A Very English Pilgrimage

A Twenty-First Century Walking Pilgrimage to Walsingham

Isaac Withers


March 15, 2020

The day we set off for our pilgrimage, the storm predicted for that weekend was trending on Twitter. Whose bright idea had this been? A walking pilgrimage in England in February? Well, it was in a sense a work trip as well as a pilgrimage. Our group was formed of the team that has been promoting the Rededication of England to Mary this year and we thought it was time we did some real groundwork!

At the heart of our work has been rediscovering the love for Mary in English history – as part of this, we thought a pilgrimage to its best-known Marian Shrine, Walsingham, would help us to enter into the spirit of things. Walsingham is a village in Norfolk that gained the title ‘England’s Nazareth’ in the medieval ages for the holy house that was constructed there. This house was commissioned by a local Saxon widow by the name of Richeldis after Mary had appeared to her. The story goes that Mary showed Richeldis the house where the angel Gabriel had appeared to her, asking for it to be reconstructed in England so that it could be, ‘a perpetual memorial to the great joy of the annunciation’.

So, England’s Nazareth was our destination. We started from Kings Lynn, a thirty-five-mile hike in total over a weekend, more than doable. This route would have been the route of European pilgrims who can by sea and docked on the East coast – we were very much walking in their footsteps. Pilgrimage to Walsingham was at some point so common that even the Milky Way was renamed the Walsingham Way! Not all of Walsingham’s past pilgrims are anonymous figures to us however, some had huge national fame. In fact, from the year 1226 starting with King Henry III all the way to King Henry VIII, many of the Kings of England made pilgrimage to the holy ground of Walsingham. The King most relevant to this Rededication however is King Richard II who in 1381 dedicated England to Mary by proclaiming over his Kingdom, ‘This is your Dowry, O Pious Virgin Mary!’ and gifting England to her. This title is unique to England and truly sets it apart among the nations.

Some of our team were new to the whole walking pilgrimage experience but some of us had walked the Santiago trail in Spain (the Camino) and were therefore, pros. I walked the Camino a few years ago and something had struck me as I walked it then. It seemed that from the thriving cities to the tiny dustbowl towns, the centre of all these hubs of Spanish life were beautiful churches. In the smallest of villages, I had found golden sanctuaries and incredible stained glass, which had made me think ‘this must have been what pre-Reformation England was like’. With the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, so many of our medieval Christian places of worship were destroyed and now lie in ruins, including the priory of Walsingham that had contained the holy house – so much was lost. And yet, as we walked towards Walsingham, time and time again we encountered Norman churches, unimportant enough to have been untouched by the destructive turns of history, beautiful stone structures standing tall. The vast majority of them were called, you guessed it, St. Mary’s.

The message of Walsingham also remains intact, alive in fact, the message from Mary to pilgrims to share her joy. On pilgrimage you get to know something about real joy, joy which is deeper than happiness. As your feet ache, as your backpack weighs you down and as the rain soaks you, you are distracted from the struggle by two things – the camaraderie of having good friends around you and the ultimate goal of a destination that is holy ground. In this way, pilgrimage becomes a microcosm of the whole of the Christian life, a journey towards the sacred, surrounded by a joyful community – joyful because we know the good news of Jesus Christ.

In fact, as we arrived on the holy mile, the final mile, in some heavy rain, we encountered a monk no less! He was thrilled to meet some walking pilgrims and asked if he could bless us. Of course, we said yes and as he put his hands on our heads and blessed us in the downpour, we could not have felt closer to the pilgrims who had walked before us. It was a medieval moment we will not soon forget. From there we arrived at Walsingham’s beautiful Slipper Chapel, named after its function, as a place where pilgrims would remove their shoes to walk the holy mile barefoot. We all but collapsed into this beautiful fourteenth century chapel, finding the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham awaiting us there before celebrating Holy Mass together.

There is something about the singular focus of pilgrimage that is hugely satisfying. The lack of distractions and technology (until Google Maps is a necessity) and the way in which food and sleep are essential for the body to re-energise are just some of the ways in which life becomes simpler. It is a great union of the physical and the spiritual, in the way in which Jesus asks us to, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' In those conditions it is somehow so much easier to feel connected to God, and for prayer to come to the forefront of life again.

St John Henry Newman concludes his poem ‘The Pilgrim Queen’ with these lines spoken by Mary, ‘“A moment,” she said, “and the dead shall revive; The giants are failing, the Saints are alive, I am coming to rescue my home and my reign, And Peter and Philip are close in my train.”’ It sums up the spirit of this moment in English Catholicism well, as we Rededicate ourselves to Mary, our Pilgrim Queen. In this historic year, why not make a pilgrimage yourself? I always remember Pope Francis telling the crowds at World Youth Day Krakow after our day long walk out to the fields of the vigil, ‘Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes’ – why not dig yours out again sometime in 2020?