Monday, 25 July 2016

The holiest place in all England 3

This write-up of my visit to Little Walsingham in Norfolk is becoming an exhausting marathon! One final spurt then, and then wrap it up.

The trouble is, there was so much to see there that was worth attention. It was no ordinary village. And despite the all-pervading religiosity of the place, I liked its atmosphere far better than, say, pretty village-greened Burnham Market a few miles to the north-west, which I thought was much too self-consciously posh and trendy for its own good - full of shops that only Home Counties people with Range Rovers and super incomes would want to buy from.

Burnham Market was pandering to an elite. The poor locals! Where were they, anyway, the ordinary folk? Were they subject to a strict curfew that kept them off the streets until these Home Counties people had pushed off for cappuccinos or cocktails elsewhere? I regarded them with half-amused eyes, these visitors and incomers from Buckinghamshire and the more select parts of Hertfordshire. Apparently all of Bucks was cool. But Herts residents had to be circumspect, describing their home location as vaguely 'north of London', just in case you linked them with those dreadful people in Hemel Hempstead. Anyway, there they were: aggressively parking their big cars, hogging the sunny seats outside the cafés, and talking over-loudly in accents heard here only from April to August.

It's no secret that I'm comfortably off for a single pensioner, but my income isn't large enough to keep up with them, even if I wished to. It isn't even large enough to do away with micro-managing my money, which remains a daily necessity. I still have to plan my annual expenditure very carefully. I certainly can't afford it all. I have to choose between one thing to the exclusion of another. Small stuff isn't a problem. And I can usually pay for meals out whenever I want. But I can't go on a mad spree, nor shrug my shoulders carelessly at some big, sudden expense out of the blue.

So I haven't lost a feeling for what money is worth, and what is worth buying. If ever I were so well-heeled that my lifestyle became totally self-indulgent, and no expense could worry me, then I think I would lose something important, to do with personal values, and what ought to be a priority.

Having money can be highly pleasant, of course. But if you let too much money shield you from bad sights and bad smells, real or metaphoric, then I think moral atrophy sets in. The Scandinavian idea that everyone should enjoy a high standard of living, but nobody should be super-rich, makes some sense to me. Having enough money - a really decent amount, not just the so-called 'living wage' - allows abundant personal choice, and a satisfying life. But having too much robs you of good judgement, because waste does not matter. If you can afford whatever you want, whenever you want, and you can replace it once it gets boring or last-year, then I'm certain that life becomes 'easy-come, easy-go', and possibly rather meaningless. How can you treasure anything, if buying it entailed no sacrifice and no effort?

I spent £1,600-odd on the laptop I'm typing this post on. For me that's affordable, but it's still an awful lot of money. I cut my holidays back, and postponed buying some other stuff until next year, or the year after that, in order to find the cash. But in consequence I savour my new laptop keenly, and will look after it, and certainly keep it for years to come. The same with all the other big-ticket things I have gradually acquired. For me, nothing this expensive is 'easy-come, easy-go'.

To be sure, more income - let's suppose another £10,000 a year - would be very handy. It would enhance what I do now, and let me restore the family fortune. But what would I do with £100,000 a year? I would just save most of it - and then probably worry about where it was invested, and what might happen to me if it were somehow wiped out or stolen.

Spending it wouldn't be the answer. A relentless life of selfish luxury would either bore me or sicken me. I wouldn't want to try exotic or dangerous sports. I wouldn't want fancy jewellery. I already have a nice home, and a nice car, and all those smaller things that contribute to a comfortable and interesting life. There's nothing much I'd hanker after, and there's no compelling reason to buy better stuff than I have already.

A really big income would of course buy me worldwide travel opportunities. But many parts of the world are not safe, and the logistics of travel have become tedious. I'd enjoy a cruise, but most definitely not flying. And medical considerations limit me anyway. Above all, I can't buy time. Travel would take me out of circulation and away from other things I need time to enjoy, such as the company of friends. I don't want to be absent for months.

So when I studied the well-off Home Counties people sunning themselves, posing fit to burst, and spending cash (should I say wasting cash?) in overpriced shops designed to take money off them, I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for them. They seemed trapped in a life devoted to spending. My own life had its limitations, but essentially I was as free as a bird, and not part of a pretentious peer group with particular expectations or standards of the kind promoted in glossy magazines. The small things I did with my life meant a lot to me, because I had to invent them all for myself, and give them personal thought and effort. The lives of those Burnham Market flâneurs and coquettes looked a lot less satisfying. They seemed carefree, but there was clearly a cost, and they were not simply paying with their plastic cards.  

I sound smug and self-righteous, and maybe I am. Certainly it was impossible not to feel great satisfaction - positive schadenfreude even - when Nature temporarily put a stop to all the loud talk and posing with a suddenly black sky and the mother of all thunderstorms, complete with big hailstones. Winter-sized hailstones in early July! All the glitterati huddled for shelter under trees (unwise, of course) or shop awnings (the ones on the edge getting very damp), their coffees abandoned.

By then I was back in Fiona, dry and warm. I was aware of, but ignored, some impatient self-important man wanting my plum space by the village green. Let him wait. I brushed my hair and yawned. By and by he drove away in a distinctly marked manner. Only then did I fire up Fiona. Moving off, I noticed that another predator had immediately slid into my parking space. What a cut-throat business it must be, parking a car in Burnham Market!

Despite its undoubted visual attractions - it was quite photogenic in bits - sophisticated Burnham Market repelled me. Little Walsingham made me want to return, even if it needed nimble footwork to sidestep its insistent religious embrace. Back to that village then.

Emerging - I should say escaping - from the Anglican Shrine complex, I found many more signs that Little Walsingham was a very holy place, and welcomed pilgrims. One house had a palm leaf - like the shell, a pilgrim's emblem:

There were also some front doors that incorporated little figures of the Lady:

Amid such things, it was almost a jolt to come across the village supermarket, and next to it the old Oddfellows Hall:

No doubt, voting in the recent EU Referendum had taken place here.

I encountered a man on a street corner, who revealed in the course of twenty minute's conversation that he'd moved there with his family three years before. So far, he felt he had done a wise thing. Noticing that I liked to take photos, he directed me to the Anglican Parish Church. He remarked that it looked bog-standard on the outside, but inside, well, I'd have a surprise.

Yes, bog-standard, though picturesque enough. I went in.

Gosh. The place had had a modern makeover. A display on a side wall explained that it was gutted by fire in 1961, and rebuilt, the reconsecration taking place in 1964. Well, the decor was a mixture of the very simple and the very rich, with some large figures to assist:

Another high-Anglican church, then. There was even a striking icon, showing Jesus with hypnotic eyes, very powerful I thought:

At least I didn't feel like a sneak thief, furtively going in, taking my shots, and hastening out. I took my time, and felt moderately encouraged on emerging:

What now? Wells-next-the-Sea was calling. I decided to take a swift look at the Methodist Church, pass by the Roman Catholic Parish Church, then seek out the Russian Orthodox Chapel. The first was tucked away off the main south street: 

It didn't appeal. I didn't go in. The Catholic Parish Church was a very modern affair, also tucked away, and again I didn't venture inside:

The Russian Orthodox Chapel was not so easy to find. It involved leaving the heart of the village and walking up a road towards where the old railway station had been. In fact it was the old railway station - but transformed with an onion-shaped dome. How interesting! They had preserved the exterior, including the old platform, and had developed a garden at the rear. 

Visitors were welcomed. What lay within?

Immediately inside was a long room with information like this stuck on the walls. (Click on any of the shots to enlarge them) Clearly the railway heritage meant a lot here. Many pilgrims had come by train up to 1964, when the line was closed. There was also much information on the history of the Chapel, and the significance of icons in Orthodox worship. For instance:

A few clues here. What the word says, the image shows us silently; what we have heard, we have seen...The invisible reveals itself in the visible...The icon makes the silence visible. I understood a little better. 

There was an open door, and inside a larger room full of icons.  

It beckoned, but I didn't go in. I could have; it was all utterly silent; there was nobody there. But I didn't want to intrude. And taking photos was out of the question. The hypnotic eyes in each icon forbade it. I put away my camera and retreated, and made my way back to Fiona. 

An ice-cream at Wells would be nice! I now set my heart on that, and on seeing the sea. If I was lucky, the tide would be in. It was. Another post.


  1. Loud talk of meets and marriages
    and tax-evasion's heard
    in many first-class carriages
    while servants travel third.
    "My dear, I have to spoil them too —
    or who would do the chores?
    Well here we are at Waterloo,
    I'll drop you by the stores."

    John Betjeman had a way with words, did he not? I guess, though, that if you have money - and especially if you're born into it - it's hard to see how depressingly false ones lifestyle can become. And I do often wonder how my 'moderate' lifestyle must appear to those who are really poor. I just hope that I never fall into the trap of judging people by their lack of wealth.

    You won't be surprised that, of all the places you visited in Walsingham, I found your account of the Russian Orthodox church the most interesting! It's still quite ornate, but I like the underlying simplicity of the building. I'd also have liked a closer look at some of those icons - so much more meaningful (to me) than brightly coloured statuettes.

    The thing that really struck me, though, about Walsingham was how a place built on a myth, flourishes so successfully in modern Britain. Back in the Middle Ages, attracting pilgrims was big business. Even a humble parish church (such as the one with which I was once associated in Cornwall) could make good money in times past from some sacred bones beneath its altar. The Reformation thankfully put an end to most of that.

    Yet there is an undoubted holiness about Walsingham, as the title of your posts affirms. Perhaps, though, it's not just the holiest place in all England, but the strangest too.

  2. I certainly regret not spending more time at the Orthodox chapel, and getting photos of the many icons there. A very powerful art form. I shall look into it.



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