The Old Way to Canterbury

The British Pilgrimage Trust has rediscovered one of Britain’s great pilgrimage routes – a 250 mile 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 the most accurate map of Britain. Other contemporary maps had Jerusalem at the centre, with Britain as an amorphous lump on the edge of the world, marked with one or two towns only. The Gough map, by comparison, is shockingly accurate. It is 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.

We’ve all heard of Chaucer’s Southwark to Canterbury pilgrimage route. Also, of ‘The Pilgrims’ Way’ from Winchester to Canterbury, rediscovered by Hilaire Belloc. But the Gough Map displays neither route to Canterbury. Instead, it shows a path that begins at Southampton!

How do we know this route denotes a pilgrimage? Well, 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 for European pilgrims – then the fact that the Gough route 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. There is little other reason to go there.

As for Southampton, for many thousands of years, this town 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 arrivals/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 Netley, known as the Laetus Locus (Happy Place) for sheltering travellers, or like Southwick near Havant, to which even the anti-pilgrim King 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 – for some priories and abbeys 90% of expenditure was toward accommodating pilgrims and travellers. These 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. The oldest fossilised remains of humans in Britain are found here – Boxgrove Man is a 500,000 year old human thigh bone, from the days when all humans were nomadic wanderers on ancient trackways (pilgrims). Let that date sink in for a moment…

But the simplest evidence for this being an ancient route is geology. Like the North Downs, the South Downs are a very simple landmark to follow – a continuous East-West snaking line of hills, formed of well-drained chalk as opposed to the clagging 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.

Get Old Way GPX files

A Lost Path

So where did this path go? Well, it went the same place as all British pilgrimage routes once pilgrimage was made illegal in 1538. Once a route ceases to be walked, and when the infrastructure to accommodate pilgrims is dismantled, the old pathways simply fade, become overgrown and are forgotten.

As the old song 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 Britain’s pilgrimage 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 erased, even 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 deliberate re-writing of the story of England. And this pilgrimage route – the Old Way to Canterbury – disappeared 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 places

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, Hythe and Ashford.

There is a logic in saying that the probable ancient course of this route would largely follow the modern A27 – but the BPT follows a policy of not creating a dangerous and unpleasant route for the sake of apparent historic accuracy. We believe that ancient pilgrims would not recognise the experience of walking along tarmac roads as in any way authentic. The Britain of the Middle Age would not have included lorries or motorways. Pristine nature, and gentle agriculture, would have been the authentic experience of ancient Old Way pilgrims – so this is what we are attempting to recreate.

We believe the result is 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 Old Way 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 sleeping in a variety of ancient churches, like the wonderful St Peter’s Church, in Firle, Sussex. We have found a wide range of holy place sleep-spots, which is incredibly exciting. Details will be revealed soon.

The Symbol

The Old Way has a symbol that aims to keep central the fact that this is a pilgrimage – not just a hiking trail. It is a journey inward as well as outward, and a path leading toward a sacred centre. The BPT intends to waymark this route with the symbol during 2019-2020.

The Route

Our planning so far takes the Old Way through these settlements:

Southampton Old Town – Netley – Hamble – Titchfield – Wickham – Southwick – Havant – Emsworth – Bosham – Chichester – Westhampnett – 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.

Any information you would like to add to this route, please do get in touch.

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