The British Pilgrimage Trust has rediscovered one of Britain’s great pilgrimage routes – a 350km journey from Southampton to Canterbury.
An Authentically Ancient Way
The Old Way to Canterbury is a lost pilgrimage route, rediscovered from Britain’s oldest road map – the Gough map, dated c. 1360. For over two centuries, this was by far the most accurate map of Britain. Other contemporary maps had Jerusalem in the centre, with Britain as an amorphous lump on the edge of the world, with one or two towns only.
The Gough map is also the oldest map of Britain that shows overland routes – thin red lines like the Great North Road (the A1). But in nearly 3000 miles of roads, the Gough map only shows one path to Canterbury. And it is not the one you might think.
The Gough map was a contemporary of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – so it was in use at least 150 years before pilgrimage was banned in Britain. If we bear in mind that Canterbury was the most popular pilgrimage destination in Britain – with especial importance in Europe – then the fact that Gough map’s route line terminates at Canterbury, without continuing to Dover, implies that this was not a route for trade or military purposes, but a route for pilgrimage – because Canterbury’s significance has always been predominantly spiritual.
For many thousands of years, Southampton was a main port of entry to England from Europe. The naturally sheltered harbour and its central position on the south coast, meant there were two rising tides daily – allowing double the number of departures compared to either Falmouth or Dover. That’s why Titanic set off from here – and the Mayflower too.
Strong evidence of the connection between Southampton and Canterbury is easily found. King Henry II made his famous ‘sorry about killing Thomas Becket’ pilgrimage to Canterbury from Southampton – the one he ended barefoot with all the monks of Canterbury whipping him. And the ancient pilgrim hostel in Southampton Old Town was founded to shelter pilgrims to St Thomas of Canterbury.
Also, the route is peppered with monastic houses, each of which has their own pilgrimage history – like Southwick near Havant, to which even Henry VIII made pilgrimage. All these monastic houses would – before the Dissolution – have provided shelter for pilgrims. Hospitality was a core purpose of monastic houses – some priories and abbeys spent 90% of their expenditure on accommodating pilgrims and travellers. They were the Holy Day Inns of their time.
Furthermore, the profusion of ancient sites along the Old Way route implies strongly the ancient pedigree of this route. And the last piece of evidence for this being an ancient route is simple geology! Like the North Downs, the South Downs are a very simple landmark to follow – a continuous East-West line of hills, made from well-drained chalk as opposed to the oak-thick claggy clay of the Weald below. During damper periods of England’s climate history, the imperative to follow this line of Downs would have been even stronger – which perhaps explains the preponderance of Bronze Age and Iron Age sites scattered along the route.
A Lost Path
So where did this path go? Well, it went the same place as all British pilgrimage routes once the act of pilgrimage was made illegal in 1538 – nowhere at all. Once a route ceases to be walked, and when the infrastructure to accommodate pilgrims is dismantled, the old pathways that once thronged with the feet of pilgrims simply fade, become overgrown and forgotten.
As the old folksong about Walsingham goes:
“Where were gates are no gates now, the ways unknown,
Where the press of peers did pass, when her fame was blown”
Such loss of tradition was sadly standard in the Reformation. And it was remarkably thorough. King Henry VIII, after having arranged a show trial of Thomas Becket’s bones to declare him a traitor, commanded that all references and images of Becket be scrubbed from reality, even erased from centuries old charter documents. Becket had been on the seal of both London and Canterbury – so hundreds of ancient documents were doctored to comply. It was a period of deliberate re-writing of the story of England. And this pilgrimage route – the Old Way to Canterbury – was simply erased with all the rest.
Creating the Pilgrimage Anew
Until today. The BPT is re-opening this ancient British pilgrimage route. We have used the Gough map as a prompt to plot the best possible modern pilgrimage route between Southampton and Canterbury. Our guiding criteria for re-creating this route have been:
1-The Gough Map Waypoints
2-Footpaths not Roads
3-Heritage and Holy palces
4-Nature and Beauty
This means our route follows these key waypoints:
Southampton – Havant – Chichester – Arundel – Bramber – Lewes – Boreham Street – Battle – Winchelsea – Rye – Appledore – Canterbury.
Gough map also tells us where the route must avoid – a corridor of no-go towns and villages – like Portsmouth, Petersfield, Shoreham, Horsham, Pevensey, Hastings, Romney and Ashford.
Having followed these prompts – and the others mentioned above – the result is (in our minds) one of the most exciting new/ancient pilgrimage routes in Britain. It is a lot more rural than the North Downs Way, which suffers the impact of proximity to motorways. The South Downs is a National Park, and enjoys protection from the worst kinds of modern development.
The route follows various long-distance footpaths – the Solent Way, the Pilgrims’ Trail, the Wayfarer’s Walk, the Sussex Border Path, the South Downs Way, the Monarch’s Way, the 1066 Country Walk, the Saxon Shore Way, the Royal Military Canal Path, the Elham Valley Way, the North Downs Way, and the St Augustine’s Way. It joins the dots between these excellent long-distance paths.
The most exciting part of re-establishing this route is the discovery of new/old accommodation solutions – such as the wonderful St Peter’s Church, in Firle, Sussex. We have found a wide range of holy place sleep-spots, which is incredibly exciting.
Our planning so far takes the Old Way through these settlements:
Southampton Old Town – Netley – Hamble – Titchfield – Wickham – Southwick – Havant – Emsworth – Bosham – Chichester – Oving – Tangmere – Boxgrove – Eartham – Slindon – Arundel – Houghton – Storrington – Bramber – Fulking – Pyecombe – Hamsey – Lewes – Glynde – Firle – Alciston – Berwick – Alfriston – Wilmington – Jevington – Hankham – Herstmonceux – Boreham Street – Ashburnham – Catsfield – Battle – Westfield – Guestling Green – Icklesham – Winchelsea – Rye -Stone in Oxney – Appledore – Warehorne – Ham Street – Bilsington – Lympne – Saltwood – Lyminge – Elham – Barham – Kingston – Bishopsbourne – Bridge – Patrixbourne – Fordwich – Canterbury.
If you wish to suggest key holy places – or potential accommodation venues – or to to register your interest in pioneering a stretch of this route – please get in touch.