Where to stay, what to see and what to do on Norfolk's Walsingham Way

A map showing the route of the Walsingham Way

A map showing the route of the Walsingham Way - Credit: Norwich Cathedral

Norfolk has hundreds of miles of long-distance paths, some as old as the landscape they pass through, others stitched together in the past few years. 

They run along our coast and rivers and follow old railway and pilgrim routes through meadow, marshes, woodland and villages. 

Walsingham Way at Elsing. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

Walsingham Way at Elsing, showing the interlinked Ws making an M, for the Virgin Mary - Credit: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith

The Walsingham Way links Norwich and the pilgrimage village of Little Walsingham along 37 miles of lanes, tracks, paths, riverbanks and former railway lines. 

It was launched last year, reviving a route which would have been walked centuries ago when Little Walsingham brought pilgrims from across Britain, and further afield, to see the site where monarchs prayed and miracles were reported. 

Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims travelled to Walsingham between the 11th and 16th centuries. One of the final visitors to the original shrine was Henry VIII – who went on to order its destruction. 

Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, pilgrims began returning to Little Walsingham. Last year a waymarked walk was created between Norwich and Walsingham.

It can be started from either of Norwich’s cathedrals, leaving the city via Marriott’s Way, the former railway line running alongside the river Wensum. Beyond Thorpe Marriott the pilgrim route turns off the old railway to Ringland (don’t miss its medieval hilltop church).

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The nine miles of paths and lanes from Ringland to Swanton Morley (and another wonderful medieval hilltop church) pass the site of a Saxon church and convent at Easthaugh and through the lovely village of Elsing. 

From Swanton Morley another eight miles of quiet lanes leads to Ryburgh, passing the ruins of the Saxon cathedral at North Elmham and through the beautiful parkland of Elmham House – where the owners have converted an 1840 game larder into a chapel for pilgrims.  

The ruins of Bishop de Losinga's chapel at North Elmham, on the Walsingham Way. Photograph: Norwich

The ruins of Bishop de Losinga's chapel at North Elmham, on the Walsingham Way - Credit: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith

At Great Ryburgh the route crosses the Wensum for the final time and strikes out north to Fulmodeston and then Little and Great Snoring and along the pretty river Stiffkey into Walsingham, with one option arriving via the Slipper Chapel and National Catholic Shrine and then a path along a former railway line giving a calm and traffic-free route to the village centre. 

How to get to the start and finish point by public transport: By bus the Coastliner 36 bus route runs from Fakenham to Wells, and on to King’s Lynn. There are buses from King’s Lynn and from Norwich to Fakenham.    

Where to stay: Completing the walk over three days would allow plenty of time for sight-seeing along the way and at the end of the walk. 

Day one 12 miles from Norwich to Weston Longville. Accommodation possibilities include the Parson Woodforde at Weston Longville (a waymarked detour from the main path), Round the Woods glamping site at Morton, near Lenwade and Bartles Lodge, Elsing. 

Day two 15 miles to North Elmham or Great Ryburgh. Accommodation possibilities include The Blue Boar Inn at Great Ryburgh or indoor camping at the new William Martin Building next to the village church. 

Day three nine miles finishing at Walsingham where accommodation includes pilgrim hostels and pubs such as the Black Lion Hotel and the Bull Inn. 

Where to eat: Take a packed lunch from Norwich or buy at a shop or café in Drayton. On day two there are pubs, shops and tea rooms in Lyng and Swanton Morley. On day three buy provisions at Great Ryburgh or there is a caravan site shop at Little Snoring. At the end of the walk there are  shops, pubs and cafes in Little Walsingham including the Refectory and Norton’s Café Bar, both run by the Anglican Shrine and Walsingham Farms Shop. 

For full details of the route plus accommodation and food and drink options visit walsinghamway.blog

Why is there a shrine at Walsingham? 

Almost 1,000 years ago a Walsingham widow dreamed of the Virgin Mary.  

It sparked a religious fervour which brought kings, queens and international fame to a tiny Norfolk village – and still draws people today. 

In the dream, the Virgin Mary asked Richeldis de Faverches to reconstruct the house where 2,000 years ago and more than 2,000 miles away, Mary, Joseph and Jesus lived in Nazareth. 

The house was faithfully built in Norfolk, on land which is now part of the Abbey Gardens in Walsingham 

A spring of water bubbled from underground and local people began to report being cured of illness. Pilgrims arrived to pray for cures or to be blessed with children and a tiny farming community became one of the great religious sites of Europe. 

Churches, an abbey and a priory soared from the river valley and a bustling community of monks and nuns, innkeepers and travellers, souvenir sellers and pilgrims grew up. 

The Slipper Chapel, now the Roman Catholic shrine, is named for the medieval pilgrims who left their shoes here to complete the final mile to the shrine barefoot.  

Pilgrims included kings of England Henry III, Edward I,  Edward II, Edward III, Henry VI, Henry VII and finally Henry VIII and his first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. His divorce from the former and marriage to the latter sparked his split from the international church led by the Pope – and the destruction of Walsingham’s shrine. 

A lament for the desecrated and desolate shrine is thought to have been written by Sir Philip Sydney, who accompanied Queen Elizabeth I to Norfolk in 1558. The Queen did not visit Walsingham but Sydney did, and was deeply moved by the experience.  

Walsingham Abbey ruins

Walsingham Abbey ruins - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

During the centuries between the dissolution of the monasteries and the re-instatement of the shrine, pilgrims visited Walsingham quietly, praying at the barn which had once been the Slipper Chapel.  

Centenary celebrations for statue of Mary on May 2 

A statue of the Virgin Mary stood in the original Holy House but was taken to London to be burned in the 16th century. 

Exactly 100 years ago the Vicar of Walsingham, Father Alfred Hope Patten, commissioned a new statue of Mary, based on pictures of the original. 

In 1922 he placed it in St Mary’s church and more and more pilgrims began arriving to see it and pray. In 1931it was moved to a new Holy House, within a new pilgrim church, which is now the Anglican shrine.   

The centenary of the statue will be celebrated by thousands of people from across the country on Monday May 2 as part of the National Pilgrimage to Walsingham - with open-air celebrations in the Abbey ruins.

Father Kevin Smith, priest administrator of the shrine, said: "It's a joy to be able to hold the pilgrimage again. It's a festival atmosphere and also a day of great devotion."

Centenary celebrations for the statue of Mary include a tour of Exeter, Blackburn and Durham cathedrals.

The 100-year-old statue of Mary at the Walsingham shrine

The 100-year-old statue of Mary at the Walsingham shrine - Credit: Graham Howard