17.5 miles, 2 days
Following the old Saxon Shore coastline and the Royal Military Canal path, walk the liminal path between modern farmland and ancient history. Vineyard, field and marsh are punctuated with hidden hints of the pilgrims who have been before you. The flat canal path is tempting after the miles spent on the Downs, but the most engaging stories sit above, abandoned by the sea but still with commanding views.
Train: Appledore, Ham Street Bus: the No’s 11, 11A and 11B cover most of this stage, with No’s 10, 10A, 16A, 18A and 111 for onward travel from Lympne. . Taxi: Tenterden Cars, United Taxis, Direct Line Cars – contact 01797 361075 to book.
Kenardington St Mary’s Church, Battle Hill Campsite, The Woolpack Inn, Warehorne. The White Horse at Bilsington. In Lympne, the Corner House, Magnolia Cottage, or Lympne St Stephen’s Church offers Pilgrim Sanctuary.
The Woolpack Inn offers great local food. Otherwise, be sure to stock up in Appledore.The Cosy Kettle Cafe, Ham Street. The White Horse, Bilsington. The County Members is Lympne’s pub, offering decent pub grub and good company, or the local post office for groceries.
The ancient hollow ash tree in the church yard of St Matthew’s Warehorne. A rare chance to climb inside what would have once been a towering tree, now short in stature but imbued with a sense of ancientness.
The chapel and former well used by Elizabeth Barton, a tranquil place which feels quite magical, with the dramatic story of Barton’s life and death attached.
The stunning views to the coast, well worth ascending the Greensand ridgeline. You can really get a sense of the old coastline and how the flat marshland has sent the shore out of reach over the centuries, leaving the villages high and dry, their old ports redundant.
Follow the Saxon Shore waymarkers, except between Ruckinge and Aldington Knoll. You can opt to follow the canal path for the whole of this stage, but you will miss out on most of what it has to offer.
From Appledore, take the lane named “Old Way”, and follow this until you reach the Royal Military Canal, built as the third line of defence against Napoleon – after the patrolling Navy at the coast, and the line of 74 Martello Towers built along the South coast. The canal was dug by hand by “navigators”, workmen who travelled the country building the canals and railways during this period. This section of the canal is managed by the National Trust, creating a very different atmosphere to previous parts. Can you feel it?
Leave the canal to divert to Horne’s Place Chapel, managed by English Heritage, an exquisite medieval chapel for an aristocratic family near here. Visiting the interior requires making an appointment – perhaps do this in advance? Return to the Old Way, and follow the canal for a number of miles, before turning northwards towards Kenardington and St Mary’s Church – a church offering Pilgrim Sanctuary. St Mary’s is built on the site of a battle between Saxons and Danes. Can you sense this? The Danes were routed (heavily defeated).
As well as inside the church, you might also stay at the nearby Battle Hill Campsite. Or you can walk a little further to Warehorne, where there is a pub (The Woolpack) with lovely rooms and excellent food. If it remains open, before sleep be sure to visit St Matthew’s Church in Warehorne, and its incredible hollow ash tree. Ancient stories of Ash trees tell of its association with wisdom and protection. In the Norse tradition, the World Tree Yggdrasil was an ash. Odin was granted his wisdom after hanging in it for 9 days and nights. The tree linked together the various worlds, and could be used for divination. A remnant of this is the tradition of sleeping with a frond of ash under your pillow, to encourage insights as you dream. Finding a frond with even numbered leaflets is especially lucky.
Walk east from Warehorne toward Ham Street. Be sure to bid farewell to St Matthew’s Church and its hollow ash tree before you go. Moving on, Ham Street has a good cafe (The Cosy Kettle), and a small church shared by the Methodists and Anglicans – the Church of the Good Shepherd.
From the village, make your way into the woodland Nature Reserve to the northeast. Explore Kent has written of the woods: “The woods are part of Orlestone Forest, a fragmented area of woodland that is the remnant of a continuous oak forest that once covered the Weald. The reserve is actively managed in a traditional way and consequently it attracts an outstanding collection of birds and moths. The site is also of archaeological interest and contains many well preserved earthworks.”
As a symbol of strength and endurance, pre-Christian traditions venerated oaks. Druids have a long association with worship in oak groves and forests, and it is possible that many of the earliest churches in this area of the Weald took the place of ancient groves. Through the Oak King, these trees are symbolic of the cycle of life and death; the Oak King rules in the summer, but yields to the Holly King in the winter, before being reborn in the spring. You’ll find both oak and holly side by side in Orlestone’s woods.
Walk through these deep woods, before turning south through fields to Ash Hill Road. Backtrack a little to St Mary Magdalene Church, Ruckinge, which is older than the Domesday Book (1086) – though the current building was first built in the 12th century.
Through the bottom of the churchyard, find once more the canal path, looking out for stinging nettles on this short narrow section. It may be annoying but it’s safer than the road! Emerge onto wider pastures beside a pillbox: a WWII defensive emplacement built in anticipation of possible invasion. Continue along the canal, and when you reach the road turn up towards St Peter and St Paul Church, Bilsington.
Here you will find an outdoor bell – which you might choose to tap with your pilgrim staff. Also, in the graveyard, are some very moving graves of a local family and its six child deaths, with their ages in years marked on a sad wooden board. You might like to tap the church bell in the churchyard with your pilgrim staff as a sign of respect before you go on to the next stop.
Nearby, you will find a monument dedicated to Cosway, a man who championed the plight of the poor. There is also the moated manor just next door is thought by some to have been a possible site of the weaving of the Bayeux Tapestry.
A welcoming pub – The White Horse – is not far away, offering food, drink and rooms among the main village of Bilsington.
From Bilsington, walk down to the Royal Military Canal path, and walk east. You soon see the lop-sided loveliness of St Rumwold’s Church at Bonnington. St Rumwold was a child saint in the 7th century, who – so the legend tells – announced ‘I am a Christian’ in Latin (Christianus sum) to his parents when he was but two days old, and insisted upon being baptised. He died at only three days old – but not before he gave a sermon on Christian virtues, and the holy Trinity. St Rumwold’s Church is possibly the oldest church on the Romney Marshes, and pilgrims have, on occasion, probably sung within its walls, given its wonderful acoustics and feeling of remoteness.
Continue alongside the water, then climb the hill to the Chapel and Holy Well of Elizabeth Barton, a charismatic Reformation-era prophet who was one of the only people who could stand up to Henry VIII, forewarning him against his first divorce in wild style, breaking into his court and interrupting proceedings with her accusations. In the end, Cromwell was masterfully cunning in finding her guilty of treason, because it meant he could also execute people associated with her too, who happened to be his enemies… Her head, alas, ended up on London Bridge. Elizabeth Barton lived a lot longer than she perhaps might have done, though, thanks to her popularity. She was also a promoter of pilgrimage, and this chapel was where her followers were baptised. The chapel is now roofless and overgrown with nettles, yet is still highly atmospheric. It is a special place, and there remains a sense that pilgrims once flocked here in their thousands.
Willow grows readily around water, which is why these trees have their feet in what was once Elizabeth Barton’s well.Today, the water is left to spread and trickle, making it a great place to squelch around in the holy mud, barefoot. It seems appropriate to find willow in this ruined place, as it is associated with grief, loss and sadness. It was customary to wear willow on your hat after losing a loved one, and it was used as a symbol of death in Greek myth, the Psalms and in the spirit of Old Man Willow who would also act as a reminder to children not to play by the river. But it also offers the easing of pain; willow is a natural source of aspirin, and has been taken for centuries as a natural remedy. Its ability to vigorously regrow after being cut down has made it a symbol of renewal, vitality and immortality in some cultures.
Return to the canal, past Port Lympne Safari Park (look out for Giraffes, Ibexes, Rhinos and Hyenas through the wire fence in the hedgerow – really!) and up the hill to Lympne (pronounced Lim).
You’ll pass a field full of stones: Portus Lemanis. Once a 3rd century Roman naval base and beachhead, some of its remains are still visible from the footpath. You may wonder: “does this count as a holy place?” Holy means holistic, and arguably that includes acknowledging the heritage of what has come before us, whatever the moral considerations might be around the attack and defence of land, values, and governance. Standing here overlooking the coastal marsh expanse, pilgrims have sometimes felt a sense that this place opens you up to a greater awareness of those who have come before us.
On the hill above is St Stephen’s Church, well-known for its stained glass windows and breathtaking views over the Saxon shore line beneath. And it is available for Pilgrim Sanctuary. Also, Lympne Castle is just next door. Rest well pilgrim.