The pilgrims had walked all the way from Ely: it took them 57 hours, and when they arrived in Little Walsingham, Norfolk’s premier shrine town, most of them were shoeless. There were unworldly teenagers in tweed jackets and seven-year-old girls, heavily made up, from Irish traveller families. Bank holiday brings these itinerant acts of worship to the town, along with ice lollies, traffic jams and police vans.
One pilgrim was carrying a thin, portable Tannoy in a Karrimor rucksack. He sang Latin psalms in a high voice and as he did so, the 15th-century gates to the grounds of Walsingham Abbey swung open. This was unusual, the attached manor house being privately owned and out of public view for most of the year. My father and I, coffee and cake in hand, ducked into the slipstream behind the devoted to get a rare glimpse of the local des res.
On the grass, exhausted Catholics knelt awaiting their chance to kiss a statue of the Virgin that had been carried in on a small sedan. I moved past them, chewing on my cream horn, thinking what a great party venue this might be, and became more enraptured still when I arrived at a bucolic grove graced by a stream, with a tiny footbridge. I imagined it hung with fairy lights.
It was at this point that I felt a sharp pain on the fourth finger of my right hand and, looking down, saw a black-and-yellow abdomen pulsating there, hooked into my knuckle.
Another striped body was fixed in the fork of my thumb and forefinger. I shook my hand furiously but failed to dislodge them. Two pricks on my arm, and an upwards surge of fear seized me as I surveyed a moving, waspy sleeve.
“Stand still,” said my father. “Don’t panic,” said two traveller ladies who had appeared in the bucolic grove.
It wasn’t what I’d imagined a wasp attack to be like. It was so quiet; they were too busy to buzz. All I could hear was Domine, Domine from the a cappella pastor and the disembodied sound of my
own exaggerated breathing.
Pain spread across my thighs as fifteen or twenty wasps worked hard to penetrate the fabric of my skirt. Half a dozen found a new point of entry through my T-shirt and stung along the length of my spine. Three more stung my throat.
I decided the clothes had to go. It seemed logical – though perhaps not to my growing audience. A family with young children arrived.
Down came the skirt. Off came the T-shirt. And weeping, mascara-streaked and wearing only knickers and bra like a girl in a torture porn movie, I tore through the forest as pilgrims appeared from left and right. They had sought serenity, but found a naked woman spinning like a dervish, trying to hurl insects from her back.
When I stopped running, my father was nowhere to be seen.
I later discovered he had stayed behind to fight. He smashed wasps with his boot and received four stings to the head. When I asked him why he hadn’t run, he said, “I figured you’d need your clothes back at some point.”
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation