Pilgrims and Snowdrops
Deep in the cold earth, springtime is stirring. Green shoots unfurl towards the light, bursting into drifts of radiant snowdrops and Walsingham Abbey, a historic place of shrines and religious pilgrimage, becomes a destination for nature lovers of all faiths and none. The wintry grounds are enchanted by the snowdrops’ ethereal beauty, white carpets spreading beneath leafless trees and all along the chalk river banks. Close by are the mysterious earthworks at Warham Camp, thought to have been home to Boudica the Iceni warrior queen and the village of Stiffkey where rare migratory birds shelter in the woods and restless spirits haunt the marsh.
Canterbury, Lourdes, Santiago and…Walsingham. Known as ‘England’s Nazareth’, this pretty little civil parish in North Norfolk is a special place for Anglican and Roman Catholic pilgrims and the most heavily visited pilgrim site in England. Unlike Chaucer’s famous pilgrimage route from London to Canterbury, which is now largely suffocated by miles of motorway and tarmac, the country lanes leading to this flourishing village haven’t changed much in almost a thousand years. Like medieval travellers, many pilgrims still walk Walsingham’s Holy Mile bare foot.
According to belief, in 1061 noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches had three visions of the Virgin Mary, and was instructed to build a replica of the Holy Family’s house in Nazareth, honouring the Annunciation. Legend suggests building problems were overcome with the help of angels. Imagine that on Grand Designs! The Holy House was wood-panelled and contained a statue of the enthroned Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus on her lap. Among its relics was a phial of the Virgin’s breast milk. A priory, whose ruins exist today, was built around the Holy House, visited by English kings after Richard II gifted his kingdom to the Blessed Mary, ensuring her eternal protection, hence England being called the ‘Dowry of Mary’.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Walsingham was a great centre of pilgrimage until Henry VIII’s split with Rome drove Catholicism into the shadows. In today’s more open society, Walsingham, meaning ‘homestead of Waels’ people’, has regained its reputation as a place of worship and welcome.
At a bend of the River Stiffkey, Iceni workers were sweating and cursing as they shifted huge mounds of earth using only simple hand tools. They were building fortifications for defence. Over 2,000 years later, their fort is still here, known as Warham Camp. Its exact purpose is unknown. Perhaps it was a place of ceremony or the residence of a high status leader. The Iceni tribe were led most famously by Boudica, the Celtic warrior queen, famed for battling Anglia’s Roman occupiers. Imagine Iceni guards, patrolling the wooded palisade looking out for Roman military columns on the march. Archaeological evidence tells us the Romans once occupied this fort; what history passed in this ancient place?
Warham Camp is Norfolk’s best preserved Iron Age hill fort, a scheduled monument and also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It’s mind-blowing to think of the people who made this spectacular 212m circular earthwork before the days of mechanical machinery. The views across the fields towards the coast are equally awe-inspiring. Look carefully at the land. You might notice the remains of ridge and furrow. Their age is uncertain, though characteristic of the medieval period. Part of the earthworks was destroyed in the mid-18th century, when the south-western curve of the monument was levelled to improve the view from nearby Warham Grove House and to straighten the course of the river Stiffkey. Year round, it’s a peaceful, beautifully evocative place for a thought-provoking walk.
The Stiffkey salt marshes are a magical world of glistening mud flats, rushing creeks and wheeling skies. The sandbanks are famous for ‘Stewkey blues’, reputedly the best cockle you’ll ever taste, a delicacy revered by chefs across England.
Stiffkey wasn’t built for cars, these narrow roads require polite patience! And when walking the coast path, Stiffkey is easy to miss. Unusually in a landscape known for wide expanses, the village is hidden in a deep green river valley, more akin to North Devon. Head south along the public right of way and over fields, down into the valley towards the fast-flowing river – one of only 200 chalk rivers in the world.
For all Stiffkey’s cosy charm, much of this land has been stolen from the North Sea and sometimes the sea claims a terrible revenge. A local tale tells of Nancy, a girl out cockling on the treacherous marsh. Banks of mist rolled in from the sea and she got lost, cut off by the fast rising tide. Villagers took to their boats as her terrified cries pierced the fog but the sound was distorted and no one could save her. Next day her body was found and she was buried at the local church. But many since have seen her ghost walk, roaming the Stewkey marshes on foggy nights, silence broken by her desperate screams.
Need a bit of comfort after that story?! The Stiffkey Stores serves delicious homemade cakes and exceptional coffee. Phew!
The small North Norfolk coastal village of Stiffkey nestles between saltmarsh and deep river valley, reminiscent of Devon. A narrow band of woodland clings to the last vestiges of dry land before the saltmarsh stretches towards the sea. Stunted and aged by winter gales and salty winds the trees are battered, facing northerly lands. They are often the first landfall Norfolk’s world famous bird migrations in Spring and Autumn, when yellow browed warblers, shrikes and firecrests, blow in on winds from the east and north. Other species, like the woodcock, wait until the right moon. Author Henry Williamson lived in the village and wrote about the woodcock’s annual arrival to Stiffkey Wood.
‘It would be pleasant to be a bird-watcher for a year: to wander thoughtless through the calm sequent days of summer’s ending: mist at morning: pallid disc of sun: windless heat and light of pale blue heaven and yellow line of sand dimming to the small red smoulder of sunset: the strings of tired birds, arriving over the sea, and settling at once on the marshes and in the low sand-dunes.
Day after day of windless calm and of sunlight, serene and warm, as though all life were suspended on earth, save for the movement of wave and tide, the piping and passing of birds. The early autumnal days were the most beautiful for that soon the sea would be black, with white lines on shoal and sandbank, while the tractor driver on the hills fastened the sack closer round his waist, against the bitter winds. Soon through the mists would float the woodcock moon, pale and circular; and with the north-east wind would come those strange birds, with dead-leaf mottle plumage and long beaks and gentle brown eyes, flapping across the North Sea, from the forests of Norway, and the stone walls of cold fields above fiords in whose green, glissading depths great salmon moved to their spawning beds.
Soon the wind would arise, and the woodcock flights over the sea begin. Singly and twos and threes, while the moon moved up the sky wind-burnished and bright, with purple shine about its winter beginning, the woodcock would come darkly over the waves.’
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