How do we encourage Walsingham pilgrims but reduce their impact?

An estimated 300,000 people make the pilgramage to the Anglican Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham ea

An estimated 300,000 people make the pilgramage to the Anglican Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham each year - Credit: Graham Howard

Nick Conrad thinks Walsingham is a huge benefit to Norfolk - and a very special place to be for both visitors and locals

Nobody can criticise Norfolk County Council's endeavour to identify opportunities that economically boost our county. Mostly they suck investment up the M11 from the UK's southern power base. But tucked away in your EDP last week was further evidence of the innovative and broad-minded approach they now have to employ.

Cllr. Tom Fitzpatrick recently welcomed delegates to a conference promoting pilgrimage breaks, using walking and cycling as a form of sustainable tourism. His ward is the beautiful village of Walsingham, a tourism hub long before outsiders were attracted to the unique beauty of our coastline. And Tom, when disrobed of his smart conference suit, dons hiking boots. He has walked from Paris to Chartres on pilgrimages no fewer than seven times!

A few rows behind Mr Fitzpatrick you'll find another friend of mine, James Bagge. The former Norfolk High Sheriff walked from his west Norfolk home to Santiago De Compostela (west Spain) to raise money for charity. Both extol the virtues of undertaking such a feat. Both have my admiration. In fact, James heads off once again this morning on a community walk from Norwich Cathedral to Walsingham.

The conference aims to exploit a sizeable market of potential tourists. With the presence of the cathedral, Sandringham Church and Norfolk's unique sprawl of religious buildings, this is a pilgrim's paradise. But the real draw is Walsingham. I'm always intrigued that many locals don't really understand the international significance of this place.

Many Norfolkians have never actually visited this uniquely charming village with its wealth of historic buildings.

So why is this place so special? The Walsingham pilgrimages began in the 11th century with the visions of the Virgin Mary by the Lady Walsingham, Richeldis de Faverches. She requested that a replica of the Holy House at Nazareth be built. This became 'England's Nazareth', a place of prayer and reconciliation and one of Europe's four great pilgrim places in the Middle Ages.

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For a place of such acclaim to be sited in Norfolk is quite something.

I adore Walsingham. My beautiful Muma Jean, a West Indian Catholic, would insist on a trip to take the water and pray every time she visited me from London.

I would sit in wonder at the buses, from all over the UK and further, pouring into the car park. How wonderful that so many people merrily troop to Norfolk for a gulp of the 'good stuff'.

Any 'exploitation' of commercial opportunities must be carefully presented due to the sensitivity of the site.

That said, facilitating the international Catholic communities' ability to visit this very special place is a major plus point for Norfolk. To couple this endeavour with the promotion of green tourism strengthens the case for extra investment. I'm delighted The Walsingham Way Project, which aims to promote the historic 37-mile journey, receiving a grant from the European Agricultural Fund and DEFRA.

In Norfolk we have 1,200 miles of trails for cycling and walking and more medieval churches than any other county. Walsingham receives 300,000 visitors annually to the shrines, abbey and heritage sites. The conference looked at ideas to reduce the impact of pilgrims, yet absolutely encourage them to come.

In medieval times Walsingham was one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Europe. It's the 'Lourdes of the North'. Maybe we will return to this green and wholesome form of vacation. I personally find a trip to the village wonderfully relaxing, though I must confess the Wells-Next-The-Sea to Walsingham Railway saves the legs!

BBC Radio Norfolk's religious editor Anthony Isaacs covered the conference and his report can be heard on BBC Sounds.