North Norfolk: Walsingham

Walsingham is an unusual village in a remote part of the North Norfolk countryside tucked into a valley of the river Stiffkey. Unusual because it had been an important place of pilgrimage in Europe before the Reformation and, along with a good Farm Shop, restaurant and fish and chip shop, you can find tourist ‘pilgrim’ shops. I really didn’t know what to expect.

We first drove to the village on a Saturday afternoon and found it to be quite busy with several coaches parked on the outskirts. After a gentle stroll along the High Street viewing some lovely looking half-timbered jettied buildings and noticing interesting street signs such as Friday Market and Swan Entry we returned to Common Place with its 16th century pump-house and the former Shirehall, the entrance into the Abbey grounds. Unfortunately we’d left it too late as the grounds closed at 5 p.m. and it was now 4:30 p.m. So we had another wander around the village before heading for the Farm Shop and buying some good steaks for dinner. (There is a good chocolate shop on site too, but I managed to resist that one).

Walsingham  grew, along with the increasing numbers of pilgrims, with the founding of the Priory in 1153 and every English monarch from Henry III in 1226 to Henry VIII visited the Priory until its destruction and the destruction of its shrine in 1538. This was followed by a period of abrupt decline. Today the Anglican Shrine in Walsingham and the RC Shrine at the Slipper Chapel in Houghton St Giles are still visited by thousands of pilgrims.

After the dissolution the land was sold and passed down until in 1720 a house was built in the grounds of the former priory and it became referred to as ‘The Abbey’. It is the grounds of the Abbey and the remains of the priory church and buildings that we wanted to see, although apparently the best time to view the grounds is in early spring when the 20 acres of woodland are carpeted by snowdrops.

We returned to Little Walsingham on the following Monday when the village was much quieter and the grounds open for exploration. Despite being too late for the snowdrops and the wild-flower meadow the grounds are lovely and tranquil and you are allowed to picnic within them, so my advice would be to pop into the Farm Shop beforehand and make up a picnic lunch, although you can leave the Abbey grounds and return if you so wish. Entrance is a very reasonable £4.

Although most visitors to Walsingham come, like us, to view the Abbey grounds it would be a shame not to walk the few hundred yards along the High Street and left into Church Lane to see St Mary’s Church. It is a large sprawling church and noticeable by its green roofs and tall spire. It can seen from the Abbey grounds whilst walking around the Turnstile and Park View or glimpsed from the River Walk.

The church has a medieval exterior, but a light and modern interior as it was almost completely destroyed in 1961 by fire. The long nave has long, wide aisles and large clerestory creating an extremely light and spacious interior which is richly decorated . The magnificent Seven Sacrament octagonal font is its crowning glory with beautiful detailed carvings, though it was slightly damaged in the fire, and the original tomb of Sir Henry and Lady Jane Sydney had to be replaced with an alabaster cast. The East window was designed by John Hayward in 1964 and portrays Walsingham’s history.

Other churches in Walsingham include two other Anglican churches, St Peter’s of Great Walsingham and St Giles of Houghton and the Anglican Shrine built in 1931. There is a new RC church in the centre of Little Walsingham, a Methodist chapel in Friday Market and two Orthodox churches, the Church of the Holy Transfiguration in a former Methodist chapel in Great Walsingham and the Chapel of St Seraphim with a miniature onion dome in the former railway station.

It is as I said at the beginning of this blog, a very unusual village and even if you are not interested in the religious attractions it is definitely a place to visit if you have the chance for it simply oozes history and, when all the pilgrims have disappeared, peace.

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

22 thoughts on “North Norfolk: Walsingham”

  1. I’m not sure whether or not I’ve ever been to Walsingham, strange as that must sound! Your cover photo certainly looks familiar. I’m sure I would have remembered the Abbey. Lovely to read all about this delightful place and loved the history of it all. I do love those Suffolk and Norfolk towns and villages. Again, superb photos Jude 🙂

  2. A perfect description of Walsingham, one of my favourite places, and I am an Atheist! I have not yet been into St Mary’s church, I am ashamed to confess, but have visited the Abbey, and the small onion-domed orthodox church. The Pilgrim shops are a kitsch icing on the cake, as well as the farm shop, which, though expensive, has first-rate produce.
    Great photos on this post too. Even though I have been at least ten times, it all made me want to go again!
    Thanks Jude, regards as always, Pete. x

    1. The farm shop was lovely Pete, I didn’t think it was too expensive, the meat counter was good value and the steaks were very good (as were the burgers). I only buy from butchers since moving to Ludlow as the meat is so much nicer than what you get in the supermarket and I’d rather have meat less often than eat the cheap tasteless stuff now. We probably went to Walsingham half a dozen times in the fortnight! I was rather drawn to it, though not for religious reasons either. I’d love to visit the Abbey in early spring when the snowdrops are out, it must be very beautiful. Have you been to the Orthodox church in Great Walsingham? It is very small, but very interesting – the icons are from there.
      J xx

      1. I agree, not too expensive, but perhaps above a usual budget. (For me at least) I have not seen any churches in Great Walsingham, only the barns and galleries, so must look out for it! As ever, Pete. x

        1. Budgets are meant to be broken on holiday 😉
          That barn café is great! The Orthodox church is a little past that on the left (going towards Little Walsingham) opposite the ‘unbridged ford’ sign (I love the road signs in Norfolk – By Road??). Go down to the ford (cars can cross this one) and left to St Peter’s Church, another gem. You can continue along this road back into Little Walsingham. I’ll be writing about St Peter’s soon.

    1. Religious plaster ornaments (see the photos in the first gallery), hanging coloured glass with religious scenes, pilgrim badges etc. I must confess that I didn’t actually go in one. That was remiss of me. Now I wish I had!

      1. Thanks, I guess people still buy that sort of thing. I just looked up Walsingham on Google Earth. I see they have a Little and a greater version.


  3. Another very good Norfolk-portrait, Jude. Your photos are lovely! To tell the truth, I find this place a bit depressing and heavy on my shoulders. Pilgrimage is seriously serious business in Little Walsingham and the lack of joy and laughter struck me every time I went there. Quite the opposite to Canterbury, a very lively, cheerful place.

    1. Thanks Dina. An interesting point. I suppose we weren’t there when it was busy so I found it quite peaceful, and loved the Abbey grounds and the lady at the entrance was extremely friendly. I also love Canterbury – it is a great city and a magnificent cathedral, probably the best in the country.

      1. Well, it was mostly very quiet when I went there too. I found this quietness almost deadly = not alive and lively. The first time I went there I was too busy looking and taking photos and getting to know the place, but ever since I am struck with this atmosphere.

        Canterbury ist so lively, what a gorgeous city! Our landlady recommende The Goods Shed for eating.. aaah, fantastic; we went there every evening. The Shed alone is worth the trip to C.

        1. Not sure if / when we’ll have the chance to revisit Canterbury, but I shall make a note of the foodie place!

          Maybe Walsingham is quiet / not lively because a lot of the houses are holiday lets? It’s a bit like that where I live. Though the centre of the town and markets are busy.

        2. Sad to say so, sad to observe this; more and more lovely houses in Cley and Blakeney belongs to holiday makers and stay empty most of the time.

  4. Beautiful, Jude, thanks for sharing this gem. Although I must say that in my experience, there are hidden gems in nearly every corner of the UK. It’s been too many years since we’ve been back.

    1. Thanks Jane. It was an unusual place, but as you said, there are lots of interesting little nuggets hidden away in the UK. I am having a lot of fun discovering my own country at last!

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