The Pilgrim Ways to Walsingham
St Edmundsbury to Walsingham – 85 miles, 8 days (Google Map Orange and Light Blue Lines). Follow the St Edmund Way description from Bury St Edmunds until Santon Downham, from where you bear off to meet the bumpy prehistoric flint mines of Grime’s Graves. A ruined castle follows at the beginning of the evocatively named Pilgrim’s Walk through another forest, a hidden stone cross and several medieval remote churches follow. Then you are on the ancient trackway of Peddar’s Way before the great wool town of Swaffham. Onwards to the colossal Castle Acre Priory ruins, a classic stopping point on the way to Walsingham. Then the remote medieval churches increase in frequency as you get closer to Walsingham.
Ely to Walsingham – 103 miles, 10 days (Google Map Pink and Light Blue Lines). You can also start at Ely Cathedral, the ‘Ship of the Fens’, founded by patron saint of Cambridgeshire, the abbess St Etheldreda. Walk the Hereward National Trail, via Prickwillow Church, across Sedge Fenland, then through Lakenheath Fen Nature Reserve whilst following the Little Ouse River to the pilgrim St James’ church in Hockwold, then the Weeting Heath National Nature Reserve before rejoining the above St Edmundsbury to Walsingham route at Weeting.
Norwich to Walsingham – 36 miles, 3 days (Google Map Blue Line). Starting at Norwich Cathedral you soon have the Shrine of St Julian, a female mystic of great literary influence, embedded within a city of thirty medieval churches. Perhaps unsurprisingly in the county of Walsingham, there is evidence of a powerful female spirituality not only related to Mary but also St Anne, St Margaret, St Catherine, St Birgitte of Sweden and the writer Margery Kempe. Much of the route to Walsingham passes through the valley of the River Wensum, an region of unassuming beauty. Around the Snoring villages are stretches of high, grain-growing plateau with huge skies, and then you have the wooded valley of the Stiffkey. There are vistas of unenclosed valleys which have changed little since earlier times.
Cley-next-the-Sea to Walsingham – 16 miles, 1 day (Google Map Red Line). (Alternative start from Morston, 11 miles.) Cley/Blakeney Harbour was the most used port on the Norfolk coast in the medieval era, and therefore many pilgrims would have stepped off boats here onto land in order to walk the final stage of their journey to Walsingham. This route starts at the great church of St Margaret’s in Cley, a popular harbour next to Blakeney, and then next its the ruined hermitage of Blakeney at the threshold point of the sea shore, turns inland at the Freshes, where the River Stiffkey meets the sea, then it’s through the magical landscape of Cockthorpe Common, then a land of disused WWII airstrips before meeting Binham Priory, a ruined Benedictine monastery that would have given hospitality to passing pilgrims just before they arrived at Walsingham. Then make your way to the destination, the marked spot on the ground where Richeldis de Faverches had her vision of the Holy House of Nazareth, in Walsingham Abbey Gardens.
(To start, nearest train station is Sheringham, then catch Coasthopper bus to Cley/Blakeney.)
Coming into Walsingham – Remote churches are in plentiful supply as you approach the Catholic Slipper Chapel, from where you can walk the last mile barefoot to Little Walsingham village which, given its littleness, packs a serious spiritual punch with the ruins of the great shrine of Walsingham Abbey and the deeply revered Anglican and Catholic Shrines. Walsingham was one of the big pilgrimage sites destroyed by Thomas Cromwell – the memory of the destruction even has its own song, the Walsingham Ballad. Today, the shrine lives on.
Highlights from Bury St Edmunds
St Edmundsbury Cathedral
Forest riverscape of St Helen’s Well and Santon Downham Church
Prehistoric landscaping of Grime’s Graves
Ancient walking along Peddar’s Way
Past glory of Castle Acre Priory
Highlights from Norwich
Shrine of St Julian, Norwich
Protected nature of River Wensum
Stiffkey Wooded Valley
Slipper Chapel, Abbey ruins and Anglican Shrine, Walsingham.
Holy Places listed in Britain’s Pilgrim Places book: Bury St Edmunds; Houghton-on-the-Hill; Norwich Cathedral; Little Walsingham.
Highlighted holy place: Walsingham Abbey Shrine – There are two modern shrines in the village of Little Walsingham – the Anglican and Catholic shrines. However, in the footprint of the abbey ruins is where the true shrine remains. Here the young noblewoman Richeldis de Faverches had three visions of the Virgin Mary and consequently desired to replicate the Holy House of Nazareth, where Mary herself had had her most famous vision, the annunciation – at the spot in the photo. Construction was difficult but, in the end, it was built miraculously (not by humans). Walsingham eventually became one of the greatest pilgrimage shrines in medieval Europe before it was destroyed by dastardly Henry. The poem Pynson Ballad remains to tell of its greatness.
Walsingham Abbey Coastal Pilgrimage in a Day