Felix established a church in the 7th Century that became Norfolk’s first cathedral, Dereham; and Ely.