I was recently approached by the Kentish Consortium to write an article for their inaugural magazine relating my experiences along the Pilgrim’s Way. It was published this week and is reproduced below.
A true pilgrim will make the journey in a single trip, often with some purpose in mind. The original penitent is said to be King Henry II after hearing of the murder of Thomas Becket, his Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. Thomas was canonised as a martyr just three years later.
For me, the impetus was a need for some time and space to reflect on life’s twists and turns in recent years. I decided to complete the walk in stages, either on single days or weekends. On a few days I enjoyed the company of friends but on most trips, I journeyed in solitude.
The first section across Hampshire follows the trail dedicated to an earlier saint with links to Winchester, Saint Swithun. The city is a good place to explore, if you have the time, but you must head north to cross the A3 before emerging into fine countryside. The beautiful River Itchen is a wonderful addition to the scenic delights as you head east.
The village of Martyr Worthy is home to St Swithun’s Church and marks a splendid opportunity to consider the long history of the adventure that you have begun. Centuries ago, pilgrims would look to rest and find sustenance in such places. I often reflected on the progress of the many thousands of pilgrims who had gone before me over the centuries.
Further on, the town of New Alresford affords an opportunity to experience the East Hampshire Heritage Railway. Due to the long standing association with the growing of the plant in the waters of the river, it is commonly known as the Watercress Line. From Farnham, the terrain begins to present more inclines as it closely follows the North Downs Way across Surrey.
I found that when I spent longer periods on the Way, the sense of freedom from everyday worries became more apparent. One of these long stretches began at Guildford with an old friend who accompanied me as far as Dorking. I spent the night in the local youth hostel and next day, my solitary way continued across the River Mole and up on to Box Hill. The magnificent views from on high constantly renewed my energy levels as I traversed the hills and descended in to Merstham.
What greets you soon after this is something that the early pilgrims would not have experienced: the noise of the M25. However, they would have had to be wary of robbers lurking in the woods, so maybe it isn’t so bad? As a great lover of woodland, I delighted in the old tree lined areas that provide a cooler passage on warmer days. I also recommend keeping an eye out of for some interesting wildlife and pausing to appreciate the many vistas that will greet you.
With the town of Westerham to your south you will cross the Greenwich Meridian which is marked by a small plaque. A few miles on the border into Kent will go by, unmarked. The change of county also brings a change in the countryside. The downland is left behind and the River Medway is bridged while traversing a more built up region. For those with a mind to do so, an overnight stay with the Friars in Aylesford is time well spent.
The final leg gives a true impression of the attractive rural features of the county, with lovely villages, idyllic oast houses, hops, vineyards and fruit trees to admire as Canterbury comes closer with every step. Eventually, the Cathedral spire can be seen in the distance to encourage the weary traveler.
Passing over the river and through the Westgate plunges you into the hubbub of the city. Imagine, if you will, the medieval pilgrim’s lot as you make your way into the centre. The Eastbridge Hospital is a very worthwhile halt to immerse yourself more deeply in this regard. It is but a few more yards until the Cathedral grounds are reached, and you may contemplate and celebrate your achievement. A visit to the spot where Thomas met his end would seem appropriate.
To guide you on your way, I would suggest “Exploring the Pilgrim’s Way” by Alan Charles
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