At the time in question, my wife, our youngest son Martin and I were holidaying in East Anglia. Perhaps (and as the story unfolds you will readily perceive why) I should first tell you that for some time before (and indeed after it) I had been seeing a female patient at my Glasgow clinic suffering from a fairly advanced ovarian cancer. On the occasion on which she first attended, I had noted and casually commented on her quite marked Norfolk accent which (coming as I did from the neighbouring county of Cambridgeshire) was by no means unfamiliar to me. Apparently she had been born and had grown up in the north eastern area of that region, living with her father (the mother had died when she was quite small) a brother and a sister, both of whom were older than she. My patient, so it emerged, had over time, married a Scot and the family now lived in the marital home on the outskirts of Glasgow
Over the weeks and months that she continued to attend my clinic, I learned that she and her brother had been brought up by the father and principally her sister (who was the eldest of the three). “She was wonderful to us”, my patient informed me; “So kind and always entirely selfless”. “She could have married but decided against it; once again, thinking not of herself but of my brother and me”. “And now”, she continued, “She too has cancer and is a poor soul with a very painful and badly swollen arm” (presumably from lymph oedema). “She lives alone”, my patient explained “And there is very little by way of support available to her in such a rural area”. She mentioned how it was that following her attendance at my clinic, she would sometimes telephone her sister and “share with her” some of the topics and thoughts that had arisen during the course of our session earlier that day. Occasionally she would add, “She wishes she could meet you – or someone like you – just in order to sort through some of her own pressing problems”.
Now – and as I have already stated above – we were holidaying in the south and decided ‘on spec’ to spend a few days relaxing on the north Norfolk coast; an area which for me especially, always revives many of the ‘scenes’ of childhood holidays. On the day in question, we had decided to give the beach ‘a miss’ in favour of a drive inland. The intention was to see and to enjoy more of the pretty and distinctive Norfolk scenery and architecture and – more by chance than any design on our part – we happened upon the charming and historic ‘backwater’ of “Great” and “Little Walsingham”.
For the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with north Norfolk and its ‘treasures’, the shrine at Little Walsingham (to which I shall hereafter refer to simply as “Walsingham”) first took form in the 11th century when, according to legend, the lady of the Manor, one Richeldis de Faverches, had a vision of the Virgin Mary, Joseph her husband and Jesus their son, living together in their simple home at Nazareth. Apparently the vision was twice repeated and in consequence, Richeldis became convinced that she was intended to build a replica home on her own land. Thus Walsingham – sometimes referred to as “England’s Nazareth” – became a focus of devotion for many who, for whatever reason, were unable to make the long and hazardous journey to the Holy Land. (Just one such was Henry VIII who made a pilgrimage to Walsingham to give thanks for the birth of Prince Edward in 1537). Although in post-reformation times – and for many centuries to follow – Walsingham, as a place for pilgrimage was all but abandoned, it was in fact restored as late as during the 1920s by a colourful and controversial parish priest known as Father Hope Patten. Richeldis’s holy house, originally built of wood, was rebuilt but this time in brick and stone, close to the mediaeval site and inside it was now ‘enthroned’ the much revered “Our Lady of Walsingham”. Today pilgrims visit Walsingham in much the same way as they do Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal and there are a number of important events in its calendar, including an annual visit from a mixed group of Peers and MPs, seeking a Benediction upon their responsibilities in Government.
Although essentially an Anglican shrine, over the past 50 years, Walsingham has increasingly attracted Christians from the Roman Catholic, Eastern and Russian Orthodox professions of faith and others beside. As I have already stated, we came across Walsingham more by chance than design but were immediately attracted to the sensitive and sensible character and quality of its mix of style and architectural design, as well as by an all-pervading atmosphere of tranquillity and promise. In the ordinary way when on holiday, my wife and I are always to be found together. However, on the day in question, she and Martin decided to head for the pleasant but usually busy little shopping area and I, for the “Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham”, with its several chapels, Stations of the Cross, Holy Well and beautifully kept gardens. Eventually I found a restful spot in one of the latter and sat down on a bench-type seat. Although the place was ‘awash’ with visitors, I felt completely at ease in my new-found tranquil retreat and was by now enjoying it to the full.
Just then, a rather frail and (as I remember her) somewhat anxious looking lady using a walking stick happened by. At first she seemed inclined to pass on; but after a short pause elected to walk slowly back toward the seat and sat down. To be perfectly frank, I really was not, at that moment, of a mood to welcome company. Nevertheless, she passed the time of day, I responded and together we eased into what turned out to be an interesting dialogue and, in its way, a quite remarkable event. (C) SB. (To be continued).