Little Walsingham

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February, 2017

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Little Walsingham is a timeless small village of brick, flint and timber frame houses based around the village pump house in the depths of rural Norfolk. In the Middle Ages, it was one of the four great shrines and places of pilgrimage alongside Rome, Santiago del Compostella and Jerusalem. All the kings of England from Henry III to Henry VIII visited it.

A great Augustinian “Priory”: grew up round the shrine and 200 years later a Franciscan “Friary”: was built at the edge of the village. The fame and wealth of Walsingham grew and grew until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Shrine and Priory were destroyed and the Prior and canons were pensioned off. All that is left is the arch of the great east window, surrounded by woodland and meadow that is now open to the public. In February the grounds are covered with snowdrops and it is a very popular day out.

More is left of the Franciscan Friary, but these are privately owned, not open to the public and only visible from the road.

At the end of the C19th there was a renewal of interest in Pilgrimage and Roman Catholics began to visit the restored “Slipper Chapel”: just outside the village, which was the last stop for pilgrims before reaching Walsingham. In the 1930s, the Anglo Catholic rector of St Mary and All Saints’ church built a new “Shrine Church”: in the village. At the centre was the Holy House, a reconstruction of the C11th shrine. The Pilgrims arrived in their thousands and continue to do so. Little Walsingham is very much back on the tourist map.

As well as the shrine, there are plenty of other things to see around the village. “St Mary and All Saints’ Church “: burnt down in 1961 leaving only the tower and wall standing and has been carefully restored. Fortunately the seven sacrament font survived and is considered to be one of the best in the country.

There is a very stylish brick and flint “Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation”: built in 2006 which is Britain’s first carbon neutral church. The “Methodist Chapel”: is a lot older being built in 1784 and still has its unspoilt Georgian interior. It is one of the oldest Methodist chapels still in regular use in East Anglia.

Perhaps the most surprising find is the tiny “Russian Orthodox Chapel of St Seraphim”: in the old station building on the edge of the village. Russian Orthodox Pilgrimages began soon after the Shrine Church opened and the Shrine Church contains a small Russian Orthodox Chapel. This was used by Orthodox Eastern European Prisoners of War held here during the Second World War. The Missionary Brotherhood of St Seraphim were asked to take responsibility for the chapel and established a permanent Orthodox presence in Walsingham. They converted the disused station building into a small chapel, dedicated to St Seraphim. This was followed by another “church”: in Great Walsingham. St Seraphim became a centre for iconography and the chapel’s founder, Father David, painted icons here until his death, using the traditional techniques. Many of the icons are on display in the chapel.

During the C18th and C19th, Walsingham was a thriving legal and administrative centre, with the Quarter and Petty Sessions held in the Shirehall. The Georgian Court room still survives and was in use until 1971. The “Shirehall”: is now open with a small museum of local history, although the main attraction is the court room.

Just a few minutes walk away is the Bridewell set up as a House of Correction in 1598, to house vagrants and beggars, with the intention to train them in useful trades. It has survived virtually untouched since it closed and a key is available from the Shirehall Museum to see the original prison cells.

The railway line may have been a casualty of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, but part of the line has been reopened as the narrow gauge 10 ¼ inch “Wells to Walsingham Light Railway”: which runs steam services along four miles of track from Easter to the end of October. It even has two miniature Bayer Garrett locos specially built for the line.

There are two pubs as well as a cafe on High Street and another in the Shrine complex. You can join a “guided walk”: around the village or for those wanting a longer walk there is the “Walsingham Circular Walk.”:


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