I had been keen to visit Walsingham, in north Norfolk, a major northern European pilgrimage site throughout the medieval period and second only to Canterbury, for it is steeped in religious history. Apart from its shrines to the Virgin Mary, it has monastic ruins and healing pools. The site became famous when a Saxon noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches, had a vision in 1061, and the shrine’s importance can be determined by the English kings who visited during the centuries that followed, including Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, Edward III, Henry VI, Henry VII and Henry VIII (under whom the Augustinian monastery was plundered in 1538, in the dissolution of the monasteries). The site was ‘revived’ as a place of pilgrimage in the early 20th century.
Fig. 1 Fig. 2
I took this photograph (Fig. 1) of the head of ‘the porter’ on the High Street side of the 14th century gatehouse under which pilgrims would have entered the monastery. When one thinks of the hundreds of thousands of people who, about to walk through the gatehouse, looked up and saw this weather-worn figure staring down at them, one gets a real sense of the place. I was motivated to sketch this image (Fig. 2).
Fig. 3 Fig. 4
Figure 3, from the same gatehouse, has a wonderful weather-worn figure that has become grotesque after six hundred years of rain, snow and ice. I sketched this too (Fig. 4). The fading winter sun touched parts of buildings, but not others, and this could have a striking effect.
I found the most astonishing aspect about Walsingham was the sombre, oppressive atmosphere that seemed to hang heavy over the village, despite it being a clear, bright day. It was as though a millennium of pilgrims’ prayers and wishes lingered not only all around, but overhead too. I found it to be like the feeling inside a Catholic church, but over a much wider area and outside in the open air, not confined by walls and enhanced by religious icons. The people I was with felt it too and when I later mentioned it to my grandmother, she said that she had felt exactly the same thing in the 1940s. I didn’t like this feeling at all, but there can be little doubt that it is extremely interesting. I wonder, “Is it possible to endow a painting with this atmosphere?”
Note the blanket of snowdrops in the top left-hand corner
I visited the site at the end of January and the considerable monastic grounds were carpeted with tens of thousands of snowdrops, so much so in fact that, from a distance, it looked as though it had indeed snowed. I found it a magical place (Fig. 5), with the River Stffkey running through, and just wandered around by myself, letting my mind empty and float.
The impressive remains of the monastery’s 14th century East Window (Fig. 6) now stand as a giant feature in the 19th century landscape garden, which also contains the twin wells mentioned from the monastery’s beginning, the water from which was said to have healing powers.
But Walsingham held some other surprises! One enters the monastic grounds from the 16th century Shirehall, built as a hostel for important pilgrims that now houses a museum. I found the Georgian courtroom within most atmospheric and the original wood panelled room was still in use in the early 1970s, two hundred years after it was built. I went into the holding cell and then stood in the dock. I imagined myself being sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing some small thing, and then got the key from the museum to go and visit the prison, or Bridewell, which was, remarkably, still in its original condition (the curator told me, it was built on the site of a medieval lepers’ hospital) and which turned out to be very much a hands-on experience, for I could get into the bricked, arched-roofed cells, open and close cell door hatches, and generally explore freely the five cells downstairs and the five cells upstairs.
I also visited the Slipper Chapel, at Houghton St. Giles, south-west of Walsingham. Built in 1340, Pilgrims walked the remaining one mile of their pilgrimage bare-footed. One day I must try that …