A few months ago whilst travelling in central Serbia I met a nun at Manasija monastery near Despotovac. I was talking with my Serbian friends in the monastery shop when the nun behind the counter, hearing our conversation in English, started to chat with us. It turned out she was Irish, although she sounded Home Counties English to my ears, and had once taught Religious Education at the same school that Princess Diana had attended. The nun, whose name I never learned, was bright and engaging, and keen to hear news of the old country. “Tell me, is Mrs Thatcher still alive? Is it true that she’s gone a bit doolally these days?” I ventured to suggest that the Iron Lady always was quite doolally in my book and she laughed. “And how is the Duke of Edinburgh? He always had a twinkle in his eye. Quite an eye for the ladies, I fancy.”
We went on to talk about Norfolk and she mentioned Dame Julian of Norwich. When I said that I lived less than a mile from her chapel she went quite dewy-eyed before going on to talk about Walsingham and the time she had spent there many years ago. We talked more, about Norwich, about education (“Ah, I could tell you were a teacher”); about how the best books require an input of effort in order to get something back out of them. We also spoke of children’s expectations of instantaneous reward, and about delayed gratification, which I can only suppose, given the sort of unshakable faith that its adherents generally have, is the essence of what the monastic life is all about.
It was starting to go dark outside and my friends were hovering at the doorway wanting to leave – clearly, it was time to go. I picked up the jars of honey I had bought and bade the nun goodbye. She smiled warmly as I made my exit. “Thank you for bringing me those wonderful memories of Walsingham. I will treasure them. God bless.” It was nice to be appreciated but I never did find out how a well-educated Irishwoman came to be an Orthodox nun in an isolated monastery in the middle of Serbia: I was too polite to ask.
Fast forward to December and I am back in Walsingham myself, researching for a forthcoming book on Norfolk walks that will come out next year. It is a beautifully bright day with a huge sky and green corduroy fields that gleam as spikes of newly emerged winter wheat catch the low-slung mid-winter sun. I walk up the east side of the valley from the village and then descend down to the Stiffkey River before going up the opposite side. At the valley bottom, the river is in flood, its ford almost impassable with the recent deluge. The landscape around here is perhaps Norfolk at its least typical (although some might argue that the nearby village of Great Snoring is quintessentially Norfolk in spirit). Undulating, lush and well-wooded, with discrete valleys and hazy horizons, it reminds me of the Welsh Borders in many ways – something distinctly Celtic, almost Byronic, about its folds and creases.
I return to Walsingham from the west side of the valley, following a greenway that would have been one of several pilgrimage routes to the village in the past. The track emerges at the edge of the village alongside the path of an old railway track that in recent years has found new use as a walking route for pilgrims from the Slipper Chapel, a mile away. It was always a tradition to walk this last stretch to Walsingham barefoot – even King Henry VIII once performed this act of humility before returning two decades later to trash the priory during the Dissolution. As I arrive at the track, a group of robed monks are silhouetted as they walk west; walking, quite literally, into the sunset.
Across the track, the original station building still stands next to its redundant platform. But something strange has happened. Now the small red-brick building sports a small silver onion dome with a cross above it: it has found a new life as an Orthodox chapel. Surely it is this humble chapel that my Manasija nun remembers so fondly? This modest converted building is her personal connection with Walsingham. Now, purely by chance, it is also mine.