Discovering The Pilgrim’s Way in England
THE PILGRIMS’ WAY IN ENGLAND
Shortly after my 2019 Camino de Santiago in Portugal and Spain, I learned about the ancient Pilgrims’ Way in England from several pilgrims and historians. The ancient route links both Winchester and London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at the Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England. Followed by kings and fabled in literature such as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the modern route follows the historic Roman road and parallels the North Downs Way.
Pilgrimage to Canterbury began shortly after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. Becket was Lord Chancellor and appointed Archbishop by King Henry II. A confidant of the King, Becket committed himself to the primacy of the church upon his appointment rather than advancing the agenda of the crown. After repeated clashes with his former advisor over the rights and privileges of the crown and the church, King Henry eventually called out, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Six knights took this outburst as an order, and on December 29, 1170, Archbishop Becket was murdered in the north transept of the Canterbury Cathedral.
Soon after the death of Thomas Becket, Pope Alexander canonized him and the murdered priest was elevated to sainthood. St. Becket’s shrine at Canterbury now became the most important place in the country for pilgrims to visit. When Becket was killed, local people apparently managed to obtain pieces of cloth soaked in his blood. Rumors soon spread that, when touched by this cloth, people were cured of blindness, epilepsy, and leprosy. The monks were afraid that Becket’s body might be stolen. To prevent this from happening, Becket’s marble coffin was placed in the crypt of the cathedral. The monks also built a stone wall in front of the tomb. There were two gaps in the wall where pilgrims could insert their heads and kiss the tomb. In 1220, Becket’s bones were moved to a new gold-plated and bejeweled shrine behind the high altar. The shrine was placed on a raised platform supported by pillars. Canterbury, because of its religious history, had always seen a large number of pilgrims. However, after the death of Thomas Becket, the number of pilgrims visiting the town grew rapidly.
Four years after the death of St. Thomas Becket, King Henry II undertook pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine, wearing a hairshirt of repentance and walking the entire route barefoot.
The historical pilgrimage to Canterbury has been been a popular topic for England’s greatest authors, including Geoffery Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), TS Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral) and Jane Austen, who set many of her scenes along the Pilgrims’ Way.
For nearly 400 years following the martyrdom, Christian pilgrims journeyed to Canterbury, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, King Louis VII of France, King Alexander II of Scotland and most famously King Edward I of England, who regularly traveled the Pilgrims Way. Along with the dissolution of the Church, in 1538 King Henry VIII ordered the shrine to Becket destroyed. Canterbury ceased to be an abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and pilgrimage was seen as an affront to the Crown. Modern pilgrimage began in the late 1800s and St. Thomas Becket was restored by the Church of England in the late 1900s.
THE PILGRIM’S WAY IN ENGLAND
Today the modern Pilgrims’ Way in England largely follows the historical routes between Winchester and London to Canterbury. The way-marked route draws from the historical Roman road and – in many places – parallels Britain’s North Downs Way. These routes mostly provide fairly easy walking through woods, over chalk grassland, minor roads and, especially in Kent, through orchards and farmland.
The route is relatively well supported with pubs, inns and bed & breakfasts; however, those who are familiar with the Camino de Santiago will find England’s Pilgrim’s Way lacks more familiar pilgrim accommodations such as albergues and municipal lodging. (For English travelers, please note that not all pubs along the way serve food, rather some are better categorized as bars.)
Guidebooks, such as Cicerone’s The Pilgrims’ Way and websites such as Pilgrims Way provide suggestions for stages and accommodations; however, the guides are not frequently updated, so pilgrims may also consult online booking tools such as Booking.com or AirBNB.com. Given the variations in accommodations, it is advisable to book at least a few days ahead.
The pilgrim passport is used to record your journey and document your progression along the way. Pilgrim Passports are available from the Cathedrals in Winchester, Southwark (London) and Rochester. Pilgrims arriving in Canterbury with stamped passports are given free admission to the Cathedral.
A detailed list of where to have your pilgrim passport stamped is available online.
Dedicated waymarking along the Pilgrims Way is rare. Where the route coincides with National Trails, such as the St. Swithun’s Way or North Downs Way, the route marking is very good using the familiar acorn trail marks of the British National Trail System.
MAPS AND GPS FILES
Ordnance Survey maps are available for all sections of the Pilgrims’ Way. The Ordnance Survey OS Map app is a good companion to the Cicerone guide book and each stage within the book references the OS maps.
OS MAPS: Explorer OL32, OL33, 144, 145, 146, 147, 148, 137, 150, 173, 161, 162
OS MAPS: Landranger 185, 186, 187, 188, 178, 189, 179, 177
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE PILGRIMS’ WAY IN ENGLAND
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- Pilgrims Passport and Stamps along England’s Pilgrims Way
- Discovering The Pilgrim’s Way in England
- Pilgrims’ Way Stages: Winchester to Canterbury
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Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. In 2021 I began walking the California Missions Trail in the United States and – once it is safe to do so – I will complete England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.