The Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury
The North Downs Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Canterbury – 153 miles – 15 days. Perhaps the most well-known of British pilgrimages was famously ‘re-discovered’ by Hillaire Belloc at the turn of the last century who wrote an excellent book The Old Road. Pilgrims first started making the journey from AD1172 from Winchester to Canterbury, where Thomas Becket was buried after his martyrdom two years before. From Winchester to Farnham you follow St Swithun’s Way, and the geographical feature you follow for most of this route is the unmissable chalk ridge all the way to Canterbury and beyond to Dover, which, from Farnham, is known as the North Downs. Walking the ridge, you get a sense of human interaction with the landscape over time; for example, you will begin to notice that there are major settlements where the ridge is interrupted by the Rivers Itchen at Winchester, the Wey at Guildford and the Mole at Dorking. The route follows the ‘spring line’ on the southern side of the chalk ridge, where water springs feed picturesque villages, and thus churches and pubs too, perfect for pilgrimage!
Start your pilgrimage with Wayfarer’s Dole at Hospital of St Cross, and request a formal sending off from St Swithun’s Shrine in Winchester Cathedral. You can sample the famous watercress from the River Alre at Alresford, visit Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, and delight in her sister’s invention of afternoon tea in the cafe opposite the house. Some sights to behold are the twisting and turning yew tree avenue through Bentley churchyard, Bishop Fox’s Farnham Castle, countless hop fields, evocative holloways (especially near Lenham), the Art Nouveau/Romanesque/Egyptian Watts Chapel and its nearby art gallery, the hilltop churches of St Catherine’s and St Martha’s, the Box Hill stepping stones, a medieval painting of a drunk pilgrim, Rochester Cathedral, the prehistoric Kit’s Coty House and White Horse Stone, the Lenhill hillside cross, Charing Palace, Chilham Castle, the Black Prince’s holy well at Harbledown, Caesar’s camp at Bigbury, St Thomas More’s severed head at St Dunstan’s, and then Canterbury Cathedral. In short, it’s a route packed with intrigue and medieval history.
The Becket Way from Southwark to Canterbury – 90 miles – 11 days.
The alternative starting point of the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury, rather than Winchester, is from Southwark in London, and the route joins with the North Downs Pilgrims Way at Otford/Kemsing. It is called the Becket Way because it is believed that this is the journey that Becket himself made to and from London.
Southwark was within the vast Winchester Diocese, and the Bishop of Winchester had his London home next to Southwark Priory (now the Cathedral). As a pilgrim, from Southwark you follow the path of the long-distance Roman road of Watling Street that for centuries was in constant use. On your way out of London you pass across the vast open space of Blackheath before having your last glimpse of the capital city at Shooters Hill, after which you detour from Watling Street to Lesnes Abbey, dedicated to Thomas Becket, and its mulberry tree. After Dartford, many pilgrims turned south to join the Winchester–Canterbury Pilgrims’ Way at Otford and this route takes you down the Darenth Valley, where Archbishop Becket held land and first fell out with the king, and via Farningham, where Archbishop of Canterbury St Alphege was once Lord of the Manor, before you come to the juncture at Kemsing which joins the thoroughfare of the North Downs Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester.
Collecting Wayfarer’s Dole at Hospital of St Cross, Winchester
The North Downs in general
Watts Chapel & Gallery
St Martha’s Church and Pewsey Down
And, of course, the destination of Canterbury Cathedral.
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.
Today, the Pilgrims Way from Farnham is a designated National Trail. 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.