Sunday, 24 July 2016

The holiest place in all England 2

So on I drove to Little Walsingham, which I found to be a most attractive village. Any tourist with a camera who wanted picturesque shots of a Traditional English Village would find what he or she wanted here, no question. And it had those essentials of a thriving village, too: a little supermarket, and several inviting pubs. These shots will show what I mean, as regards the picturesqueness:


Absolutely worth a stop then. But you quickly notice some other things. On your left, for instance, as you drive in from the south, a big ruined Franciscan friary. But that's just the start. The place is stuffed with ecclesiastical buildings old and new, and clergy are everywhere. I spotted two priests and two nuns in the streets of this village, quite apart from the Anglican clergy in the Shrine complex, all busy and bustling. Here's an old priest, who smiled at everyone - myself included - while making his slow way to the Roman Catholic Parish Church:


Here's the local tourist-trail map (click on it to enlarge):


Basically, within a quarter of a mile of each other, you have:

# The Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (an even larger complex than the Roman Catholic one I covered in my last post).
# The Anglican Parish Church of St Mary and All Saints.
# The Roman Catholic Parish Church of the Annunciation.
# The Russian Orthodox Chapel of St Seraphim.
# The pan-Orthodox Shrine of the Life-Giving Spring of the Mother of God (this is within the Anglican Shrine complex).
# The Methodist Chapel.
# The medieval Abbey, originally The Augustinian Priory of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (ruined).
# The medieval Franciscan Friary (ruined).
# The Pilgrim Walk into the village, a scenic route that anyone can use.

The adjacent village of Great Walsingham, barely half a mile off, can add:

# The Anglican Parish Church of St Peter.
# The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Transfiguration.

And if you include the religious sites at or near Houghton St Giles, just a little way to the south, a perfectly walkable distance, you can add:

# The Anglican Church of St Giles.
# The Roman Catholic National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (see my last post).

That's a pretty impressive list. (I hope I got it all correct!) So Walsingham continues its traditional role of Pilgrimage Centre in earnest. All kinds of Christian pilgrims can come here. And this has had a great effect on the look and feel of the place. There is for instance a vast area reserved purely for coach parking, up by the old railway station. At various times in the day, or at least on certain days, but not on the day I visited, the place must be absolutely teeming with pilgrims let loose from these coaches. Still, I saw several obvious individual pilgrims who had travelled there under their own steam, by car, on a laden bike, or as part of a backpacking holiday. I also saw many ordinary tourists just like me. We all strolled leisurely about, taking in the sunshine, the nice buildings, and the rather strange other-worldly atmosphere. The air practically smelled of serious holiness! We were all on our best behaviour. This definitely wasn't the place to wear sexy clothes, nor carry around a can of lager, nor look in any way rowdy or disrespectful.

In fact I thought it highly appropriate to behave rather like a pilgrim myself. I felt I ought to carry some sign to show that I had come in peace, and respected what went on here. The village catered for such needs. There were no tacky gift shops. There were instead shops selling serious religious paraphernalia. One was the Shrine Shop in the square. The other was the Pilgrim Shop, close to the old Abbey entrance.


It had a remarkable display of goods in the window opposite:


Inside the shop itself, everything with which to kit out a chapel or shrine, including crosses, candle-holders, chalices, icons and even special vestments for the priest or pilgrim to wear:


Crumbs. It was a bit overwhelming. I spent a little time choosing something small and very portable, to represent my modest credentials as a pilgrim for the afternoon. This hand-turned wooden cross for £3.25 was just right:


I say cross, but it could as easily have been a little figurine, with outstretched arms. I thought it might later become a lucky charm, and it has found a permanent home in my bag. I brandish it whenever a vampire approaches.

I still wanted to see Wells-next-the-Sea that afternoon, so wasn't intending to linger too long in Little Walsingham. But nevertheless I found myself seeing a lot of it. I had a sort of plan. I'd look at the Abbey, then the Shrine complex, then pick off the main churches and chapels one by one until I'd had enough.

So, the Abbey first. The old main entrance was on one of the streets leading to the village square:


But nowadays you had to proceed to the square and enter the Abbey through the Village Museum. They wanted a fiver, but that was to see both the Museum and the Abbey. OK, then. The Museum included the former cramped Magistrates Court Chamber, and a room in which the long history of the village was explained. I learned a bit about the restoration of the Shrine in the village, and of the Slipper Chapel, and of course about the almost complete destruction of the Abbey during the Dissolution, at the express orders of Henry VIII. It certainly seemed to have received 'special treatment', as normal plundering in other places usually left a comprehensive set of ruins; but here almost everything had been torn down. Henry had clearly wanted what he saw as a nest of popery and pilgrim-exploitation completely obliterated!

So really there were just the Abbey grounds to see, with only a very few things left standing. It was still impressive, though:


Pre-1538, the Abbey was a large community and very extensive. Here is a plan:


That remaining archway has become symbolic. And since this could have been foreseen, I do wonder why it was left standing. Surely Henry's orders were not entirely obeyed, in the secret hope that something of the old monastic institution would survive. Here are some other views, the first showing the spot where the original Anglo-Saxon Shrine of the Holy House of Nazareth was located. That was indeed razed to the ground.


A small part of the Abbey was remodelled into a private house, enabling the preservation of some walls and a section of crypt. And the old main gateway was also preserved.


At this point, I put the wooden pilgrim-cross into a tit pocket. Holding it in the hand made taking photographs difficult. But people could still see that I was a no-nonsense, sock-it-to-me pilgrim.

Next, I went in search of the Anglican Shrine complex. I pottered past most of the public-road side of it before realising that it was there right beside me. The first clue was this sign, a relic from the days when the site had become only a hospice:


There you are: Hospice of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. Now where had I come across a 'Star of the Sea' church (or whatever) during the last year or two? Ah, I had it: up on the north coast of Anglesey in North Wales, at Amlwch; and probably also in Sussex - at Hastings surely; and at Gloucester perhaps. Wherever there were boats, and the sea, close to hand; and souls to be saved from drowning, literally or figuratively.

Here was the sign I was really looking for, and the Shrine entrance, restored to its former glory:


I went in through the gate at the side. My goodness: a big, sunny, landscaped and well-planted central space unfolded, surrounded with buildings, ancient and modern, for various purposes. The real deal indeed, were you genuinely a travelling pilgrim looking for accommodation, food and drink, and then a total immersive experience. The landscaping included a recreated Calvary, complete with three big wooden crosses:


Once again, as in the Catholic Shrine complex, I had that uneasy feeling of not belonging, of entering for the wrong motive - just to see what went on inside, and take photographs - and having to tread carefully. And it wasn't at all deserted. There were people about, some of them ordinary, some of them ecclesiastical: muscular, intelligent-looking, striding young men in dog collars with gleaming eyes and smiling faces, men on a mission. And even one nun. And staff who looked eager to catch your eye, and draw you in. I kept out of their way. At least you could sit down, and enjoy the place simply as a garden.

But it got to me. I was soon feeling solemn and subdued, my ebullience quelled.


Now what was this?


Inside was a cool white room, and the low entrance to an inner chamber chamber containing a lidless sarcophagus. It was meant to be the tomb in which Jesus was put, after dying on the cross.


Hmm. It should have been moving, but the rolled-away stone at the entrance immediately and inappropriately reminded me of Mott The Hoople's 1974 pop hit Roll Away The Stone. The entire thing was to my mind a bit theatrical, a bit pseudo. This clearly wasn't the intention of whoever conceived this feature of the complex, but I was unable to respond as they had wished.

Was the figure of Jesus meant to be dead, or just sleeping? And why was the figure so small? I supposed that had the sarcophagus contained a realistic, life-sized figure of a person who had suffered a dreadful death by crucifixion, it would have been an absolutely appalling sight in such a tiny tomb, and so close up. And naturally no Chamber of Horrors was intended. This peacefully-sleeping figurine made the impact manageable and distress-free, and allowed contemplation and thought. But I thought it sanitised the affair too much. It was an anti-climax.

Back to the landscaped garden. I noticed a sign to a café. It seemed a large building for just that, until I understood that the upper part was strictly for pilgrims. The general public had to use the basement. It still looked inviting, but rather had the air of a quiet city bistro, and I didn't want to relinquish what was left to me of the pilgrim state of mind. A mocha or an Americano wouldn't mix well with my wooden cross and the impulse behind it. A gin and tonic, if they could sell me one, even less!

However, the Anglican Shrine complex had plenty of things for a hardcore, teetotal pilgrim to contemplate. Here's a selection.


The shell was one of those emblems a pilgrim could carry, to show he had been to a famous destination, such as Jerusalem - which was the best one for his soul, although the most difficult and dangerous to reach and return from.

I ducked out of looking at the Shrine of Our Lady itself. I had no stomach to see the Anglican version, and attempt a risky photo. I'd used up all my luck and daring at the Roman Catholic Slipper Chapel earlier on.  

I'm not yet done with Little Walsingham. There's still another post to come.

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