A Short History
In 1938 the Whitsun weekend saw a huge influx of pilgrims to Walsingham to witness the blessing of the much enlarged Shrine Church. As had become customary, there was a great procession from the Parish Church to the Shrine . It was estimated that the procession took "one hour less three minutes" to pass the Common Place and that 6,000 pilgrims passed through the Holy House. In the report of the weekend in the 1938 Our Lady's Mirror (the forerunner of the present Walsingham Review) the intention was announced to hold a similar day pilgrimage "as an annual event every Whit Monday."
This indeed happened in 1939 and 1940, but then, for the remainder of World War II, the pilgrimage went into abeyance. 1946 saw its highly successful revival - but pouring rain meant the procession had to be cancelled! The Whit Monday great pilgrimage became known as the "National" in 1959 - after one of the guardians, the present Earl of Lauderdale, had written to The Church Times urging people to join the Whit Monday pilgrimage, describing it as "the first National Pilgrimage in the history of the Church of England to the Shrine of the Incarnation at Walsingham."
In 1971 the Whit Monday bank holiday was moved to the last Monday in May and the National Pilgrimage moved from Whitsuntide to this date. The only cancellation since 1946 was in 2001 because of the Foot and Mouth epidemic.
The Walsingham Archive pages contain fascinating accounts and much more information on the history of the National. Did you know, for example, that there were not enough cows in Walsingham to supply the milk needed for the pilgrims' tea on Whit Monday 1938? Or that 106 pilgrims had breakfast at The Clock Restaurant in Welwyn Garden City on their way to Walsingham and between them, left 4d (four pence) in tips! Go to the Archive home page, enter the Archives and find "Whit Monday Pilgrimages".
Since 2004, when the programme of the National Pilgrimage was recast to include a lunch-break, the practice of formal picnicking in The Abbey grounds has grown. Last year, there was a wonderful sense of togetherness as pilgrims from all over the country produced hampers, tables and chairs - and the Walsingham National Pilgrimage lunch party began! If you are coming to this year's event, do think about bringing a picnic - of course the sun will shine and the grass will be dry!
Useful information about the National Pilgrimage
The weather - (dare one say it) the National is remarkably blessed with good weather. Washouts, fortunately, are very rare. In 2006 whilst the rest of Britain had torrential rain, this little bit of north Norfolk remained sunny and dry until the evening (see picture opposite). But do come prepared. 2007 saw the worst weather for the National since 1983. You never can tell! 2008 - 2018 was mainly dry and sunny; just the occasional bit of drizzle.
The National Pilgrimage Weekend begins on the Sunday evening with an all-night visit of prayer in the Shrine Church. This concludes with Benediction at 9.45 am on the Monday morning.
The two outdoor services (12 noon Mass and 2.30 pm Sermon, Procession and Benediction) take place in the grounds of The Abbey - the gardens of the house which was created from the ruins of the original Walsingham Priory. Pilgrims are welcome to picnic in the gardens during the lunch interval (1.00 pm - 2.30 pm). Since the lunch interval was created in 2004 there has been steady increase in the numbers choosing to bring their own picnic, tables and chairs, often meeting up with friends for an enjoyable meal. (See below for information on obtaining refreshments.) This year (2019) lunchtime will be enlivened by the playing of the West Yorkshire Police Band (who will also play in the Common Place from 4.00 pm). The day concludes with Solemn Vespers in the Shrine Church at 6.00 pm.
There are car parks (cost: £3.50) for pilgrims (in addition to the permanent one west of the Common Place) in Church Street (by the farm entrance on the sunken road) and in Wells Road (just north of the war memorial)
Coaches should approach Walsingham on what is now the B1155 from Fakenham to Wells-next-the-Sea (the so-called "dry road"). A right-hand turn at Egmere and then travelling a mile along the Egmere Road, gives easy access to the Coach Park - members of the Shrine National Pilgrimage Stewarding team will be on duty all day at the Coach Park.
The main High Street and part of Holt Road will be closed to traffic from approximately 9.00 am until after Benediction. Please follow the alternative directions given by the police to get around the village.
Many pilgrims come to Walsingham for the day; others prefer to stay for the weekend. The Shrine accommodation is always fully booked a year in advance - as is that of the RC Pilgrim Bureau - but there are opportunities to rent local cottages for the weekend or the week (school half-term). For further information about Bed and Breakfast establishments and cottage hire contact the local Tourist Board in Walsingham - tel: 01328 820510.
The National Pilgrimage Programme & Handbook (cost £3.50 - school children free) contains both information and the services for the day. Do make sure you buy one - it all also serves as your admission pass to The Abbey. They are available at the entrances to the Abbey - both the High Street archway and the drive gates on the sunken road. There is an activity tent for children. There is no charge.
Entering The Abbey grounds - please use the main Abbey archway in the High Street when entering and leaving the grounds. Use of the small Knight's Gate opposite the Shrine Church is restricted to pass-holders.
All Priests Associate of the Holy House are invited to concelebrate the Mass. They should be in the Shrine Church by 11.20 am with an alb and a white stole. (See Membership - Priests Associate for details of becoming a Priest Associate)
Seats are not provided for the congregation. Please bring a collapsible chair if you would prefer not to sit on the grass. Bring a rug or ground sheet in case of damp weather if sitting on the grass.
There are public lavatories by The Abbey archway and inside the grounds. In the Shrine grounds facilities are available in the Refectory/Norton's Cafe-Bar & The Milner Wing (Adjacent to Reception)
Pilgrims in wheelchairs have a special area reserved for them near the altar. Stewards will give directions.
BSL Interpretation - the worship is signed and a special area is reserved near the altar for those who wish to take advantage of this. Stewards will give directions.
Changing and feeding facilities for babies are available. Please ask a steward for directions.
First Aid - a paramedic and members of the St John's Ambulance Brigade will be on duty. In an emergency please get assistance from one of the Stewards.
Refreshments - in case you forget your picnic - are available in the Norton's Cafe Bar (situated below the Pilgrim Refectory in the Shrine Grounds.) After the procession and Benediction, tea will be served in the main refectory. There is a tea shop in The Common Place, the Walsingham Farms Shop in Guild Street serves coffee and sandwiches and the Victorious cafe serves a wide variety of food and drink. It is situated across the road by the war memorial.
The Shrine Church will be locked at 11.00 am and will remain locked until after the Mass. It will be locked again between 2.20 pm and the end of Benediction.