A new guide to The Pilgrims' Way traces the authentic, ancient pilgrimage route from Winchester to Canterbury, with a link of equal historical importance from London. Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales suggests that April is the time to go on pilgrimage to Canterbury, where was maintained the famous shrine to St Thomas Becket. Many started from Winchester, where a shrine contained St Swithun's body.
Why The Pilgrims' Way?
The popularity of the pilgrimage stems from the murder in 1170 of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in his cathedral. Becket was Lord Chancellor and a close confidant of King Henry II, who decided that his relations with the Church would improve if his trusted friend Thomas filled the vacancy of archbishop.
Reluctant Becket was ordained priest and consecrated bishop at unprecedented speed. Once installed, he decided that loyalty to the Church must come before pleasing the King. Eventually, in anger, Henry called out ‘who shall rid me of this troublesome priest?’. Six knights mistakenly took this outburst as an order and set out for Canterbury, where Becket's tomb became England's biggest tourist attraction.
The track runs along the side of a major landscape feature of southern England, a chalk ridge. Between beech woods and tunnels of yews, it is usually high enough for sweeping views to the south.
Why does the route start at Winchester?
The ‘Old Road’, as Belloc called it, is one of the most ancient English roads, much older than the Christian shrines it passes. After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror sent troops westwards along this old way to secure Winchester.
When Christian pilgrimages to Canterbury began after Becket's murder there was also reason to focus on the older shrine to St Swithun in Winchester, which was handy for foreign pilgrims arriving by boat at Portsmouth or Southampton. But Chaucer did not start at Winchester: he knew the road from London, and his characters gather in Southwark at the south end of London Bridge.
The London start is at ‘Little Winchester’
The London starting point can be described as 'Little Winchester'. Southwark was within the vast Winchester Diocese, and its bishop lived next to Southwark Priory, now known as Southwark Cathedral. Chaucer's starting point was the nearby Tabard Inn, which was owned by Winchester's Hyde Abbey.
The route out of London goes through Borough Market and past the capital’s oldest church, dedicated to St George. Later, deep in the country, you pass England's oldest St George’s church. But first, in Southwark you’ll see Pilgrimage Street and blocks of flats named after the Kent villages yet to be reached.
The ‘St Thomas A Becket’ pub sign in Old Kent Road is a reproduction of a Canterbury Cathedral window. A former civic building further on is decorated with mosaics depicting the Roman soldiers, famous monarchs and pilgrims who have trod the road.
Then suddenly the urban landscape gives way to the open green ground of Blackheath. Soon you are on Shooters Hill, looking back at the skyscrapers jostling St Paul's and The Shard, which indicates the location of tiny Southwark Cathedral.
Here on the hill is the first farm, and a chance to leave the main road and visit Lesnes Abbey, which was dedicated to St Thomas. Stand on the rising ground behind its old walls and cloister to take a last look at the capital.
Historic pubs can be found in Dartford, where the new guide takes the modern pilgrim down the lovely Dareth Valley. This was the route used by Becket himself on his final journey to Canterbury, just days before his murder. At Eynsford the simmering row between Becket and the King began with a dispute over the appointment of a parish priest.
The first stop out of Otford is Kemsing, which has its own saint, Edith, and an ancient church door pitted with the marks of the staves pilgrims used to push it open. Beyond Wrotham, where Becket slept uneasily weeks before his death, there is a gap in hills formed by the Medway Valley.
Riverside Halling has a church and the remnants of a bishop's palace side by side. Although the ferry steps have been renewed there has been no boat since 1963.
Fortunately a new bridge has just opened. There is still a debate over where pilgrims used to cross: was it here, or upstream at Snodland, where Nigel Nicolson claimed that the Romans crossed? Others say it was at Cuxton, or as far north as Rochester. Julia Cartwright, who in 1895 wrote The Pilgrims' Way from Winchester to Canterbury, changed her mind, endorsing Snodland, where there’s a ferry house in the churchyard, over Halling.
Easy access again allows walkers to spend a day walking up and back to Rochester, which has Chaucer associations. In The Canterbury Tales the monk tells his tale here: his story of the fickleness of fortune is surely prompted by the wheel of fortune painting which survives on the cathedral’s north wall.
Rochester offers a third starting point, so three combined routes pass the lonely church at Burham. It's always open, but so little visited that you walk across unmarked grass. Nothing is on sale here except maybe some duck eggs.
Real refreshment and even a bed can be found half a day away at Aylesford, where a monastery founded in 1242 reopened in the 20th century. The town bridge is 14th century.
Boxley to Wye
After Aylesford the path regains the side of the ridge to pass through Boxley. The great abbey has gone but opposite the pub is the little Norman church which now serves as the porch to the 13th-century parish church.
A string of villages with old churches, and also often old pubs, leads to Charing, where the dilapidated archbishop's palace survives like a Turner painting alongside a soaring church tower. Here is a great hall known to Becket. Former church rectors include St Richard Reynolds; Henry VIII stopped here to claim bed and breakfast on his way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France.
A roofless church by a lake at Eastwell retains the tomb of Richard Plantagenet, son of Richard III. Soon after the way turns sharply at Boughton Lees for the last leg to Canterbury. Here you can break off for the station at Wye, be tempted by tea at the farmhouse on the path, or go on to hill-top Chilham, where the pub in the churchyard offers a bed. If continuing you pass Boughton Aluph, where the isolated church has a fireplace in the porch for pilgrims to warm themselves before their final long day.
Jane Austen associations
Just before Chilham the path passes through Godmersham, where Jane Austen's brother Edward Knight was Lord of the Manor. A coin and a banknote bearing her likeness, are being issued to celebrate the author's bicentenary year in 2017. Along the Pilgrims' Way there are numerous places known to her. Those walking out of Winchester, where she is buried, pass her home at Chawton, while London walkers can see her lodging at Dartford.
Chilham has another inn offering Kent's Bishop's Finger ale, named after the finger posts pointing pilgrims to Canterbury. Chaldon church in Surrey warns walkers with an 800 year old wall painting featuring a drunken, naked pilgrim holding an empty wine bottle. Thomas Becket was patron of the Brewers Company because, it is claimed, pilgrims drank a great deal of ale, to the benefit of the brewers.
Just outside Canterbury is Harbledown, where Chaucer's cook was too drunk to tell his tale. Today you can stop at St Thomas' Well in the grounds of St Nicholas Hospital.
First View Of Canterbury
To find the single candle marking the Becket shrine at the cathedral you present yourself at the gatehouse door, which has a giant carved shell, a symbol of pilgrimage known to those walking to Santiago de Compostela.