History of the Pilgrims Way
Ancient Track ways
It is thought that the most ancient thoroughfare was from Folkestone and Dover towards Stonehenge in the West in 1800 to 1400 BCE. A route following the ridge of the chalk downs towards Folkestone would be likely for it would keep to the natural contours and higher ground away from the bogs and sticky clay, but sheltered from the exposure and the clays on top of the downs. The tracks were established originally for trade, rather than learning and spiritual reasons. There have always been pilgrims, travellers to foreign parts: to oracles, for example at Delphi, or to schools in distant places. A related word is the Latin peregrinatio, travelling in foreign countries. We know that a Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers Pythagoras, and Pytheas travelled widely, the latter even coming to England, following in the footsteps of traders, Greek or Phoenician.
Shortly before Roman times the track ways followed roughly the route from London to Canterbury and the coast because London provided a short ferry crossing for travellers going north since the stone age. After Roman rule came to Britain in 60CE, the strategic roads such as Watling Street from London via Canterbury to the coast, and from thence to Rome were metalled and these replaced less direct trackways. The Roman occupation gave rise to a constant interchange resulting in the use of Latin, and the influence, on these islands, of Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Middle Eastern learning. This was only to survive in the Celtic fringes after the fifth century, following the flood of invading Angles, Saxons and Vikings.
St Augustine of Canterbury
Two centuries later, in 597 CE, Roman influence again began to penetrate the Anglo-Saxon and Viking hordes then living in the British Isles with the arrival of St Augustine of Canterbury providing dramatic evidence of this. Canterbury not only became a stopping place on the route to Lyons and Rome, but after the death of St Augustine, pilgrims came to venerate his remains at the Great Abbey. It took several centuries before the ancient way Via Francingena could be established as a land route to Rome given the dangers in Lombardy, Northern Italy, which St Augustine had circumvented by going by sea from Rome to Marseilles.
Once established under the influence of the Western Church, the land route from Winchester or London via Canterbury to Rome, using the Via Francigena, answered the Christian longing to see the Holy City and for some the Holy Land. The steady flow of pilgrims may not have been in great numbers, but the reverence of the remains of St Augustine of Canterbury, those of St Anselm and later of St Thomas á Becket, will have given cause for individuals and parties to set out to gain spiritual benefits. Winchester was important, but London rose in importance on the foundation of St Paul’s Cathedral by St Augustine, sinking back from view for many years.
St Thomas Becket
After the death of Thomas Becket in 1170 there was a renewed reason for travelling to Canterbury to seek spiritual assistance. The map makers will have added their effect to routes chosen. The map of Matthew Paris, 1250, shows a road linking London to Canterbury via Rochester. But, when Edward I arrived from France he stopped at Leeds Castle to visit Canterbury, 1289, and on travelling north he visited Rochester, but crossed the Thames at Benfleet without visiting London. Symonson’s map of 1596 shows a route from Canterbury passing through Chilham to Charing (Challock then lying somewhat to the south) through Aylesford, with Lenham, Hollinbourne, Thurnham and Boxley lying just north, the route then divides near Trottiscliffe, going west to Sevenoaks and north to Wrotham. Challock as a village was moved on to the route centuries later.
The roads from London to Winchester, or Canterbury via Rochester, were very basic down the centuries, they were generally not much more than trackways. Certainly that from Winchester to Rochester would have been under used compared to the London routes. The roads tended to be repaired with brushwood and earth. One writer suggests that these roads, not being metalled, were kinder to the horses and pack animals that were shod, than the stone paved Roman roads which also were more hazardous in frost. One can understand that as a result of flooding or river changes, land alterations, or the changing availability of facilities, the routes taken will have changed over time, to suit the idiosyncrasies of the passengers. We know that Chaucer’s pilgrims coming from Southwark most likely followed the well-established Roman Watling Street. Consequently there is no single path which is the ancient Pilgrims’ Way, but, several routes that might be used by travellers to Canterbury from London: the remnants of the more ancient trackways, and Watling Street, now the A2.
18th and 19th Centuries
If there ever was a Pilgrims’ Way it had disappeared by the 18th century. After the reformation in the 16th century the veneration of saints ceased, indeed the sites were despoiled and the great abbeys disappeared. There were of course travellers, but they would not call themselves pilgrims, rather, as tourists they travelled to do the Grand Tour, of France, Germany and Italy to see the sights using stage coaches, carriages and horses. There was no spiritual exercise, by and large; they did not walk the route. It was in the 18th century that steps were taken in England to improve the main thoroughfares, by the establishment of turn-pikes.
An examination of an Ordnance (Military) Survey Map of 1819 does not indicate a coherent trackway in the part of Kent south of Rochester, nor further west. Indeed the stone age tracks have disappeared in places and this can be seen in that archaeological finds lie off the present day roads or tracks. The predecessors to the modern pilgrim will generally have chosen the most convenient route, just as today’s walker would miss out today’s A2, and choose good views over the surrounding country and footways with relatively easy gradients.
Julia Cartwright and Hilaire Belloc, at the beginning of the 20th century, brought the public’s attention to the existence of old routes, and particularly that used by the pilgrims from London and Winchester venerating the tomb of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Various others studied the localities, and map makers ensured the routes appeared on maps. A construct from a ragbag of paths and cart tracks running along the ‘natural causeway’ running along the bottom of the escarpment, assisted by the existence of the name ”Pilgrims’ Way” here and there, served to feed the myth that “a” route had existed apart from the great thoroughfare of the A2, Watling Street. In the early days of railways, tourism and recreational walking, people were beginning to have the leisure and the means to seek out routes with a vista. Perhaps the increasing interest in Canterbury Cathedral as the home of St Thomas Becket’s shrine was also fuelled by an increasingly literate population – Universal Primary Education was introduced by the Education Act 1870, so it is towards the end of the 19th century that Chilham Primary School was established. The reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of the late 1300’s and later, in 1935, of T S Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ will have increased interest in pilgrimage.
By the 1960’s many of the cart tracks that had been incorporated into ‘The Pilgrims Way’ had been metalled, and a decade later cars had become commonplace. Cars and increasingly heavy trucks travelling at over 80km/h have made it lethal to walk along the narrow lanes that formed the trackway. Consequently a new path, the North Downs Way, just for walkers was developed. Generally speaking, the parts of the way not incorporated into metalled roads and motorways have been incorporated into the North Downs Way National Trail. It runs mostly along the top of the escarpment and was opened in 1978 in Wye by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This included a section from Boughton Aluph through Wye to Folkestone along the top of the escarpment joiniing the Saxon Shore Way. Incidentally the latest OS map also indicates a ‘Pilgrims Way Trackway’ running along the foot of the escarpment from Wye through Brabourne, Postling and past the Channel Tunnel Terminal after which it merges into Folkestone.
From above Godmersham to Mountain Street to Chilham the ‘Pilgrims’ Way’ and ‘North Downs Way’ follow the same route to Canterbury, a very similar path to that shown on Symonson’s map of 1596. On the other hand there is a possible route along the Stour valley from Chilham via Chartham to Canterbury, which is easier for walkers possible for wheeled pilgrims.
So an interesting study presents itself in making a choice of route for a pilgrimage, or walk from Winchester, Guildford, Southwark or Rochester to Canterbury and south can be made taking into account local history going back 3000 years.