Our misconceptions walking the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury

UK, Walking and running routes

, 2020

A challenging multi-day walk

The Pilgrims’ Way is generic term used to describe paths taken by Pilgrims often to visit holy places. However, in Southern England everyone knows you’re referring to the one that ends in Canterbury. However here are some common mistaken beliefs we had before setting out:

Misconception #1 – Pilgrims Way is London to Canterbury

So wrong! The way stretches over 200km from Winchester in Hampshire, through Surrey, to Canterbury and Dover in Kent! Having lived in the Southeast, we wrongly assumed London is the centre of everything, and would surely be the start of any epic voyage. But Winchester Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral were important holy sites long before London had built any.

But, why did the Pilgrims way extend on to Dover? This is because at the time Dover was the doorway to Europe, so any travel between Europe and England would pass through Dover and Canterbury. And the link between Rome (the base of the Catholic Church) and England was very important. In fact, you can even do a Pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome! The route is called the Via Francigena (Road from France) and is about 1,700km.

Misconception #2 – The route is as old as the Cathedrals

Of course, no-one called it the Pilgrims’ Way before there were any Cathedrals or Pilgrims, but the route is much older and is actually prehistoric! Evidence of the route being well used is visible at the numerous Neolithic sites along the way.

Misconception #3 – The route was just for Pilgrims

Obviously wrong when you think about it! Before England was crisscrossed with roads and cars, the wealthy travelled by horse and cart, while the poor walked. Although many Pilgrims followed this path over the centuries, regular people used it as a day-to-day thoroughfare. Throughout the ages, it has been busy as can be seen by the Roman forts, medieval castles and WWII fortifications.

Misconception #4 – The Pilgrims way remains clear and unbroken from start to finish

We wish this one was true, and how wrong we were! The Pilgrims Way would have always been changing slightly with the times, as forests were cleared, and erosion changed the route, the path of least resistance would be followed. During the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII’s rule, the route would have been disrupted due to Monks being forced away from land and religious sites. This removal of refuges would have made parts of the route more challenging, and changes to the route made when Pilgrims began again.

And then in the last few centuries, railways, motorways and land purchases broke up and changed the route even more. There are plenty of examples on Google maps showing fragments of the way disconnected, but still bearing the name.

The Map

Because Google Maps took us some very strange and unpleasant ways, beneath is the Google Map route you should take for the whole way. It mostly follows the North Downs Way, which is well signposted throughout, and a lot nicer than what’s left of the original Pilgrims Way.