North Norfolk is a popular holiday destination. Its beautiful coastline is appreciated by families enjoying a seaside break, yachtsmen, bird-watchers and walkers.Many of those visiting the area are drawn to Walsingham, having heard of 'Our Lady of Walsingham'. The following information will hopefully help the first-time visitor to get the most out of a visit to this historic village. The first point of confusion for the visitor is that most road-maps list the village as Little Walsingham in their gazetteers. However, the village is usually known locally simply as Walsingham. See the Directions page for maps of the village and routes from surrounding towns.
Many visitors staying at Wells-next-the-Sea enjoy a trip on the miniature railway that runs between Wells and Walsingham. Follow the signs from the railway station to the centre of the village – known as The Common Place.
Local tourist information is available at the Shirehall Museum in the Common Place, opposite the medieval Pump House. A good range of guides to the village – and further afield in north Norfolk – can be obtained here. The Shirehall is also the entry point to Walsingham Abbey Grounds. A reasonably short circular walk will enable one to cover most of the village. You will find plenty of places for a break and some refreshments – inns and tea-shops.
World Heritage Site?
No it’s not – a world heritage site, that is. But Walsingham is one of the most extraordinary villages in the British Isles. From the 12th century, when organised pilgrimage began to the “Holy House”, until 1538 the village of Little Walsingham saw huge amounts of building activity including an Augustinian Priory and a Franciscan Friary and dozens of cottages; all this in response to the thousands of pilgrims (including every monarch from Henry III (c.1226) to Henry VIII (1511)) who flocked to the Shrine. In 1252 a charter had been granted to hold a weekly market and an annual fair.
The destruction of the religious houses and the burning of the image of Our Lady of Walsingham on Henry VIII’s orders should have led to the collapse of the village. But Walsingham, still the largest town in north Norfolk, continued to prosper - principally through the cultivation of crocuses for the spice, saffron. Many of the old Priory buildings were adapted and put to new use and incorporated in the 18th century building “The Abbey”, a large house set in a small park. The monks’ adjoining lands became the ‘Estate’. A ‘new’ Georgian Shirehall (formerly a priory hostelry) was created and from 1773 both Quarter (until 1861) and Petty Sessions later Magistrates (until 1971) were held in the village. Many timber-framed cottages were given brick Georgian facades. A fine Methodist chapel was built. The Elizabethan ‘House of Correction’ was replaced in 1787 by a John Howard ‘model’ prison for eight prisoners; five tread wheels were added in 1823. The prison eventually closed in 1861.
Walsingham’s real decline came in the late 19th/early 20th century. Although the railway came to the village, Fakenham (five miles south) was better situated and grew steadily. Photographs of the village at this time show a tumbledown place; early motor-cars stand incongruously in front of buildings with no roofs. The ruins of the Friary were the first thing travellers saw (and still are) as they approached the village and it didn’t get much better once in the centre. This was the Walsingham to which The Rev'd Hope Patten came in 1921 (yes, Hope really was his Christian name!) Whether through lack of money or a genuine sense of conservation virtually all the work of re-creating the Anglican Shrine (apart from the Shrine Church) involved renovating and restoring older dilapidated buildings. The College area is one of the most extraordinary and sensitive pieces of restoration work, considering it was done in the 1930’s. However, the rebuilding of the north end of the main hospice building in the 1950’s failed to achieve the early sense of restoration and integration. A large brutal block of alien red brick - even though the archway attempts to pay homage to the medieval priory gateway in the High Street - it looked like the entrance to a Victorian prison. Fortunately in 2007/8 this range was rebuilt in a more sensitive style and an extra storey added to the gateway, giving it a more imposing presence.
Today’s visitor to Walsingham walks round a flourishing village – though there is still a healthy degree of tumbledown. Restoration and conservation goes on apace. For a village of its size, Walsingham supports an amazing number of shops – mainly tourist/pilgrim shops, but also a mini-supermarket, a large antique shop in the old mill, assorted charity, craft and teashops plus a secondhand book shop serving teas and coffee.
An old farmyard (owned by the Walsingham Estate) in the north part of the Shrine island site has been converted into a range of shops designed to accommodate a variety of specialist outlets - a Farm Shop (specialist butchery, smoked meats & fish, greengrocery, cheese, wines and beers, and a shop kitchen which makes pies, patés, soups etc. every day (www.walsingham.co/our-farm-shops/walsingham/), hairdresser and an antiques emporium. Close by is the Shrine's own Café-Bar - Norton's - which serves breakfast, snacks, lunch and evening meals and all the usual beverages. Norton's Cafe-Bar is licensed and opens daily from 9.00 am and closes at 11.00 pm during the pilgrimage season (4.30 pm during the winter). Another option for tea and cake, brunch, or an evening meal is the Victorious Bistro (www.victoriouswalsingham.com/). For full information visit the village website: http://www.walsinghamvillage.org/
The following list of points of interest may be helpful.
- The Anglican Shrine Church, hospice and gardens
- Walsingham Abbey grounds - ( http://www.walsinghamabbey.com/ )
- The remains of the Franciscan Friary
- The Georgian Court House and the 'Model' Prison with its treadmills
- The High Street and The Friday Market – historic shops and buildings
- The Common Place
- St Mary’s Church and the 'sunken' road
- The Georgian Methodist Chapel
- The newly-built Roman Catholic Church of Annunciation in the Friday Market
- The Russian Orthodox Church (sited in the old railway station)
- The old inns – The Bull (Common Place) and The Black Lion (Friday Market)
- The Walsingham Farms Shop on Guild Street (behind the Shrine refectory)
- St Peter’s Church, Great Walsingham (a pleasant ¾ mile walk to the NE of Little Walsingham)
- Great Walsingham Barns - picture framers and gallery, fabrics, antiques, carpets, gift-shop and tea-room
- The Roman Catholic Shrine (the Slipper Chapel) is sited one mile south of Little Walsingham at the village of Houghton St Giles
Excellent guided tours of the village can be pre-arranged by contacting Scilla Landale on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07747 693235. Further information about this and other village sites can be obtained from the village website www.walsinghamvillage.org