Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

FEN WEEKEND; North Norfolk Is a Place of Pilgrimage for Swallows, Seals and Eccentric Hedonists. Gavanndra Hodge Is a Barsham Broad

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

FEN WEEKEND; North Norfolk Is a Place of Pilgrimage for Swallows, Seals and Eccentric Hedonists. Gavanndra Hodge Is a Barsham Broad

Article excerpt

Byline: Gavanndra Hodge

There is something magical and strange about Norfolk. One of the least populated parts of England, at the very eastern edge of our island, it specialises in grand halls, medieval churches, flat expanses of countryside cloaked in morning mists and vast majestic beaches. It was virtually untouched by the Industrial Revolution and does not possess anything so brash as a motorway. As such it attracts a very specific kind of individual: discreet, moneyed, outdoorsy and not a little eccentric.

The village of Little Walsingham is possibly one of Norfolk's strangest places. It was here, in 1061, that a widowed Saxon noblewoman called Richeldis de Faverches saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, who instructed her to build a replica of the house in Nazareth where the Angel Gabriel made his annunciation. A spring appeared at the spot of the apparition, and Richeldis went about her task by gathering materials and spending a whole night praying, at the end of which a simple wooden structure had miraculously materialised. Her son Geoffrey, a Crusader, went on to build a priory and Walsingham became known as the English Nazareth, attracting the world's pilgrims, including all the King Henrys from III to VIII, until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. In the early 20th century, rather confusingly, both the Anglican and Catholic churches saw fit to rebuild Shrines to our Lady, making Walsingham a doubly holy place. And as we drove to our holiday cottage, we passed a traveller encampment and saw groups of bare-footed penitents making their way along the old pilgrim path.

We were staying at a complex of converted barns in a tiny nearby hamlet called North Barsham. There is not a great deal of holiday accommodation in this part of Norfolk, and most of the rentable properties tend to be pokey, old-fashioned places, but our Barsham Barn had high ceilings, resin floors, plasma screens, a massive picture window overlooking a field with tubby little sheep, and swallows living under the eaves, which would spend the evenings shooting around the outside of the building.

Leaving pretty, medieval Walsingham, with its Christian bookshops and men in dog-collars, we drove to the coast and Cley next the Sea; a village of squat, red-roofed cottages, a windmill and an award-winning delicatessen, that was once, before the silting of the Glaven estuary, one of the most important ports in England. In summer the tiny road (originally built for horses to carry produce to and from the port) heaves with cars, but once parked, visitors can wander along the peaceful lokes - narrow, flint-walled passageways - behind the high street, buy smoked fish from the smokery and trundle along the boardwalks, past the marshes, to the stony beach. Here we sat by fishing boats, to eat smoked mackerel, and watched seals from nearby Blakeney Point bob by.

Wiveton, just inland from Cley, was once a major shipbuilding centre. …

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