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Word from Wormingford

01 December 2009

Ronald Blythe pays a visit to the ‘holy land of Walsinghame’

ADVENT. The adventurous Creator enters his own creation. Antony, my gentle friend from the north, arrives in the east. Where shall we go this time? It is his turn to point the route. The weather is a yellow-grey kind of scudding skies and faintly rattling hedges. “Norfolk,” he says. He has to pick up a fibre­glass Child in Walsingham. Plus his fibreglass parents, visitors, and creatures.

My chief memory of Walsingham is of — walls. Of medieval streets and quiet reconstructions of the medieval mind. No one is there. Jesus’s head peers out from the Priory gate. Are there any more pilgrims before curfew? Charles I’s head tops a doorway. The trinket shops glitter. The great shrine is dark and warm, womb-like in the late afternoon.

We walk to St Mary’s, so perfectly recovered by Laurence King after the inferno of 1961. It was the feast of St Camillus, a soldier of fortune who was so ruined by gambling that he had to work as a builder’s labourer. He had a bad leg, and its ghastly hospital treatment made him form an order called the Ser­vants of the Sick. St Philip Neri got him ordained by an English priest, Thomas Goldwell, in Rome. This in 1584. Had Goldwell returned to England, they could have burned him, too. A fitting day, then, for a church to catch fire.

Antony tells me all sorts of Anglo-Catholic things, and I tell him all sorts of literary-Walsingham things; thus we make a learned couple. The Child and his com­panions are safely packed in the back of the car. Antony tells me about “Comper pink”, and I mention a favourite poem.

As you came from the holy land
Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?

It is by Sir Walter Raleigh, and is about ageing and change. It ends quite wonderfully:

But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.

Geese from the Wash fly overhead in whirring skeins. We drive to the Slipper Chapel, now accompanied by a vast barn of a church, and I thought of it as it must have been when princes and peasants sat in it to take off their shoes for the last mile. Antony thought that they would have hung them round their necks so that they did not get pinched while they were praying before the Virgin’s miraculously transported house. More water-birds cross the darkening sky.

How wicked to sit in the car in my new shoes, socks and all. How strange to shop in Tesco at Faken­ham — a building bigger than any shrine in Christendom, I imagine.

Advent. Filled with promise, filled with fear. The pilgrim lover in Raleigh’s poem has his mind on other things. And my devotions on this trip, it being through coastal Norfolk, tend to take in natural his­tory. I feel a little like R. S. Thomas on the Llyn Peninsular, watching birds, watching God.

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