The North Downs Pilgrims Way – 153 miles – 15 days – Winchester to Canterbury. This pilgrimage officially begins in Farnham, but the route known as ‘The Pilgrims Way’ combines the Farnham to Canterbury journey with St Swithuns’ Way from Winchester to Farnham. Perhaps the most well-known of British pilgrimages, and was famously ‘re-discovered’ by Hillaire Belloc at the turn of the last century. He wrote an excellent book about this track, called The Old Road.
The North Downs are geologically certain to have been an ancient trackway from East to West. The Downs are a Ridgeway of chalky soil that was easier to clear than the clay-rich valley bottom – the Weald (or Wild!) lands of thick forest the Romans called Andredsweald. In a world without compasses (or GPS) the North Downs offer an excellent navigational failsafe, allowing pilgrims and travellers entering from Europe to safely find their way West into England (or vice versa).
And pilgrims certainly followed this path in their many thousands, especially during the Medieval heyday of British pilgrimage. Plenty of evidence, both obvious and archaeolgical, attests to the certainty of this track being well-used for thousands of years. However, such was the route’s popularity that often the most historically traditional routes became today’s main roads. As with all living traditions, we have a mandate to re-gently invent them to better suit modernity.
Today, the Pilgrims Way from Farnham is a designated National Trail enjoying funding and central support. Visit their website to discover a great deal about how and to follow this trackway. There is an astonishing amount of information available about this ancient path. One of the most informed historians, who himself runs a holiday business based on the North Downs Pilgrims Way, is a man named Derek Bright. Check out his website to learn much more.
There are many amazing holy places along this route. The land is astonishingly beautiful, and ancient churches and holy wells and hillforts and trees are plentiful. Highlights include St Martha’s Hill by Guildford, Kits Coty House near Rochester, and the holloways around Lenham.