Mgr John Armitage is a thoroughly East End priest. He grew up there; he has served its parishes for more than 30 years. So his appointment as rector of Walsingham, deep in the Norfolk countryside, was met with disbelief. Friends couldn’t believe he was leaving London. “Neither could I,” says Armitage ruefully. It was a “great wrench”, he says. He arrived in Walsingham on his 60th birthday. “All my plans for my birthday party were shot to pieces.”
There was good reason for the appointment. Armitage has a track record in building institutions and the bishops wanted someone who could develop England’s national Marian shrine. From 1968 until 2014, it had been run by the Marists. Developing the place had not been a priority. Walsingham receives pilgrimage groups of up to 20,000 in size, but its tearooms seat 30, the church just a few hundred. If it rains, everyone gets soaked, as there is no shelter. An information centre makes do in a Portakabin in the car park.
Since Armitage arrived in February 2015, things have been busy. Infrastructure has been replaced – everything from furniture and beds to security, phone and internet systems – and the governance structure redrawn (previously Walsingham Trust ran the shrine but did not own the property, making fundraising difficult).
So far, none of the work has been noticeable to visitors – but that will change. Last week a planning application was submitted to North Norfolk District Council. If approved, most of what surrounds the 14th century Slipper Chapel will be demolished. The barn-style 1980s church will be replaced by a large, medieval-style building, complete with side chapels. Instead of grassy spaces, there will be a traditional cloister, giving the site an enclosed, monastic feel.
Given the uncertainty of council planning decisions, the new vision isn’t being shouted from the rooftops just yet. After all, some local opposition is expected. At Walsingham, the only evidence of the plan is tucked away in a private office: a tiny, photocopied illustration pinned to a board.
When I meet Mgr Armitage after midday Mass, he asks that I make one thing clear: his intention is not to expand the shrine. “We’ve got all sorts of trouble from people thinking we want to expand,” he says. “We can’t – we’ve got nowhere to go.” Instead, the aim is to improve the site so that it can better handle the quarter of a million pilgrims it receives each year. The new church would seat 1,000, while the cloisters would shelter another 3,000. More accommodation for pilgrims will be built, including rooms for disabled people and self-catering for large families who often can’t afford full board.
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