Inspiring spaces

Walsingham: ‘England’s Nazareth’ in Norfolk

Virgin Mary with Child stain glass leaded window

By guest contributor, Andrew Everett.

During the Middle Ages, Walsingham in north Norfolk was one of the four great shrines of Christendom, rivalling Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago da Compostella in north-west Spain.

The greatest Marian shrine – or sacred spot dedicated to the Virgin Mary – in the medieval world, it was also known as ‘England’s Nazareth’. This was because Mary is said to have appeared to a widowed Saxon Lady, Richeldis de Faverches, in a series of three visions there in 1061, with the Christ Child seated on her lap.

In the visions, Mary showed Richeldis the house in Nazareth where she had once lived and where the angel Gabriel had told her that she was to become the mother of the Messiah. Afterwards, she gave Richeldis instructions to build a replica of the ‘Holy House of Nazareth’ in Walsingham, which she summarily did.

And the legend goes that, although Richeldis had been unsure where to build it, one morning following a heavy dew, two dry patches of equal size appeared in one of her meadows. So she took it as a sign and based the plot there, just behind a pair of twin wells.

But when the workmen tried to build at the site, they found they were blocked from doing so and eventually gave up in despair. After they had consulted Richeldis on how to proceed, she spent the night in prayer – and next morning found that a complete chapel and house had appeared on the chosen spot, brought there, it was believed, by Our Lady of Walsingham herself.

As this all took place during the time of the Crusades when it was almost impossible for British and European Christians to visit the original Nazareth in the Holy Land, Walsingham became the main regional shrine to the Virgin Mary instead. Over time, a large monastery was built on the site and it became a major place of pilgrimage, with visitors asking Mary to pray to Jesus on their behalf. In fact, by the late Middle Ages, it was deemed to be every Englishman’s duty to have visited the shrine at some point in his life.

A statue of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’ was also placed in the abbey grounds, although both the shrine and the statue were destroyed during the Reformation 500 or so years later, when the pilgrimages stopped coming too.

But devotion to Our Lady of Walsingham was revived again during the 20th century, when a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth and a copy of her statue (realised from the mediaeval abbey’s seal in 1897) were made to adorn the Catholic Church in Kings Lynn. The statue was then moved to the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham – and the pilgrims started returning in their droves.

Little Walsingham, Catholic Church of the Annunciation
Little Walsingham, Catholic Church of the Annunciation

Deeply spiritual place

The Church of England also built a big church there, near to what is thought to be a Saxon well. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches followed suit, resulting in four of the great Christian denominations cohabiting happily on the same site.

And you can see why. Walsingham is a deeply spiritual place where it is easy to get in touch with your inner self – whether you happen to be Christian or not.

For believers, the statue of Mary presenting her son Jesus is a reminder of the central role He can play in your life if you choose to follow His path of love, putting God and caring, tolerant, forgiving relationships at the heart of your being. Through prayer and contemplation of Jesus’s teachings on peace and reconciliation, it becomes possible to create a harmonious inner space.

But the ‘Holy House’ also represents more than the mere physical dwelling in which Jesus, Mary and her husband Joseph (he was also part of Richeldis’ vision) lived. In fact, it is an important spiritual representation of the parental milieu in which Jesus was nurtured, namely a model family grounded in love.

On a personal note, about three years ago at a time of various family difficulties, we were asked to join a pilgrimage to Walsingham and found it particularly helpful. It provided space to think and reflect and, figuratively, put our cares into Our Lady’s hands, thereby helping us to accept what the future would hold more easily.

But from a wider viewpoint, taking time out in this way can also help us discover a suitable balance between our own individual aims and our duties and responsibilities too. If we fail to appreciate each other in a loving way – with all our differences – it can all too easily lead to conflict. But should it occur, forgiveness and trying to move beyond the hurt are a vital part of any successful relationship.

At a more international level, such ideals can also offer hope and even, if heeded, help countries avoid interracial tensions and war. Because it is about appreciating the beauty of different people and cultures and what they have to offer rather than simply seeing them as ‘other’, with all of the destruction this attitude brings – often leading in the case of armed conflict to the uprooting, separation and alienation of families.

The Holy House of Nazareth and its occupants, therefore, offer us inspiration and insight into how to care for and nurture others during their passage through life, while also guiding us in how to find fulfilment in our own.

Andrew Everett

Andrew Everett is a retired senior lecturer in Healthcare from Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne. His interests are mental health, music, especially vocal, architecture, railway workings and their history. Andrew has written many articles on these topics for magazines and professional journals and has had four books published, with four more in various stages of preparation.


The perfect idyll: Finding some Breathing Space

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Inspiring spaces

The perfect idyll: Finding some Breathing Space


By Helen Preston, counsellor.

I love being outside in nature, feeling a breeze on my skin as I start to let go of the day. As I surround myself with the miracles of the natural world, I know that I am part of a perfect cycle of new life, growth and completion. I can breathe deeply and connect to a source of healing much bigger than myself.

I particularly love the forests and the fields with trickling streams. I love British coastlines, the sea and the sand, beaches offering up tiny treasures such as a perfectly-shaped pebble that fits in the palm of your hand feeling cool and smooth.

I love the mountainous landscape of the Scottish Highlands and the rolling Welsh hills of home. It was growing up in Wales and spending my childhood outdoors that gave me such an appreciation of it all. It was my playground, real and ever-changing.

Idyllic retreat

So I count myself very lucky to have found a rural idyll in peaceful Norfolk, a women-only retreat that is aptly named ‘Breathing Space’. The building used to be an old rectory and has a large farmhouse kitchen, which is perfect for gathering in to share food and meet the other guests.

It immediately feels like home as you are invited to treat it as such from the moment you arrive. There is something special about being trusted as if you were an old friend. Some of the other nine visitors I met had been before many times, while others, like me, were experiencing it for the first time.

Although none of us had met before, there was an acceptance that we were stepping out of our everyday lives and could just be ourselves. Some, like me, were staying for one night, while others lingered for a few days.

Breathing Space
Breathing Space

A rare gift

One lady was a nurse, another a spiritual co-ordinator at a hospice. One woman had lost her husband. Several worked in the corporate world. One was self-employed and worked long hours. But we all were there to nurture themselves. Women often specialise in giving too much or think they need to be superwoman. The lady who had lost her husband had returned to work the day after his funeral but had never really grieved….

We all bonded swiftly over coffee and again later over dinner as we shared our stories and laughed together. One lady cried but did not feel she had to apologise or leave. She could just feel her feelings within the group.

It a rare gift to be able to be who you are in your sadness and express it by your tears without judgment or comment. Hugs are good but they are sometimes the last thing someone needs. Hugs can say: ‘There, there, don’t be sad. Wipe away your tears’, but maybe it is the opposite that is required.

Private space

At Breathing Space, you can stay in a former shepherd’s hut in the large garden. Set away from the house, it offers a ‘camping’ experience but in comfort. It was a quirky space and one that you could take yourself off to be completely away from everyone else if you needed it.

But I chose one of the rooms within the house, each of which is individually decorated and equally beautiful and comfortable. I loved the many personal touches: the lovely toiletries, the many and varied pictures that hung on the walls, the salt lamps and crystals, the sayings and little notes. A note on my bathroom mirror said: ‘You are beautiful’.

The kitchen was homely and inviting, housing a large dresser adorned with objects all imbued with special meaning. The lounge had two squishy sofas with blankets to cuddle up in and a log burner for cosiness in the winter.

Breathing Space's kitchen
Breathing Space’s kitchen

Pamper space

Several log cabins in the garden provided space for yoga and other group activities. You can book a range of holistic therapies, which are provided in a cabin overlooking a small lake. It is a perfect setting in which to relax and be pampered.

It was on the decking of this cabin that I chose to sit for my early morning meditation and yoga practice. Sitting there, watching the dragonflies skim the water, I felt completely at peace and at one with nature.

I did not booked a treatment this time but would most definitely do so next time. One lady appeared to float across the grass after experiencing an hour each of reflexology and Indian Head Massage. She still looked blissfully relaxed several hours later at dinner.

Slowing down

Time seemed to slow down the moment I arrived there. Just a few miles from the beach and a wetland reserve, there were no end of places to visit. Walking through the nature reserve, I was joined by a multitude of butterflies, damson flies and dragonflies. The sky was clear blue and the sun was warm. A gentle breeze cooled the air as I walked for hours in this watery wonderland, listening to the sounds of the birds. Every bit of tension slipped quietly away.

In the evening at sunset, I sat on the beach and listened to the lapping of the waves, feeling the warm sand beneath my feet. As the sun gradually slid below the horizon, the sky became infused with hues of red and orange. Still warm, still quiet and peaceful, it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Because this retreat is special – it is a wonderful place to step out of the stresses and strains of everyday life and simply be. After all, we all need a bit of breathing space sometimes.

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Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate.