Wye to Canterbury – 12.5 miles – 1-2 days.
Wye is a large village in East Kent, sitting approximately 12 miles away (as the pilgrim treads) from the great cathedral of Canterbury. Travel to the train station on the Western edge of Wye, and enter Wye by crossing the same River Stour you will follow later when nearing Canterbury.
Your pilgrimage begins at the church of St Gregory and St Martin in Wye, whose wooden Medieval Nave contrasts strangely with its pastel Stuart Chancel. Follow the footpath behind the Church, and walk the long straight track toward the Downs beyond the village. Then ascend the Wye Downs, a gentle and warming climb through the woods.
High on the chalk downs you’ll meet the Wye Crown, a famous chalk carving by the village’s erstwhile Agricultural College. Here you can expect astonishing views of East Kent. Though your day’s walk has barely begun, it is worth opening the thermos to sit awhile in contemplation.
Then you delve into wooded tracks, along wide fields and ancient rutted passages. Such pathways have not really changed in hundreds of years. It is easy to imagine the tread of pilgrims long-past walking beside you.
Another climb takes you to the Church of Crundale, seemingly situated in the middle of nowhere, but in fact democratically equi-distant from five local manor houses. This small but beautiful Church certainly deserves a song. It is wonderfully open, with a toilet and a tap. And two Yew trees outside, greeting all-comers.
After two hundred metres along a very quiet country lane, you re-enter the woods. We have avoided road walking on this route, but this short stretch is so beautiful and quiet you can almost forget – despite the fact that it was once a busy Roman highway.
You next cross a valley on a footpath you can follow with your eye for almost a mile. The etymological root of the word pilgrimage – ‘per ager’, meaning simply ‘through the fields’ – never seemed truer.
This leads to a Yew and Beech studded track, which today is a by-way, so at certain times of the year people apparently drive vehicles here. But do not worry, you’ll hear them coming a very long way off and have plenty of trees to side-step behind…
At the top of this track, you enter the great woods of Eggringe, Denge and Pennypot, quiet, deep and wonderful.
You pass through various areas of Birch, Chestnut, Pine and mixed growth. The woodland can seem unending. Just before the only small lane you’ll meet, the track passes between two large tumuli. Like guardians on each side, these Bronze Age burial mounds deserve a respectful greeting in order to guarantee safe passage.
The woods continue for some miles, and you may forget that Kent is the most populous county in Britain. But eventually trees end, and you find yourself on a small road, from which you soon leave to cut across a farm. The field rises into Shalmsford Street, a linear village which you are going to entirely skirt via a long back-alley shortcut.
The alleyway takes you to a road leading to Chartham, a classic old English village with a Green featuring red phone box and Tudor houses. But equally typical is its sadly locked Church, the otherwise wonderful St Mary’s. If you have time, chase down the keyholders from a phone number displayed on the porch door.
The village green The pub, The Artichoke, is 15th Century classic and well worth a quick stop. Or, if you’d like to make your pilgrimage more leisurely, you can stay the night just beyond Chartham at the AirBnB Cockering Farm Manor House, just beyond for you have miles yet to tread…
From Chartham you follow water. The long straight track along the River Stour is a different world, full of people, children on bicycles and dog-walkers all saying hello. Be sure not to miss the bridge that backtracks you past the Church at Milton. And do be sure to take the green underpass to avoid crossing the A28 road. You are now approaching Canterbury, so traffic is an unfortunate reality. There’s not huge volumes, but after the deep quiet of the woods, everything can seem busy and loud.
Enjoy the calm light reflected from the wide fishing lakes on your left, ex-quarry sites. You will first see Canterbury Cathedral, your destination, somewhere along this stretch, so keep your eyes open, and stop to appreciate the moment when you do. This is your Mount Joy, first sighting of the distant end…
Follow the river all the way into the Westgate park, past the wonderfully fat Chinese Plane Tree, and out to the West Gate itself, England’s largest surviving Medieval gate, a survivor from the Old Wall of Canterbury. The City Council almost voted to destroy this in order to allow access to Circus Elephants some 100 years ago – no joke – but thankfully the motion was slimly outvoted.
Pilgrims, you are now within the city of Canterbury. Your first Church on the left is St Peters, where many refugee Huguenot weavers are buried. Your next holy place, as you cross the River Stour, is the Undercroft of Greyfrairs on your right. This costs pennies to enter, and you can see the great stone floors on which pilgrims used to sleep. If you have carried a Pilgrim Staff on this journey now is a good time to release it to the river, and let it continue on its own pilgrimage to the sea.
Then comes Canterbury Cathedral, Mother Church of the Anglican Communion. If you are early, and they are still charging on the door, simply say you are a pilgrim and wish to pray. You can still donate later, as you wish. Be sure to walk the Cloisters, sing in the Chapter House, light a candle in the Crypt, and kneel where the Shrine to Beckett once stood. The stairs ascending are worn by the countless millions of pilgrims who have gone before.
And now your pilgrimage is complete. Evensong usually begins at 5:30 pm, but check the Choral Evensong website and/or the Canterbury Cathedral Music List for more details. If you are early, tell staff at the gate you are a pilgrim hoping to pray, and they will waive the entry fee. You can still contribute financially if you so wish. Evensong is a short service of music and prayer that is performed by the Cathedral choir or a visiting guest choir. Hearing 20 voices in perfect practised praise within this great stone miracle of a building is simply astonishing for the body and soul, especially after a long day of striving to arrive, when you are enrobed with the fatigue of journey. Prepare to be moved.
And then, homeward. The very best food in town is either at Deesons and Cafe Mauresque very close to the Cathedral, or the Goods Shed, by Canterbury West Train Station (the one with the fast trainline to London). All are very good, you’ll want to book ahead. You deserve a treat.
Don’t forget to take this journey home, perhaps by spending some time contemplating what you learned and found. Writing or painting can be good tools for processing a journey on foot. And above all, tell people about it – to pass the blessing on…