20 miles, 2 or 3 days
Turn away from the sea, and shadow the footsteps of the knights who killed Thomas Becket. From Lyminge, follow the Nailbourne, a winterbourne stream whose waters flow from a spring in the name of St Ethelberga, daughter of the first English-speaking Christians, King Athelbert and Queen Bertha.
Train: Sandling, Folkestone Central and Snowdown, or Bekesbourne for the end of this stage. Bus: No’s 16A and 18A connect Lympne to Canterbury, the 10, 10A and 11 connect Lympne to Folkestone and Ashford. The No. 17 connects Folkestone and Etchinghill to Elham, Barham, Bridge and Canterbury. Taxi: Direct Line Cars – contact 01797 361075, Premier Taxis and The Village Taxi and County Cars (contact 01227 721256). The Village taxi also do baggage transfers.
Saltwood: The Castle Hotel or 1 mile away in Hythe, the Hythe Imperial Hotel. Elham: The Abbots Fireside, the Rose and Crown. Barham: The Duke of Cumberland. Also, sanctuary is available nearby to Friends of the British Pilgrimage Trust. Bridge The Pig at Bridge Place, or Patrixbourne Church offers Sanctuary.
Saltwood: village shop, The Castle Hotel, the Hide and Fox. Lyminge: a cafe, local shop and The Coach and Horses. There is a very good farm shop at Ottinge (Ottinge Court Farm, CT4 6XH,) with an all-day vending machine selling local raw milk/cheese/yoghurt. The main shop is open twice weekly. Elham: the Abbots Fireside, the Kings Arms and the Rose and Crown. There is also a decent village shop. Barham: The Duke of Cumberland and Barham Village Store, a community-run shop selling local food to take away. Bishopsbourne: The Mermaid Inn and the Tadpole Tearoom. Bridge, The Bridge Arms – The Pig at Bridge Place – Bridge Village Stores.
Saltwood Castle, although private, is said to be the place where Thomas Becket’s murder was plotted. There have been defenses here since before the Romans, and you can get a good feel of the history from walking outside its walls.
The great church in Lyminge was once a double monastery founded by St Ethelberga, Queen of Northumbria and daughter of the first Anglo Saxon dynasty to convert to Christianity. .
The Nailbourne, which springs from St Ethelberga’s holy well in Lyminge meanders its way towards Canterbury, and the Old Way weaves around it. A winterbourne stream, it usually dries up in the summer, but the capricious waters can sometimes appear if conditions are right.
Follow the Saxon Shore waymarks Elham Valley Way waymarks for this stage, diverting to the right at Wingmore to walk through the woods and tumuli to Barham church before rejoining the EVW.
From Lympne and St Stephen’s Church, walk east out of the village towards the Shepway Cross, which memorialises those lost in World War One in significantly handsome style, given its remoteness. However, the cross may have been predated in the past by another that marked the spot where the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports held a court for Shepway. After a short distance along the lane, take the footpath into fields toward Pedlinge. Here is a Chapel-of-Ease, built for the local estate workers, and now rarely open. Perhaps you’ll be lucky?
Continue along the route through Brockhill Country Park: once the estate of one of Beckett’s assassins, now a heavily-wooded country park. Cross Sandling road and enter the woods, and walk awhile among the deep dark green. The small riverlet that runs alongside the path is said to run red once a year with the blood of a roman legion – though the truth is that it runs over a bed of iron ore. This section of the route deliberately extends the time pilgrims spend in the woods. Once within the woodland’s folds, we think you’ll understand why.
Trees eventually become village, and the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Saltwood, is impeccably neat and well-loved, soon arrives. Look for the carved roundels in the church with angels, goblins and dragons, and the yew tree in the churchyard. Then enter the village of Saltwood proper, where food can be found.
Seek out Saltwood Castle, hidden on the village edge. This is where Becket’s assassins slept the night before they rode to kill him. Becket’s desire to acquire the land of this castle formed the beginnings of the rift between Becket and Henry II, which ultimately cost Thomas Becket his life and paved the way for Canterbury becoming the pilgrimage destination it has become. You cannot enter the castle, as it is private property, once home of Kenneth Clark of ‘Civilisation’ fame. But you can get a wonderful viewing point from the footpath around it.
A fine Holm Oak, or Holly Oak is found just outside the castle. Although a relative introduction to Britain, it still carries the acorns so familiar to us. In ancient Greece, the acorn was also a symbol of fertility and was worn on jewellery to increase chances of conception. The leaves of the Holm Oak were used to tell the future and they were also used to make crowns to honour people, much in the same way that the Romans used laurel. If there is someone you wish to honour, why not collect one of the shiny leaves and carry it in their name.
From Saltwood Castle, cross the modern transport corridor of M20 and Eurotunnel. The North Downs face you. The preferred route is toward the Silbury-like hill – the mysterious man-made mount at Avebury, completed in around 2400 BC. This comparable mount, to your right as you walk away from Saltwood, is called Summerhouse Hill and was created by natural forces.
Both routes converge along a wriggling path avoiding roadside walking past woods, to reach the holloway into Lyminge.
Enter the village through the Church of St Mary and St Ethelburga, which is possibly the site of a Roman Basilica, and reliquary of a great Saxon Saint. Recent excavations of the site, lead by the University of Reading, have discovered the remains of a much earlier church on these grounds – built using techniques lost at least 200 years before the end of Roman rule in England. The layers of occupation on this site have provided researchers with a vivid insight into how Anglo-Saxon society and its most important settlements were transformed through the process of Christianisation.
Lyminge offers good options for food and rest. It also has St Ethelburga’s Well – the source of the River Nailbourne, a stream with the legendary ability to prophesy, by flooding, bad times for England. The unmistakable bright yellow flowers of the Yellow Flag Iris stand proudly in the water pouring from St Ethelberga’s well. This evokes the iris association with purity, as they would clean and purify water where they grew. The Romans were known to use it in purification rites, and it came to be associated with the Virgin Mary. Its ability to purify water makes it a symbol of transformation, with the power to create clarity in muddy waters of all kinds.
Then walk over the Tayne Field where once stood a great Saxon feasting hall. Pass the cafe and shop, follow the Nailbourne to North Lyminge and into fields, along the course of the now disappeared Elham Valley railway line.
You are now following the Elham Valley Way. Detour if desired to find a raw milk farm. Continue to Elham, where you will find an incredible 11th century church with a side altar wood carving of the knights killing Becket, and some brilliant pubs.
From St Mary’s Church, Elham follow the Nailbourne north toward Canterbury. The path follows a great avenue of Black Poplars. These are quite a rare sight, as the tree is now endangered in Britain. In springtime the male trees hold red dangly catkins known as “Devil’s Fingers” and it was said to be unlucky to collect them, although the bark was used as a remedy in the same way as willow. Older traditions would invoke their healing properties by pinning a lock of hair to the tree. Once commonly planted along parish boundaries, they are trees which once marked places of celebration or transition.
When Elham finally ends, a field maple marks the spot. At a path of three choices, take the middle way among the oaks. From here, look back to see Tolsford tower. This hill is known as Hall Down, but no-one knows about the hall. When you reach a lane, tear-dropped in hazel arches, walk left and downhill. Climb the hills once more, and continue through a horse valley until you reach Bedlam Woods. Though there is no evidence for the troubling naming of this particular woodland, it is worth noting that woods and madness share an etymological root, and in fairytales the dark woods are often the place where the challenge or central conflict occurs. This a metaphor, perhaps, for the shadowy darkness of our unconscious.
Take the quiet path through the wood, until you emerge in the great fields around Barham, many of which are now becoming vineyards. Cross a forgotten Anglo Saxon burial ground into Barham village. There you will find the wonderful Church of St John, which offers sanctuary to pilgrims. There is also a great village store, and a jolly pub with rooms (The Duke of Cumberland).
Leaving Barham, ascend the wonderfully named Hearts Delight Hill. Pass the ruined railway bridges of the lost Elham Valley Railway. On your left, in a gap among chalk and hedgerow comes a retrospective vista – a moment to look back on the pilgrimage you have made. You are so close to the end of your journey, now.
Then walk on upward to the crest of the hill. Leave the lane onto footpaths, and cross the crest of the hill, greeting the horses, down into the orchards. Turn right, and after a small plantation you reach a road. Turn right again to sing (if you wish) under the bridge. Then climb up to walk along the track of the railway line itself, and progress into Kingston.
The tiny Saxon Church of St Giles in Kingston is full of peace and memories of treasure: the ‘Kingston Brooch’, an important piece of Anglo-Saxon jewellery dating from the 7th century, was discovered in a Tumulus on Kingston Downs in 1771 by Rev’d. Brian Faussett. It is 8cm in diameter, made of gold, with garnet, blue glass and shell settings. If you wish to see it, you’d have to set off on another journey entirely – as it is now on display in the World Museum, Liverpool.
Elsewhere in the village, perhaps find the labyrinth at the Quiet View? Then take the narrow path away from Kingston to Bishopsbourne, where the River Nailbourne may be seen empty. The Nailbourne is, it is believed, a portentous river, flooding in years of difficulty in England. The last time these waters flooded was the summer of 2016 – just before the Brexit vote.
Pass the parkland of Charlton Park, with its pasture and huge trees, into Bishopsbourne. The Mermaid Inn is a decent pub for a rest. A short detour away is a brilliant cafe, Tadpole Tearoom. Pilgrims have spoken very highly of Tadpole’s, so you may feel it’s worth the short detour to reach!
St Mary’s Church, Bishopsbourne is unmissable: a Victorian super-church, rich with colour and history. The tiles around the altar are in the style of – or perhaps even by – William Morris. Certainly there is something very special about them. Also here you will find medieval windows, and 14th-century wall paintings. It is a wonderful place.
Continue through the parkland beyond, ascending the hill after woodlands to reach another forgotten Saxon burial field. Soon, on the right, is Old England’s Hole, where local warriors made their last stand against Caesar’s armies during his first incursion into Britain. At the bottom of the hill is St Peter’s Church, Bridge, which is approached through a wild yew grove. Bridge village is just beyond.