Along The Pilgrim's Way From Winchester to Canterbury

We were on the Pilgrim’s Way: the ancient pilgrimage route hemming the line of the North Downs through Kent and West Sussex, a long, wavering ribbon of battered tarmac and chalky track that stretches out between the great Cathedral cities of Canterbury and Winchester; and beyond, from Dover to Stonehenge

"There are many words for walking."
"There are many words for walking."
"It was late April and the Bluebells were out."
"It was late April and the Bluebells were out."

Walking

There are many words for walking. We amble. We stroll. We march. We trudge. We perambulate. Best of all, perhaps: we saunter.

This last word is from the French, “Saint Terre” meaning “Holy Land”.

It derives from the Middle Ages, when pilgrimage was all the rage. Everyone was going to the Holy Land. Some people took it up as a profession. They would wander from town to town, from church to church, begging for alms, like Sadhus and Holy Men do in India today. When asked where they were going, they would say, “to Saint Terre”….. to the Holy Land.

They would never actually get there. It was the journey itself that mattered. Perhaps they were already in the Holy Land in some sense. Perhaps it was the walking that took them there.

It certainly felt like that to me.

We were on the Pilgrim’s Way: the ancient pilgrimage route hemming the line of the North Downs through Kent and West Sussex, a long, wavering ribbon of battered tarmac and chalky track that stretches out between the great Cathedral cities of Canterbury and Winchester; and beyond, from Dover to Stonehenge.

It was late April and the Bluebells were out. We sauntered along country lanes through wooded hills as dappled sunlight played down upon us, as the road unravelled and birds sang, scurrying about in the treetops. Hardly a car passed. There was hardly a reminder that we were in the 21st century at all.

I was with my friend, Paul. We were about three days into the journey by now, up an isolated track by a wood. We were talking about walking, about the way walking changes things. “You get to know the world you’re walking in,” said Paul. “It’s more intimate.”

“Yes,” I said. “You get to know the faces of the trees.”

This is true. In our 21st century world we circumscribe the landscape. We surround it. We look in on it from the outside, from a distance, from our roads, from our cars, from our cities, from our houses. When you walk, on the other hand, you enter the landscape, stepping across a threshold as if through a doorway into another world. You become immersed in the landscape. You become a part of it.

A journey that might take 20 minutes by car would take three days on foot. The whole world changes with this change of pace. England is another country, an undiscovered land, one you have only ever glimpsed from afar. The trees are like sentinels, guiding you on your journey, guarding you on your way. And each tree has a character, a personality. Soon you find yourself talking to them, like long lost friends.

A decorated tree in Surrey
A decorated tree in Surrey
Sign inside The Good Intent, Puttenham
Sign inside The Good Intent, Puttenham

The North Downs Way

It had been a variable journey so far. We’d caught a train to Winchester, but, arriving late, had had to take the first bed and breakfast we could find. It was a scruffy, dirty little room above a pub and didn’t bode well for our trip. It didn’t even provide a proper breakfast. And the first day it rained heavily all day, making walking impossible. We visited the Cathedral - which we got in for nothing, telling the cashier that we were on a pilgrimage and wanted to say a prayer at the start of our journey - after which we decided to skip ahead by bus, to Farnham, where we found a welcoming pub and a much more hospitable B&B. And the following morning, the weather being suddenly bright, we set out on foot at last.

We were following the North Down’s Way, the well marked English National Trail which approximates the route of the old Pilgrim’s Way. You leave Farnham on a wooded footpath which parallels the A31 - which intrudes upon you with its incessant roar at first - but very soon you swerve away into open countryside…. And into silence, expansiveness and beauty.

I think this is what is so remarkable about this route: the fact that in this most crowded and built-up corner of England, the Southeast, you can travel for hours, even days, at a time, and hardly cross a road or meet another soul.

As well as the white acorn signs which point the way, you also encounter the occasional more eccentric marker. Decorated trees. You don’t often see this in England. But here, on the Pilgrim’s Way, we came across two in the space of less than an hour. Later, in the village of Puttenham, we found a pub, The Good Intent. It was lunchtime now. We’d been walking since early morning, so you can be assured our intentions were very good as we stepped in for some welcome refreshment and a chat with the locals.

It was in here that we heard about the Watts Mortuary Chapel.

“You’ll be surprised,” said the patrons of the pub, mysteriously. “It’s like nothing you have ever seen before."

Watts Mortuary Chapel

We set out on our walk again, and about an hour further on we found ourselves approaching the monument.

It is a few hundred yards off the route, near the Watts Gallery in the village of Compton, up a lane and around a bend. We’d been walking for most of the day and were very tired. When the monument failed to jump immediately into sight we almost gave up. “If I don’t see it soon I’m heading back,” I said. But then, there it was.

At first sight it is very plain: a domed, red brick chapel set on a wooded hill. Closer up you can see that it is elaborately decorated, with intricate terracotta forms weaving in and out of the brickwork and a fine, ornately carved wooden doorway. But it is on stepping through the doorway that the magic hits you. As the people in the pub had told us, it was like nothing we’d ever seen before. It very nearly took our breath away.

If the outside is a monochrome terracotta red, inside it glows with the richest of hues, reds and greens and purples and browns and blues, all the colours you can imagine, with images of fiery Angels making secret hand signs, with code words woven into the design and deeply resonant quotations from the Bible. It is like an Art Nouveau temple in there.

A notice at the door explains its origins.

It was built as a memorial to the Victorian portraitist George Watts by his wife Mary Fraser Tytler, who designed the building, and includes a painting by Watts himself, which he completed just months before his death.

The whole thing is a stunning, awe-inspiring, mystical work of art, which would be worth a visit even without its connection to the Pilgrim’s Way.

Aldous Huxley is buried in the graveyard.

The Coldrum Stones

The Watt’s Mortuary Chapel is in Surrey, but, over the border in Kent, there are further surprises. One of these is the Coldrum Stones, a Neolithic chambered Long Barrow near the village of Trottiscliffe not far from Sevenoaks.

I’ve lived in Kent now for 25 years but had never heard of this ancient place until recently. It is one of Kent’s best kept secrets, hardly more than half an hour’s drive from Canterbury.

It is perched just off the Pilgrims Way on a spur of land over looking the weald of Kent, where the River Medway cuts through the Downs, facing East towards the Vernal Equinox sunrise.

Excavations show a number of burials in this place, including the skull of a woman who may have been ritually sacrificed, which stood on a raised shelf inside the burial chamber. Some of the bones had been painted in red ochre. These are now situated in Maidstone Museum.

And from beside the chamber, looking East, you can just make out the site of another Long Barrow, Kit’s Coty House, about five miles away, also situated on the slope of the North Downs along the Pilgrim’s Way.

It’s as if, in locating these two monuments within sighting distance of each other, the ancient builders were marking out this venerable track for travellers to follow. Possibly a ferry crossing on the Medway would have lain in between. Possibly, also, they were standing in defiance of each other across the spacious landscape, marking out rival territories.

It was May Eve by now, Beltane, the perfect time to be here. There was a circle of flowers in the grounds where previous visitors had made their offerings. Paul burned incense and did some rituals, while I said my prayers to the ancestors, absorbing the atmosphere of peace and tranquillity which pervades the place.

It felt as if, in following this ancient pathway, we were being led, not only through the physical landscape, but through a psychic and historical landscape too.

Pilgrimage

There’s something about this road, something indefinable but alluring. It calls to you, beckoning you along the way. Every so often the way is cut or broken by a stretch of modern road, with the traffic rushing by, fuming and roaring; but then you’d catch sight of the Pilgrim’s Way in the distance, a dark little funnel through the greenery, luring you into its peaceful shade.

I always knew instinctively when I was on the Pilgrim’s Way. I could feel it in my bones.

This road could represent the earliest evidence of human activity on these Isles, being not only a medieval Pilgrimage route, but a part of a much earlier track-way too, stretching all the way from Dover to Stonehenge: from the most important crossing point for the continent, to the very heart of Britain.

It is the natural route from the East to the West, avoiding the mires and the bogs of the marshy valleys, and the forest entanglements of the heights (full of wild animals and hostile tribes) keeping a level course, sheltered from the wind, on the sunny side of the slopes, overlooking the vast expanse of the landscape stretching out below.

It was once a great trading route, with people bringing goods and raw materials to and from Europe. Perhaps it is the road taken by the great megalith builders when they first set foot on these Isles, bringing with them their high culture and their knowledge of the stars. Perhaps, too, the first metals were brought in along this road.

Hunter-gatherers used it to track their prey. Farmers used it to bring their crops to market. Nomads used it to move their herds.

The Celts used it, the Romans used it, the Saxons used it.

Medieval pilgrims rode along it at a canter (at the Canterbury pace) to visit the bones of their sacred dead, just as Neolithic travellers had before.

John Bunyan lived nearby, and wrote his Pilgrim’s Progress as an allegory of its spiritual meaning.

Hilaire Belloc in The Old Road speaks of the archetype of The Road. “It is the greatest and most original of the spells which we inherit from the earliest pioneers of our race,” he says.

The Road leads us on. It is The Road itself which guides us, taking a level course, avoiding the traps and the dangers lying in wait either side, taking the simplest and most natural route through the landscape. The Road knows the crossing points for every river, for every hill. It knows the best way over every obstacle, and all along it there are places to stay, for rest and refreshment.

Here, in the early part of the 21st century, it sometimes feels as if the whole of the human race is lost.

Once on The Road you cannot get lost. It is The Road that guides us home.

show route and directions
A markerTrottiscliffe kent -
Trottiscliffe, West Malling, Kent ME19, UK
[get directions]

B markerthe pilgrims way trottiscliffe -
Pilgrims Way, Trottiscliffe, Kent ME19 5, UK
[get directions]

Abeille Guest House

B&B

119 Stoke Road

Guildford

Surrey

GU1 1ET

01483 532200

abeille.house119@ntlworld.com

Recommended accommodation:

Meads Guest House

B&B

48 West Street

Farnham

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Comments 40 comments

Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 7 years ago from UK

What a fantastic experience! We've walked bits and pieces of the South Downs Way over the years, but hope to do the whole thing some time, maybe when the kids are older. The Pilgrim's Way sounds great, and there's some beautiful countryside up there.


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 7 years ago from Stepping past clutter

What a great and inspiring trip to share with us all. I am building a traveling urge as I read this and watch my nephew cycle the country. Wonder where I will go, lol. Nothing like the open road to clear the head. And the faces of trees... I relate from the month I spent in the Boundary Waters. As the bus drove away from this wilderness area, I felt as if each of the trees was my friend waving goodbye.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hi Amanda, yes the Pilgrim's Way is great. I definitely recommend it is a route to walk, though finding places to stay is difficult. I'm hoping to do it again with a list of pubs this time. I'll report back when I've completed it.

Hello Storytellersrus, glad I've helped to inspire you. There's nothing like travelling to blow the dust from your brain is there?


pgrundy 7 years ago

Wow, I would SO love to do this. I love hiking where nobody is. Here in the U.S. our oldest walking route is the Appalachian trail, which runs from Maine on the northern east coast all the way down to Georgia in the deep south. It's 2,175 miles long. I would love to walk that too. You should write a book about this! It would be great. "A Walk in Woods" by Bill Bryson is about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. I go into that book so deeply, and then halfway through the book, he just gives up. Like, whoa, this was harder than I thought, bye bye! God that pissed me off.

I used to have this ongoing fantasy about just walking out the door with nothing and walking across the U.S. alone and writing about it. I get this urge to do that now and then, just walk. Stuff gets to me.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hi Pam, the thing about the Pilgrim's Way is that it just FEELS like there's no one there, but you're walking through Kent, and there's nowhere that isn't less than half an hour's walk from a pub. I've managed to persuade Shepherd Neame, the oldest brewery in the UK, to let me stay at their pubs along the route when I have a go at doing it again next year, and then I plan to write a book about it. Got my Holiday book to write first though. Have you read "Walking" by Thoreau? It's lovely. It's where I got that snippet about the origin of the world saunter from. Walking is natural therapy, and I would recommend it for all your ills.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

PS I've added a link for Thoreau's "Walking" in the first section, under the pictures.


Sufidreamer profile image

Sufidreamer 7 years ago from Sparti, Greece

Wonderful work, C.J

It is not often I feel homesick for the UK, but your Hub did bring on a bout! The ancient paths and rich history - I always fancied the Pilgrim's way, but it looks lke I may never have the chance.

Thanks for that, and I hope that you enjoy a nice pint or two of finest Shepherd Neame bitter on your next trip.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Aye, Sufidreamer, England has it's moments. "England" note, not Britain or the UK. That's the feeling you get from the Pilgrim's Way, of a specifically English place. While were were walking we were saying that we were looking for England, and I think there were times when we even found it. So when did you leave, and why won't you be back?


Sufidreamer profile image

Sufidreamer 7 years ago from Sparti, Greece

That is an answer that could fill up many Hubs!

My partner and I have always been Grecophiles, and we had the chance to move here and buy a house outright, just under three years ago. Unless things change dramatically, we intend to stay for a long time.

Of course, we visit the UK on holiday (hopefully early next year), but there is so little time to get out into the countryside. I think that you gave a good answer - the Lake District is not 'English' - it has a different landscape, history and culture, and a much more Nordic influence.

I lived in Oxfordshire for a few years, and knew many pagans down there. We managed to visit Wayland's Smithy, the Rollrights and a few other ancient sites. The Cotswalds had an English feel, too. Sadly, it is unlikely that I will ever have the time to visit the south, although the Kent beer sounds tempting - I could kill for a pint of good English bitter!


tantrum profile image

tantrum 7 years ago from Tropic of Capricorn

So well explained ! I enjoyed the reading. Cheers !!


Feline Prophet profile image

Feline Prophet 7 years ago from India

It was wonderful to saunter along with you along The Pilgrim's Way!


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

thanks for share. those are great place. nice picture also. I like reading this hub.


Joy chans 7 years ago

This article is really interesting for me like reading it, thank Stone..


CJStone profile image

CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Glad people are enjoying this as it's a story I'm really proud of. One day I hope to turn it into a book.


IslandVoice profile image

IslandVoice 7 years ago from Hawaii

What a lovely hub! You must publish it.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 7 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

It appeared in Kindred Spirit IslandVoice, but very glad you appreciated it. I have it in mind as a book one day.


Ambition398 profile image

Ambition398 7 years ago

Wow thanks for the history. I learned a lot of new stuff. I've never heard of the Pilgrams Way before. Thanks again.


Luanne16 6 years ago

Wow, This was a great hub. I hope "when I grow up", I can write like you.

You are so talented, I'm a new fan (but hate to admit it, I'm jealous of your gift). I really mean it though,I hope in time I will learn a lot from people like you.

I'm glad I found your writing on Hubpages.

Thank you,

Luanne16


SusanVMUSA profile image

SusanVMUSA 6 years ago

Excellent Hub! I'd love to do this someday!


alexandriaruthk profile image

alexandriaruthk 6 years ago from US

thanks for this one,


salt profile image

salt 6 years ago from australia

thankyou, this is lovely. I have been learning about my english or celtic roots, and more recently, with cecil kimber being the creator of the MG and other links to southern england. .. I am wanting to learn about before the roman invasion as I am learning we were all tribal. This is beautiful though.. maybe Ill get the chance to travel it when next in England.


dragonbear profile image

dragonbear 6 years ago from Essex UK

A great journey! I enjoy walking, this is quite a route, I've bookmarked it to look again in the summer. Thanks for the inspiration!


Earth Angel profile image

Earth Angel 6 years ago

How very lovely Chris!! Thank you so much for sharing!! Yes, as a life-long fan of Thoreau, I am delighted to hear you are writing/going to write a similar book based on your own experiences!!?? We all need more nature, walking, reflection and awareness in our lives!! Blessings always, Earth Angel!!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I agree with Earth Angel about more nature, walking, reflection and awareness. One can't possibly "know" an area from whizzing through it on an A-road or (U.S.) interstate. It must be walked.

btw, another decent book on a pilgrimage to Canterbury is "Walking To Canterbury" by Jerry Ellis. By "decent", I mean it would've been a much better read had it had more about the actual walk and fewer marginally informative tidbits about life in Ancient England that were obviously only added to make a thin book "fatter".


Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 6 years ago from West Virginia

You always seem to pull in the reader on the journey you are partaking. What visions in the mind and the pictures you left are awe inspiring. Thanks for sharing the trip to the past through the present.

I noticed that Aldoux Huxley (Brave New World) was mentioned. He is one of my favorite authors along with another English Lit writer, C.S. Lewis for his marvelous Tales of Narnia.


diogenes 6 years ago

Good, Chris: I love these walking stories. Bryson's Walk in the Woods was marvellous, despite the bad press it got about him giving up to early. Interesting point about the road "knowing" the way and guiding the traveller around obstacles, etc. Could you "stealth" camp along the way? Not for me, though, I'm too out of shape and used to comfort...Bob I like to do these things in Baja where you can do what you like!


CJStone profile image

CJStone 6 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hello Lady G, yes I like CS Lewis too. He also wrote a series of science fiction books, starting with Out of the Silent Planet, which are old fashioned but which I really like for some strange reason. Glad you like my story. I'm trying to get it to number one on Google for the Pilgrim's Way.

Hi JamaGenee: I'll check out that book by Jerry Ellis. This was always meant to be a book some day, so all the reading I can add to it will help. I'll probably end up writing lots of marginal titbits too.

Hi Earth Angel: yes Thoreau remains one of my main inspirations and I've taken up walking as a form of therapy on the back of his work. I'm still walking the Pilgrim's Way, every time I get the chance. That's almost a metaphor...


CJStone profile image

CJStone 6 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hello diogenes, I got the idea of the road "knowing" the way from Hilaire Belloc, but it feels like a deep truth to me. I think you could do a bit of stealth camping, although at the end of a day's walking it's quite nice to settle down in a comfy place and get some proper rest. I'm still trying to work out the various options to be able to do the full journey one day. I've been doing it in bits for a bout a year now, but not doing the whole journey. I believe that would amount to a spiritual experience.


CWB 6 years ago

Keep'm coming Chris! Beautiful.


fen lander profile image

fen lander 6 years ago from Whitstable

Brilliant stuff CJ, I don't half wish I could write like you. I went on that walk as I read. Inspiring, I'm gonna walk the Ridgeway and Icknield Way next summer, from Henge to Ely and Seahenge.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 6 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Glad you like it Joe. I'll have to do those walks too one day. I'm finding that walking is my best therapy these days.


johnnynaakea 5 years ago

Great hub! I enjoyed reading about your adventure on this ancient path. It reminded me of C.S. Lewis' walks into the English countryside with his brother Warner. I hope you write a book about your adventures.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 5 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Hi Johnny, well I'm planning to write a book, hopefully starting next year. Glad you enjoyed it, and I liked the reference to CS Lewis who is one of my favourite writers. I'll have to find that book.


Liber 5 years ago

I also enjoyed your account of your walk. I also a fan of CS Lewis and have pretty much read all I can put my hands on. The Trilogy you mentioned is quite good and very spiritural in the allegories it has. I really loved Perlandra and the picture of the garden of Eden (or that is how I saw it). Keep up your interesting and informative writing.


Nils Visser 5 years ago

Definitely going to visit that chapel and the stones. Enjoyed this tremendously.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 5 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

Glad you did Nils. I would heartily recommend both.


Stephen Nicholls 4 years ago

I'm really thinking of doing this in April or May. This last April I walked from Oporto to Santiago de Compostela as a true pilgrimage. That route is brilliantly sign-posted with yellow arrows, and follows the old Roman Highway XIX. Are the "Acorn" signs clear along this whole route, or am I likely to get lost?! Best wishes, Stephen.


CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

The acorn signs are pretty clear along the whole route, though I would advise you carry a copy of the guide with you: http://www.amazon.co.uk/North-Downs-National-Trail... Be warned though, the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims way divert slightly from each other: The Pilgrim's Way (which is mainly a road) is always the easiest. Let me know when you are doing it. You can come over to Whitstable for Fish n Chips.


Steve fuller 4 years ago

Great article. Going to do this walk!


CJStone profile image

CJStone 4 years ago from Whitstable, UK Author

It's great Steve. You can do the stretch between Rochester and Canterbury in about 3 days. The full walk is probably about a fortnight.

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