If you came the way you would be most likely to take from the place you were coming from, then beyond Thetford the skies darken, not with clouds, but with the canopy formed by the branches of the trees on both sides of the road; even at noon on summer’s most golden day, it is dark here. Was it such as the pilgrim bands came in the years when Walsingham was their longed-for goal? Apart from the asphalt and the markings on the road, it could almost have been then; but the ghosts of the past would have been left in my wake, as even my driving speed is faster than a walking pace, or the steps of horses.
Through the forest the road is brighter, but winds more, past manicured fields behind well-kept hedgerows; this is Norfolk as I remember it. Then comes the rain. The windscreen wipers seem ineffectual, and for a moment I wonder whether I should find somewhere to pull over – but there is nowhere. Then, as suddenly as it came, the rain goes. I look to the left and think I am hallucinating – there is a tank on a brick plinth; yes, there was, I saw it again on the way back. It brings a lump to my throat, and I say a silent prayer for the man I love. I have a moment’s superstitious fear that it is an omen. How thin the veneer of civilization lies at such times, under the impulse of such emotions, and in isolation; I am glad to have Tallis on the car’s sound system at this moment.
The sudden onset of civilization in the form of the town of Swaffham is a bit of a shock to the system. After many miles of carefree driving (if you leave out the rain), I suddenly have to concentrate on the map and the road signs; should I have taken my sister’s sat-nav? But no, it is easy enough. I drive past a pavilion which looks like it belongs in the park of one of the many country houses which dominate the countryside here, and not a market square, then across some lights, past a large and imposing Baptist Church, and suddenly I am alone again.
The feeling grows that I am following ancient tracks now. Why were there ever roads out to this wild place? It winds, seemingly endlessly; it suits my driving style – medium-paced and cautious. For the last forty miles, Fakenham has been my goal, and now, suddenly, it emerges at the end of the winding road; that answers the question – it was not, after all, endless. There’s a hesitation, should I have gone right at that curious junction? But no, a few anxious minutes later and I am right – and now ‘Walsingham’ appears on the signpost!
Over the roundabout, but almost before I know it, there’s a turn left, and immediately another turn left; almost missed the second – but am triumphant at not. Yes, for me, such a thing is a cause for joy!
The countryside is wider now – the fields less manicured, the hedgerows like ragged pilgrims lined along the roadside. Will I miss the turning? There wasn’t one – I am there, suddenly and with no warning, there is the village sign and what passes for the high street ahead. I know where the car park is. I say a silent prayer of thanks and get out of the car.
I am in Walsingham – praise be to God.