As you came from the holy land
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?
SO BEGINS the “Raleigh” ballad, one of three surviving medieval ballads about the Walsingham pilgrimage. This one is the best-known, because part of it finds its way into Hamlet, when Ophelia sings the response to that opening question:
How should I your true-love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.
And so a traditionally clad pilgrim strays on to the Elizabethan stage, in an era when his appearance on any lane in England, let alone the lanes to Walsingham itself, was forbidden.
Fortunately, those interdicts have been lifted, but it was still with fragments of these ballads echoing through my head that I set off on a walking pilgrimage, with two old friends, from my own front door in North Walsham to the once ransacked and now recovered shrine in Walsingham.
We had the best of the September weather, and the most enchanting of lanes and pathways (Norfolk, interestingly, has specifically designated “Quiet Lanes”, like the “Quiet Carriage” on a railway train — only, much quieter). We went first up the old Paston Way to Mundesley, then along the Coast Path to Wells-Next-the-Sea, and then — treating ourselves after three days walking — we dropped down the last few miles to Walsingham itself on the delightful little Wells to Walsingham narrow-gauge steam railway, which is so petite that you feel like a child again when you ride it.
So, after the woods, after the lanes, after the cliffs, after the ebb tides, sea-sands, and the shingle, we arrived at our journey’s end, three old friends — an Anglican priest, a Roman Catholic teacher, and an agnostic historian — and paid our respects and made our devotions, in our different modalities, at three holy places: the Slipper Chapel, the Anglican Shrine, and the lovely little Orthodox Chapel in the old railway station.
I found the latter at once charming, surprising, and moving. Its full title is “St Seraphim’s Chapel and Icon & Railway Museum.” What a glorious combination! The icons were, as they should be, windows on to something far greater, windows from which the saints gaze on and pray for our world as much as we gaze on theirs.
But the most surprising and delightful thing was the Quiet Garden. It stretched back behind the chapel along what had been the old platform, but now all clothed in green, with fruiting trees and benches, and, dotted here and there, little huts or sheds, Poustinia, which reminded me of my own little writing hut, and I was tempted to spend the rest of the day in one of them.
I was glad to be travelling with my friend Sean; for he had booked us into the Roman Catholic pilgrims’ hostel, which we shared with a wonderfully assorted coachload of pilgrims from Preston. Their unpretentious and down-to-earth conversation over the bustle of breakfast rescued me from the emptiness of cultivated nostalgia, and put me slap-bang in the middle of the robust and rambunctious world of The Canterbury Tales. There were more than a few candidates, among this crowd, for the Miller or the Wife of Bath.
I’m home again, but, as for any pilgrim, the lanes, the woods, the shores, the company, the conversation, and something of the mystery of the place itself are with me and in me now, as well as out there, ready for another visit.