Walsingham Abbey. From the Shirehall Museum you enter the beautiful and tranquil grounds of Walsingham Abbey. Legend has it that in 1061 a Saxon noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches, had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary who showed her a house in Nazareth where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she was to become the mother of Our Lord, Jesus. Our Lady asked Richeldis to build a Holy House in Walsingham to which English Christians would be able to visit a ‘Nazareth’ of their own. Richeldis asked her son to build this Holy House for her which he did, some say that the house miraculously appeared overnight, the site is now marked by a plaque on the lawns in front of the East Window Arch. Legend also says that that a miraculous spring appeared in the ground to mark the spot where Mary had appeared and asked for her shrine to be constructed. The Augustinian Priory of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded in 1153 next to the Holy House. During medieval times, Walsingham was a major pilgrimage centre and was also visited by nearly all the Kings and Queens of England through whose visits Walsingham became even more popular. From Henry III who visited twelve times right through to Henry VIII who visited twice. The medieval village was a bustling place that provided hostelries and shops to serve the thousands of pilgrims. By the 14 century the priory was enlarged and the little wooden Holy House was now set inside the larger stone chapel. The priory was also upgraded to Abbey status. In 1538 came the reformation, and Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries among them Walsingham Abbey was torn down and destroyed, the famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was taken to London to be publicly burnt.
Today all that remains of the Abbey are the ruins, but it is from these that we can imagine how grand a scale the Abbey once was, the remains of the vast East Window of the priory give us some idea of its scale and magnificence. Beside the Magnificent East Window remains, are the refectory, the Crypt and the Holy Wells. When entering the grounds of the Abbey, which are set in, around 20 acres, you can follow the wonderful trail as you conjure up images in your mind of how the Abbey and grounds must have looked all those years ago, and the sheer splendour and size of the building. The trail begins with a breathtaking view of the East Window Arch from the well kept gardens and across the expanse of trimmed lawn below which lie the foundations of the main body of the Abbey and the site of the Saxon Chapel and Holy House. Excavations suggest that the Priory church, in total 244ft long, had a square central tower, which would have been sited in the centre of the lawn. Following on along the trail you can see the Knight’s gate to the left, at which, legend has it, that Sir Ralph Boutetout was admitted on horseback through a tiny door to the safety of the priory thus escaping his pursuers. Walking through a natural arch made from the branches of ancient trees you come to the beautiful view of the River Stiffkey, an entrance to your right leads into the Walled Garden and Monk’s Bath and to your left the walk takes you over the ancient Packhorse Bridge, it is actually an early 19th century interpretation of an ancient bridge and uses stones from the ruins of the priory.
The peaceful walk continues through woodland filled with ancient, gnarled trees and a carpet of native plants and wild flowers, in the early spring-time the floor of the woods is a carpet of snowdrops for which Walsingham is, rightly, famous. Startled pheasants run across the paths as you pass by, their wonderfully bright colours flashing past in the blink of an eye. As the trail bends to the right, there is a little pathway leading off towards the left which leads to the Dell Gate, you have to duck down to pass underneath the tunnel which comes out into the magical wooded Dell beyond. Back on the trail you can look across towards the house on the far side of the River which is now in private ownership, but can be admired from this spot, just on the far side of the river is a wildflower meadow which is left uncut during spring to encourage the wildflowers. On this side of the river is the ‘milking ground’, a meadow which once provided grass for the dairy cattle at Abbey farm. The trail bears to the right again and crosses a bridge, but just before this is a smaller pathway which leads to a smaller footbridge and waterfall, the water tumbles and splashes down from the pool in which trout can clearly be seen, these are a rare breed of native trout which live quite happily here in the chalk water of the Stiffkey and they gather in the pools above and below the weir. Across the outer wall you will be able to see St Mary’s parish church which has been renovated following a fire in 1961. Heading back towards the Shirehall Museum, you will find the Crypt on the right hand side of the lawned area. It is the remaining room of the Walsingham Priory, the ceiling is worth coming in to see, such wonderful structure, and in here you will also find information boards giving a history of the Abbey. As you walk back up towards to exit you will be facing the 14th century Gatehouse, which is opened on special occasions, such as for religious processions, when opened the gates open out onto the High Street. On the street side are shields with the coats of arms of the founders of the priory. The Gatehouse and Porter’s Lodge on the High Street were built in the reign of Henry VI (c1440)…….
* * The Abbey Grounds and Museum are open daily throughout February, at weekends in March, and daily from April to the end of October…….
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