Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Along the Pilgrim's Way in Walsingham.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Walsingham, Norfolk

One of my primary objectives in returning to the UK was to make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, one of the most fervent Catholic pockets in England. After a muesli breakfast (how great to feast again on Tesco's Finest Fruit and Nut Muesli with Total Greek yogurt and a touch of honey), we set out with Amy behind the wheel across Norfolk to arrive at Walsingham where the famous Shrine is located.

What a charming little village it turned out to be! And what a swell backdrop for a reunion with my dear friends, Bishop Michael and wife Cynthia Colclough who drove from Hunstanton to meet me. One really cheery cuppa later, in a cute local tea room, where we caught up on everything that's happened in our lives in the past 2 months since I last saw them in Southport, and we were ready to launch upon our pilgrimage. Michael was an able guide (he's been leading pilgrims to Walsingham for years--it was, in fact, how he met Cynthia eons ago--she was a Catholic pilgrim on one of his Anglican retreats) as he led us to the Russian Orthodox Church dedicated to St. Seraphim and then to the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption which is the local Catholic parish. He led us in prayer at the first venue and in the Angelus when the bells rang, mid-morning, at the second.

The next stop was the Anglican Church at Walsingham, set in beautiful perennial gardens with an olive tree allee before we entered the Lady Chapel where at 12. 30 pm, he said a special private mass just for us--I have never felt more privileged! Just imagine the joy of being in this ancient place where medieval Lady Richeldis had a vision telling her to build a shrine dedicated to the Holy Family in the year 1042. She obeyed and the spot became a place of Christian pilgrimage. known as 'England's Nazareth'. Imagine again...this happened before the Norman Conquest of England (1066)! How many pilgrim feet have trod these grounds, I wondered, over the centuries--from one millennium to the next! Six kings of England had made the pilgrimage to this spot including Henry VIII whose faith was so enormous that the Vatican gave him the title of the Defender of the Faith--until he razed the church and the adjoining abbey to the ground in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The church remained in ruins until the early 20th century when it was rebuilt to function again as a center for pilgrimage. Michael himself has been coming to this spot since the age of ten!

Michael had asked us to write down our own special intentions which he brought up to the altar and read during Mass--it was deeply moving. I thanked him, of course, as Amy dissolved into tears. She was so touched by the Holy Spirit and so grateful that she had dedicated the day to spiritual renewal with me.

Lunch was a buffet affair at the Refectory which was filled with almost 200 Welsh pilgrims who had taken over the place. We ate Chicken in a White Sauce with Leeks and Potatoes and Red Cabbage and Corn with a small Bakewell Tart for dessert. And I thought pilgrims were only fed bread and water! Just kidding! After lunch, we lingered for a while in the gardens where I returned Llew's call--my phone had actually rung during Mass but I quickly silenced it! He caught up with the Colcloughs on the phone before we continued our pilgrimage.

Next stop was the Sprinkling at 2. 30pm where a wonderful aged priest led us in prayer, explained the significance of the Holy Well that had been found during the modern renovations of the church in the early 20th century. Many miracles and much healing has been known to take place, explained Cynthia, through the power of the holy water. The priest gave each one of us a ladle from which we drank of the water before he placed the rest in our fists so we could anoint ourselves and parts of our bodies that needed healing. Cynthia and Michael also filled bottles of water for Amy and me and sent us home with them.

Into the car we went, to the next stop on the Mile Long Pilgrim's Way to the Slipper Chapel. This was the spot at which pilgrims left their slippers so that they could walk the last mile to Richeldis' shrine barefooted. Modern-day pilgrims (mainly from Wales) were on their own feet (but with footwear on) as our cars followed the narrow winding pathway to the ancient church. This spot too, deeply active during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, fell into disuse after the Reformation. However, in 1934, it was re-dedicated as the National Catholic Shrine of the UK and once again, became an active center of Catholic pilgrimage. We prayed and lit candles at the old shrine--beautifully refurbished--before we entered the modern church (which reminded me very much of the churches in Canada in terms of architectural design) where we arrived just in time for Benediction and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the special service being conducted for the Welsh pilgrims. So there we were, Amy and I, and the Colcloughs, joining in a special prayer for Wales!

By then, it was almost 4 pm. Our entire day of Christian worship had passed by in a jiffy but it was easily one of the most fulfilling days of my life. The serenity and calm of the space, the setting (in the midst of the North Norfolk countryside) where wild flowers (Queen Anne's Lace and vivid red poppies) lined the narrow roads was rejuvenating. I imagined medieval pilgrims (a la Chaucer's motley lot) making their way on foot and on horseback through those winding lanes. My Dad would be delighted to know that I found a leaflet in The Shrine Shop that taught me how to say the Rosary--in Bombay, he always leads and we follow...but I have never learned the Mysteries of the Rosary or on which days you recite them. Hopefully, I will now walk along Southport Beach and recite my rosary.

It was time to get into Amy's car and follow the Colcloughs to Wells-Next-The-Sea, a seaside village on a North Norfolk inlet that leads to the North Sea. We were there in less than 12 minutes past lovely calming countryside and fallow fields. England seems not to have had enough rain--everything looks brown and dry unlike the lush green fields I remember from many summer country holidays. Past the busy street we went to get to the waterfront where we enjoyed watching little boys crabbing--they had loads of crabs squirming in their pails--the bait they used, they informed me, was smoky bacon (yummy!) and bits of live whelk! Past the ice-cream and fish n chip shops we walked before I nipped into one for a magnet to add to our collection! It was a slice of English summer life that I observed while seated on the quay--colorful boats bobbed on the waters, people walked with bulging picnic bags towards their waiting vessels. To simply people-watch was a delight on a day that had been gifted to us from heaven--it was simply gorgeous.

Our return south to Gorleston took us along the coast to Cromer where we passed by village after village whose walls and houses were constructed of the typical Norfolk flint stone--each had a truly distinctive appearance. Flowers spilled out of hanging baskets and containers in village front gardens where the gravel was also composed of flint stone. Fred and Wilma would have felt very much at home in North Norfolk!

I told Amy I would treat her to dinner in Norwich and Lonely Planet recommended St. Benedict's Restaurant on St. Benedict's Road. We took a month of Sundays to find the street (as Amy is unfamiliar with Norwich) and the one-way system in England's larger cities and towns would be the death of any driver! Still, when we finally got there, we settled down to drinks (pear juice for Amy, Bulmer's cider for me) before we decided to have the 3-course prix fixe menu. In a very modern, very chic space, we feasted on Crab, Avocado and Beetroot Salad ( I couldn't leave Norfolk without tasting some of it's famed seafood), Grilled Swordfish with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Onions and an even more divine Gooseberry Fool. I simply had to taste English gooseberries (they are tart and had almost disappeared from English supermarkets as I was told picking them had proven to be too time-consuming and laborious, but they seem to be making a come back). The fool was layered in a small glass jar with stewed whole gooseberries and crumbled ginger nut biscuits--lovely combination of tart and spice made the dessert (sorry, pudding) unforgettable! We were stuffed when we left about 9. 30 pm and returned home to Gorleston close to 11. oo pm. I fell asleep in the car on the way back as jet lag got the better of me.

Tomorrow I hope to explore Norwich...and its many churches, castle and cathedral...and, of course, I hope, its thrift stores!

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