Jennifer Hamilton-Emery recounts her winter pilgrimage from Kings Lynn to Walsingham
It is hard to believe that February was only two months ago. It feels like looking back on a bygone era with life as we knew it then now something of a distant memory. At the end of last year, my friend Fiona and I decided that during this February half-term we would walk the old pilgrim route from Kings Lynn to The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. I thought you might like to hear about it.
Our pilgrimage took us two days, during which time we walked thirty-seven miles through some of the most glorious and remote parts of Norfolk – for hours at a time we would see no signs of life whatsoever: no houses, cars, roads; nothing but rolling countryside. Our first day was largely off-road along paths and tracks.
We began our journey at the quayside in Kings Lynn, and headed out of the city along a cycle path that avoided the roads, taking us quickly out into the country through South then North Wootton. About five miles in we came to Castle Rising, which turned out to be the final place we could stop and rest before reaching Great Bircham, several hours later. In between we passed nothing but fields!
During that first day we walked twenty-one miles, which took us just under seven hours. The route was beautiful – we were lucky enough to enjoy sunny weather – and our thoughts often turned to the millions of pilgrims over the past thousand years in whose footsteps we were walking, and how different the experience must have been for them. Just outside Castle Rising we passed what we suspected were old pilgrim shelters.
These would have been a welcome sight: many would have travelled by sea to Kings Lynn, having walked many miles before that. Many would have been sick, or carrying the sick; all would have been carrying provisions and water, or banking on being offered them en route; this part of the country is so sparsely populated, we feared for those who were relying on this. All of them would have been worried about being set upon by brigands – and many, sadly, would not have made it. We imagined the heartbreak of those losing loved ones along the way, and the dilemma they faced in whether to continue their journey.
We stopped for the night at Docking, about an hour’s walk from Great Bircham, and after a hearty breakfast, embarked on the second day of our pilgrimage: sixteen miles that took us just over five hours. We headed due East, again through beautiful Norfolk countryside, though today’s route comprised more quiet country roads than the tracks and trails of the previous day. Once again, we were blessed with the weather, despite the rather ominous forecast.
We stopped for a delicious lunch at the cafe at Creake Abbey, which was just over half-way, and where we explored the old abbey ruins. From that point we could feel that every step we took was a step closer to Walsingham, and our spirits lifted considerably when we saw a road sign pointing us the way and telling us that we were only two miles from our destination.
We arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham at around 3pm, tired but elated, and grateful to have completed our pilgrimage without mishap. We headed straight to the Holy House and recited Genesis 28.17: ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ We stood in silent prayer giving our thanks, just as those whose footsteps we’d walked in would have done over the centuries. Our thoughts had been with them the entire journey.
No pilgrimage is complete, we reckoned, without taking a few further steps to the cafe. Our final destination was Norton’s Bar & Café where we enjoyed a well-earned pint of Pilgrim’s Pale Ale (for me), a pot of tea (for Fiona) and a huge slice of cake each, and we awarded ourselves an Our Lady of Walsingham medal to mark our achievement. We headed for home with memories of having taken part in an ancient tradition that still has a place in the modern world.