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Project aims to cash in on ‘green’ pilgrims to Norfolk’s ‘Nazareth of England’

Pilgrims at The Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham. Picture: Ian Burt

Pilgrims at The Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham. Picture: Ian Burt

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Norfolk County Council has joined a European project to see how the county can gain greater financial benefit from the 300,000 pilgrims drawn annually to the village of Walsingham, sometimes called the ‘Nazareth of England’.

A historical photo of a pilgrimage Walsingham's railway station. Picture: Archant Library A historical photo of a pilgrimage Walsingham's railway station. Picture: Archant Library

The £1 million ‘green pilgrimage project’ aims to show how heritage sites can be protected whilst developing jobs and growth along pilgrim routes.

The study will also look at how pilgrims’ travel could involve more cycling and walking in the future and how such changes could boost tourism to the county.

Martin Wilby, chairman of the council’s environment, development and transport committee, said: “We’re calling on local businesses to get in touch to let us know about their experiences of being near such a prominent centre for pilgrimage.

“It would be great to hear from a range of businesses – places to stay, shop, eat, and those who provide activities for people visiting the area.”

St Marys and All Saints Church, Little Walsingham. Picture: Mike Page St Marys and All Saints Church, Little Walsingham. Picture: Mike Page

Walsingham, near Fakenham, is famed for its shrines in honour of the Virgin Mary, and the village has been a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages.

Other areas where partners are getting involved in the project include Cantebury, which draws pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas Becket; Puglia in Italy, which has the San Michele Pilgrimage Shrine; and Sweden’s Ostergotland, where pilgrims visit the reliquary of the mystic St Birgitta. Jason Loates, manager of the Wensum Lodge Hotel in Fakenham, said: “For 13 years now it’s been lovely to have guests from all over the world staying with us and quite a few have come to the area specifically to visit the shrine just up the road.

“In the past we’ve welcomed groups of clergymen from Portugal who have spent over a week here and other pilgrims may just spend a couple of nights. We’ve found that being so close to Walsingham does bring us extra guests particularly at the time of religious festivals and over the summer months.”

Daniel Hutchison, general manager of Walsingham’s Black Lion pub, said: “There’s a great need to see that these pilgrimages continue, and keep people interested in them. There is a great social aspect with pilgrimages, and the pubs are an important part of that.”

Every year young people trek through the lanes to Walsingham carrying large, wooden crosses. This group passed by West Acre. Picture: Fay Neale Every year young people trek through the lanes to Walsingham carrying large, wooden crosses. This group passed by West Acre. Picture: Fay Neale

Businesses willing to share their experiences are asked to email their contact details to norfolktrails@norfolk.gov.uk.

The Walsingham legend

The story of Walsingham as a pilgrimage site began in 1061, when Richeldis, the widow of a local lord of the manor, had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

The Anglian pilgrimage at the Walsingham Abbey grounds. Picture: Colin Finch The Anglian pilgrimage at the Walsingham Abbey grounds. Picture: Colin Finch

Mary is said to have taken Richeldis, in spirit, to Nazareth, to show her the Holy House, where the Angel Gabriel had appeared to her.

Richeldis commissioned a copy of the house to be built in Walsingham, but the workers failed, and after she spent a night in prayer, a chapel is said to have miraculously appeared on the spot overnight.

The ‘Walsingham legend’ asserts that Mary herself moved the Holy House to this safe spot.

Walsingham has since been considered one of the holiest places in England.

Its biggest annual event is National Pilgrimage Day, held on the last Bank Holiday Monday in May. Each year thousands of people watch as a procession follows Mary’s statue being carried through the village into the grounds of Walsingham Abbey.

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