Every spring the cuckoo returns to our garden in Suffolk. Like each successive generation, it has hatched here and then flown alone to Africa, long after its parents have left; returning the following year to begin a new cycle of breeding feeding and migration. How the newly fledged cuckoo is guided back to its winter home in Cameroon or the Congo remains a mystery. Is its DNA programmed to act like an inner compass? The arrival of the cuckoo coincides more or less with the annual catholic pilgrimage to Walsingham, which took place last weekend, and there is something about the enduring pull of Walsingham that reminds me of the cuckoo.
A few years before 1066 and all that, a Norfolk noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverche, conceived a deep desire to honour the Virgin Mary and before long, her dream came true. By tradition, the Virgin appeared to Richeldis in a series of visions, requesting that she recreate the house of the Annunciation: the place in Nazareth where Mary received the message from the Angel Gabriel that she would become the mother of Christ. Construction began, and almost immediately there was a problem. Whether it was the architect or the builders we cannot know, but the issue was resolved when overnight the completed house appeared some two hundred metres from the original site. The shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham was to become one of the great pilgrim sites of the middle ages, second only to Canterbury and Glastonbury. But its importance was also its downfall and the priory was sacked and razed by the order of Henry VIII keen for the Crown to claw back the wealth and power of the Church.
Walsingham’s attraction to pilgrims, however, was not so easily erased and over time it emerged from the ashes. There are both Catholic and Anglican chapels there attracting people come from all over the world. When I last visited, a gaggle of Keralan Catholics had just arrived and each August, Irish Travellers come here to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. Last weekend around 850 people braved the icy Bank Holiday weather to take part in the annual Catholic pilgrimage to this small, remote cluster of buildings, tucked away in the middle of Norfolk’s farm lands. It seems that once a place has been invested with special significance, that code somehow becomes engraved into some deep unseen place that brings believers back across the generations.
Our cuckoo is late this year and the swallows are later still. They should be swirling overhead by now and darting into the barns they make their summer homes. I’m worried that, like the destructive zeal of King Henry’s Reformation, the avarice of agricultural conglomerates in Europe has finally put an end to the avian pilgrimages that have marked our spring for millennia. As I write there is great sorrow in my heart.