A short history of the Pilgrim’s Way

The Origins of the Old Road from Winchester to Canterbury

by Derek Bright

Over a century ago the writer Hillaire Belloc penned the term the ‘Old Road’ for an ancient trackway that ran between Winchester and Canterbury.    Belloc’s work, entitled the ‘Old Road’ has been described by a number of commentators as the first authoritative account of the Pilgrims’ Way.  Perhaps less known is the fact that hardly anywhere within Belloc’s text does he refer to the old road as the Pilgrims’ Way but prefers to refer to it as the Pilgrims’ Road or simply the Way.

Nine years before Belloc’s ‘Old Road’ was published, it was an art critic and historian of the Italian renaissance named Julia Cartwright, (aka Mrs Ady), whose book ‘The Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Canterbury’ published in 1895, that was drawing attention to the ancient trackway.  Cartwright’s work, which like Bellocs, has seen numerous reprints, states that ‘the days of pilgrimages are over, their fashion has passed away, but still some part of the route which the travellers took can be traced, and the road they trod still bears the name of the Pilgrims Way’.  According to C.G. Crump in an essay first published in 1936, both Cartwright’s book ‘The Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury’ and Belloc’s ‘Old Road’ had been preceded by an essay written nearly fifty years earlier by Mr Albert Way.  This contribution to the Pilgrims’ Way story first appeared as an annex in Dean Stanley’s ‘Historical Memorials of Canterbury’.

he [Hillaire Belloc].. prefers to refer to it as the Pilgrims’ Road or simply the Way.

Belloc’s ‘Old Road’ between Winchester and Canterbury is 120 miles long and today, as Christopher John Wright states in his Guide to the Pilgrims’ Way and the North Downs Way, substantial sections of the two routes – the Pilgrims Way and the North Downs Way – coincide for much of their respective lengths’.  The North Downs Way National Trail was established in 1978.  The idea for such a trail having first been proposed by the Ramblers Association to the Scott Committee, which reported in 1942.  The North Downs Way National Trail is 131 miles long between Farnham and Dover via Canterbury and follows closely the route taken by the ‘Old Road’ or Pilgrims’ Way (4).

Coldrum Stones, photo by Richard Brown

There is a fair degree of acceptance amongst historians and archaeologists that an ancient prehistoric trackway ran along the edge of the North Downs. Hippsley-Cox suggested that it was one of the five principal pre-historic trackways believed to date from before 2000 BC.  More recently, Dr. Oliver Rackham acknowledged as being one of the leading authorities on the British countryside states that the various ridgeways and the Pilgrims’ Way in Surrey are usually regarded as prehistoric main highways.   Furthermore, Ivan D Margary articles entitled ‘The North Downs Trackway and the Pilgrims’ Way’ published in 1952 argues that ‘this trackway is one of the most important in Britain, certainly the most important in south and south-east Britain because it was the main route by which early man could penetrate readily into this island from the Continent, and indeed he probably began using it before the separation of the island had occurred.’  It is the use of the trackway that is more contentious than its historic pedigree and in particular its use as a pilgrimage route to Canterbury throughout much of the medieval period.

There is a fair degree of acceptance amongst historians and archaeologists that an ancient prehistoric trackway ran along the edge of the North Downs

 The trackway has been described as both a ridge walk and a terrace way that follows the chalk escarpment of the North Downs.  For identification purposes a good rule of thumb is that the old trackway usually kept to the lower southern slopes because these were less exposed than the upper ridges.  The road kept just above the woods of the Weald or the cultivated land at the foot of the escarpment and avoided the claggy clay found on the lower ground.  Today, if one walks along the North Downs Way National trail sections of the trail signposted as the ‘Pilgrims Way’ are often just a few metres above the fields at the foot of the North Downs escarpment but high enough to benefit from the better drainage of the chalk and flint underfoot.  At Paddlesworth, just west of the Medway Gap, a large section of ancient trackway not incorporated into the North Downs Way National Trail can clearly be seen.  The track runs about 2 metres above the field system and passes within 500 metres of St Benedictine’s Church, which is 900 years old.  The Churches Conservation Trust suggests in its history of St Benedict’s that many medieval pilgrims left the trail and stopped to pray on their way to Becket’s shrine.  

The chalk slopes of the Downs were never cultivated and as such allowed travellers to pass without trespassing on tilled land.  F.C. Elliston Erwood makes the point that one cannot walk along the old road far without noticing numerous chalk pits, many abandoned and others still being worked.  He suggests that perhaps the name ‘chalk road’ would be more appropriate.  Belloc also suggests that chalk and lime working kept the old road in use.  Nevertheless he also argues that later when the valley roads were developed chalk pits were extended and would often cut into the route of the old road and as such ‘the exploitation of the pits at last destroyed it at these points’.

Valerie Belsey, in her book ‘The ‘Green Lanes of England’ says that the earliest tracks along the North Downs escarpment date back to when man hunted along tracks used by wild animals.  Hillaire Belloc makes an economic argument why a west-east trackway across southern England may have existed.  He argues that after England became separated from mainland Europe by sea about 10,000 years ago the main route into the country was through the Straits of Dover with a second crossing to southern ports near Southampton and then overland to Winchester.  By the Bronze Age and later Iron Age, the west of the country served as the principal supplier of tin, lead and iron and to the east of the country was to be found the best cultivated land.  As such Belloc argues that natural trade routes developed along the chalk slopes of the Downs. 

So what of Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims? – whose journey is described in the Canterbury Tales, which he began writing in 1387, just over two hundred years after the murder of Thomas Becket.   Chaucer’s pilgrims probably travelled down from London along the old Roman road that has become known as Watling Street, much of which is overlaid by the old London to Dover trunk road, the A2.  Jack Ravensdale’s ‘In the Steps of Chaucer’s Pilgrims’ is a good place to start for those wishing to explore Chaucer’s route to Canterbury. The walk along the North Downs Way coincides with some of places Chaucer’s pilgrims passed through such as Rochester and again at the Black Princes Well in the village of Harbledown.  The village is believed to be referred to as ‘Bobbe-Up-and-Down’ by Chaucer in the Manciples Tale.  Pilgrims travelling from St. Swithun’s shrine at Winchester, onto Canterbury may well have chosen the route via London, although fear of roadside crime and safety is a compelling argument for taking the older trackway across the North Downs.

The Period of Pilgrimage

Pilgrims’ Scallop shell, St Martha’s Chapel, St Martha’s Hill, near Guildford, photot by Richard Brown

By the time Hillaire Belloc wrote his account of the ancient trackway, which was published in 1904, the title of Pilgrims’ Way was already commonly being applied to the ancient trackway.   Some commentators argue that the first recorded evidence of the old route being referred to as the Pilgrims’ Way was when an Ordnance Survey Officer named James designated parts of the trackway as such in the 1860’s.  However, both Hasted in his map of the Codsheath Hundred in 1778 and Andrew’s Map in 1779 mark sections of road under the Downs as the Pilgrim’s Road.  Furthermore, according to F.C. Elliston-Erwood, research undertaken by Capt. H.W. Knocker found that in all West Kent parish tithe apportionments, ‘woodlands south of the Pilgrims’ Road pay no tithe’.  Robert Furley’s two-volume study, A History of the Weald of Kent (1871) devotes several pages to the ‘West Kent Tithe Case’, tried at Croydon in 1815.  The outcome of the case depended on whether or not ‘The Pilgrims’ Road’ constituted the boundary of the Weald, the counsel for the plaintiff arguing “..’at the bottom of these chalk hills there is an ancient lane or road called the ‘Pilgrims’ Road, and that whatever lies above it to the north is out of the Weald of Kent…that the Pilgrims’ Road was not only the boundary of the Weald in Aylesford, but in other adjoining parishes…’.  In the whole case there was no contention about the use of the term ‘Pilgrims Road’ which was recalled as being in use for generations.   Erwood argues that ‘evidently in Kent there was a well-recognised continuous track on the chalk hills, and that later this was known as the Pilgrim’s Road’.

‘The Pilgrims’ Road’ constituted the boundary of the Weald

So how well does pilgrimage fit with the ancient trackway?    Hillaire Belloc suggested that pilgrimage saved the ‘old road’.  Belloc argues that by the time of Becket’s death in 1170, Winchester situated at the end of the ancient trackway, had started to decline as London grew in importance.  Moreover, fewer metals were coming up from the West Country as the Sussex iron industry in the Weald had taken their place. 

If the old trackway became a key pilgrimage route between Winchester and Becket’s shrine at Canterbury, then its heyday would have been between Thomas Becket’s death in 1170 until the abolition of the pilgrimage under Henry VIII and the destruction of Beckett’s shrine in 1538. Interpretation of gifts and offerings made at the Cathedral between 1207 and 1420 suggests that 100,000 people were said to have visited the shrine in the Jubilee year of 1420.  Furthermore, the Paston Letters of 1471 suggest large numbers of pilgrims visited Canterbury.  In Sir John Paston’s letter to his son, 28th September 1471, he writes

As ffor tydyngs, the Kyng and the Qwywn and moche other pepall ar ryden and goon to Canterbery.  Nevyr so moche peple seyn in Pylgrymage hertofor at ones, as men sayd

While the Victorian and Edwardian pilgrimists suggested that thousands walked to Canterbury along the route during the medieval heyday, it is important to consider how many people would have been free to go on a pilgrimage?  Due to the social hierarchy in feudal society one must conclude that most people would not have been going on an extended jaunt across the country to Canterbury.   The reality is that lengthy pilgrimages were probably undertaken by far fewer people that many of us imagine. Population estimates for the period suggest that over 90% of the population would have been tied to the land in some way, as slaves, villeins, or cottagers, and only freemen and the better off would be legally, and economically, able to travel.      

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII turned his attention to the wealth of the shrine.  There had by this time already been a number of critics of pilgrimage and in particular the cult of Beckett.  These included John Wycliff, as far back as Chaucer’s time, who criticised the wealth the shrine brought to the monks.  The Lollards were another outspoken group extremely critical of the excesses of pilgrimage and in 1530 William Umpton had been imprisoned for asking why Becket should be a saint rather than Robin Hood.

The Lollards were another outspoken group extremely critical of the excesses of pilgrimage and in 1530 William Umpton had been imprisoned for asking why Becket should be a saint rather than Robin Hood.

In September 1538 Henry VIII ordered the King’s Commissioners to sack the Saint’s shrine and remove the bones of Beckett.  Furthermore the donations of pilgrims were removed and transferred to the King and as John Ure states in his book ‘Pilgrimages – the great adventure of the middle ages’ that after 1538 ‘ no longer could disparate bands of pilgrims, such as Chaucer’s, find a worthy and commendable reason for making a spring jaunt to Kent’.

What then happened to the ancient trackway if pilgrimages ceased in the middle of the 16th century following the reformation?  It’s been argued that as the toll road system developed travellers reverted to using the old trackways to avoid paying fees for use of the toll roads.  William Cobbett, in his letters recommends that travellers leave the toll roads and explore the old trackways and wrote ‘those that travel on turn-pike roads know nothing of England’ (although, despite crossing the old road on his journeys on many occasions, it would appear from Cobbett’s Rural Rides, that he himself knew nothing of the Pilgrims’ Way).

Today there are many historic sites along the trail associated with the folklore of pilgrimage.  Boughton Aluph church has a porch with a chimney and fireplace on its southern flank.  Local folklore suggests that pilgrims gathered in the porch for warmth and safety until their numbers were large enough to ascend up into Kings Wood in safety without being robbed.  A few miles further along the trail as it passes through Kings Wood, one gets what is believed to be the first view that pilgrims would have seen of Canterbury cathedral as they looked across Godmersham Park and northeast up the Stour Valley.  However it would only have been pilgrims travelling in the last few decades of pilgrimage who would have glimpsed the Bell Harry tower, which was built between 1490 and 1498.

The trackway where it coincides with the North Downs Way National trail comes under the protection of the local authorities and Natural England, which was formerly the Countryside Agency.   It is still possible for modern day pilgrims to walk for miles along the old road without meeting another person, allowing time to reflect on the history of this ancient route.  You will stop in many of the old villages situated close to the springs and water sources and seek respite in medieval Inns at the foot of the Downs that have served as resting places for travellers over the course of time.  The Pilgrims’ Way story will continue because essentially it is a story for all of us, who once, at the beginning of a day, surveyed the chalk escarpment that lay ahead to see where the journey would lead us, before casting an eye back along the chalk to the place from whence we had come.  For those are the very days when we could believe Julia Cartwright when she wrote: ‘by many a Kentish homestead the grassy track still winds its way along the lonely hill-side overlooking the blue Weald, and if you ask its name, the labourer who guides the plough, or the waggoner driving his team, will tell that it is the Pilgrims’ Road to Canterbury’.

Derek Bright, photo by Richard Brown

Derek Bright is the founder of WalkAwhile – self led walking holidays www.walkawhile.co.uk

Derek Bright – The Pilgrims’ Way: Fact & Fiction of an Ancient Trackway,2011, History Press

By the same author Highway 61: Crossroads on the Blues Highway, 2021, The Choir Press


1. Hillaire Belloc, The Old Road, 1904 Constable & Company

2. Julia Cartwright, The Pilgrims Way first published 1895—re-issued Wildwood House 1982.

3. C.W Wright, A Guide to the Pilgrims Way and North Downs Way, 1993, p.13 & 19

4. Neil Curtis and Jim Walker, The North Downs Way, 1992 p.16

5. Valerie Belsey, The Green Lanes of England,  1998, p30 Green Books

6. Hillaire Belloc, The Old Road, p.50-61, 1921 Constable London

7. Frank W Jessup, Kent History Illustrated, 1966 p.15

8. F.C. Elliston Erwood, ‘The Pilgrims Way, its alleged antiquity and its alleged medieval use’ published in

    Archaeologia Cantiana Volume 37 1925 p.4

9. Sean Sennett, The Pilgrims Way—from Winchester to Canterbury, p.15 Cassell 1971

10 Archaeologia Cantiana, Volume 43 p.90 1931

11. Elliston Erwood, ‘The Pilgrims Way, its alleged antiquity and its alleged medieval use’  published in

      Archaeologia Cantiana Volume 37 1925 p.14

12. Jack Ravensdale, In the Steps of Chaucer’s Pilgrims, Guild 1989

13. Sean Sennett, The Pilgrims Way—from Winchester to Canterbury, p.261 Cassell 1971

14. Keates and Hornak, Canterbury Cathedral p. 49 Scala 2005

15. John Ure, Pilgrimages—the great adventure of the middle ages’ Carroll & Graff 2006, p113

16. John Ure, Pilgrimages—the great adventure of the middle ages’ Carroll & Graff 2006, p110

17. F.C. Elliston Erwood, ‘The Pilgrims Way, its alleged antiquity and its alleged medieval use’

      published in Archaeologia Cantiana Volume 37 1925 p.17

18. Hillaire Belloc, The Old Road, 1904 Constable & Company. 19. William Cobbett, Rural Rides I from Cobbett’s E

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