Former Guardian of the Shrine Betty Jarrett reflects on her relationship with Our Lady


Some 50 years ago I made my first visit to Walsingham. I went in a three wheeled Robin Reliant with my husband and two very small children. I did not know what to expect but found a wonderful haven of tranquility and beauty. It was January and there were more pheasants in the fields than pilgrims at the shrine. From then on I became a regular visitor and pilgrim to the shrine. Like so many pilgrims I soon began to feel that coming to Walsingham was ‘coming home.’ Thirty years or so later I was astonished when I opened my post to discover that I had been elected to the College of Guardians of the Shrine. It was an immense privilege to be only the second female Guardian. My appointment even produced an invitation to be interviewed on Radio Norfolk.

The past 20 years as a Guardian have been fascinating. One of the early Chapter meetings I attended gave considerable time to studying the proposals for redesigning the Shrine gardens. It was decided to proceed and was a brave venture. I cannot imagine anyone now missing the high privet hedging. The new refectory, The Milner Wing and the restoration of the Barn Chapel have all happened over the last 20 or 30 years. I am one of those old enough to remember the old green dining room and laugh about queuing outside in the rain for meals. There are others, my husband among them, who remember even earlier days when meals were taken in the Pilgrim Hall.

I spent a period during my time as a Guardian serving as a director of Parcevall Hall. This was the home of Sir William Milner at Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales. It was left as a bequest to the Shrine and now serves as a retreat house for the Diocese of Leeds. The gardens, however, which Sir William designed and which were his great interest, are open for all to enjoy from Easter until October. I find that the gardens and their Stations of the Cross have the same air of peace and calm as those in Walsingham. Whilst working towards my diploma in Botanical Art I spent a week drawing and painting the limestone flora.

Throughout these years I have discerned a deepening of my relationship with the Shrine. My first experiences had been mild curiosity. I come from a staunchly Methodist family so Shrines to Our Lady were something I had never experienced. My understanding grew as I learned more and began to appreciate the work and ministry of the Shrine. I became increasingly aware of the depth of prayer which seems to be in the very soil and air of the place.

        For me, like so many pilgrims, Walsingham has become a place of refuge. It is a place where anyone, wherever they are on their spiritual journey, can come to rest, think, pray, seek counsel or meet any other deep need. I remember bringing a doctor friend for a first visit. He was amazed by the wonderful atmosphere of the Shrine and the garden. Walsingham is essentially a very special place of healing renewal and rejoicing. For myself there have been experiences of healing as various members of the family have been privileged to receive healing in its diverse forms.

      There are many examples of physical healing. There is also much psychological and spiritual healing. The ministry of healing and reconciliation which is an integral part of any pilgrimage can be a most moving experience. People burdened by many troubles, worries and fears are offered a safe space. They can leave their burden at Our Lady’s feet. As a psychotherapist I particularly understand the value of a safe, confidential space in which to unravel some of the complexities of life.

For me, one of the important parts of pilgrimage is lighting candles and then sitting in the Holy House to offer up prayers for those for whom I have lit those candles. My prayers are often for my children and grandchildren. It feels so right to be able to do this in that special place. As a mother I feel that Our Mother Mary can understand the feelings in my heart as she has experienced so much herself. We all have different experiences of mothers and being mothered, some good and some not so good. Whenever we come to Our Lady we know that as the perfect mother she hears us and understands. We do not have to cajole, manipulate or ‘choose our moment’. We are accepted as we are with all our hopes and fears. Mary will take all this to her Son who himself is perfect love.

Walsingham is a place where all are made to feel welcome, whether those on pilgrimage or casual visitors who arrive as tourists and become pilgrims in a different way. The welcome in reception, the loving service in the refectory and accommodation, the jolliness of Nortons, and the bustle of the shop all reflect the love and care of Our Lord and his Mother. Our Lord, from his cross gave us Mary as our mother. I often reflect on the wonderful picture by Piero della Francesco in the gallery in San Sepolcro in Italy. It shows Our Lady wearing a blue mantle which encompasses a number of people. That encapsulates Walsingham for me. We are all brothers and sisters and are all gathered in this holy place in the loving warmth of Our Blessed Lady who constantly points us to her Son.