Walking the Pilgrims Way
1st November 2021
The Pilgrims Way is an ancient trail stretching some 150 miles across Hampshire, Surrey and Kent. Although now primarily used for recreational purposes, the route holds significant importance in the Christian faith as it connects the shrines of Saint Swithun at Winchester Cathedral and Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. Records suggest that pilgrims might have walked along this route for at least the last 1000 years.
Over that time, the route has changed considerably. Before the invention of modern transportation, pilgrims would have walked a route not too dissimilar from the motorways and A roads that we now use to travel across the southern counties. Thankfully, today we can enjoy a far prettier journey to Canterbury owing to the creation of two beautiful walking trails; the St Swithuns Way between Winchester and Farnham, and the North Downs Way from Farnham to Canterbury.
The Pilgrim Experience
The first multi-day hike that I completed was the famous Spanish pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, in 2018. I fell in love with walking on that trip and being surrounded by the beauty of nature for 12 hours a day kept me stocked full of positive energy.
Three years later COVID-19 had put halt to my plans to return to the Camino. In searching for what was next I came across The North Downs Way; a far more local walking challenge that presented me with an opportunity to once again experience the joy of pilgrimage. So, in April of 2021, I set out for Winchester and this is what I experienced…
Winchester – Surrey Hills
As I entered Winchester Cathedral on a bright and warm Spring morning I was immediately struck by a wave of kindness. His name was Dicken and he would be the just the first of so many amazing people that I would meet during my 10 day walk to Canterbury. On learning that I was walking the Pilgrims Way, Dicken invited me on a tour of the cathedral and provided me with the opportunity to pray at the shrine of St Swithun. For just over an hour we chatted about the cathedral’s rich history and what he knew about the Pilgrims Way. A truly wholesome experience.
As I made my journey east, I had many great conversations with day hikers interested in my journey and locals who honestly just thought I was mad for walking all that way. Aside from the many amazing people that I met, the Pilgrims Way also allowed me to take in some of Southern England’s finest landscapes. I wrote in my journal that, “every mile gave me something to smile about” and I wasn’t wrong.
As I journeyed across Hampshire and Surrey, some highlights of the trail for me were: the village of Chawton (once home to Jane Austen), the views Farnham Castle from Farnham Park, the serenity of overlooking the Hogs Back between Seale and Puttenham, everything about sitting beside the church at St Martha’s on the Hill and the views over Dorking from the top of Box Hill. The start of the trail offered such a great blend of history, nature and places for me to just disconnect and be with my thoughts.
Sevenoaks – Canterbury
By day 6 I had reached the border with Kent, transitioning from the Surrey Downs to the Kent Downs, and the scenery just continued to amaze. The views from the top of Star Hill (near Chevening) and Shore Hill (near Kemsing) across never-ending rolling green hills were just breathtaking. Then, only a little further along the trail, were the magical woodlands of Trosley Country Park where I would stumble across hundreds upon thousands of glistening bluebells.
When I reached the outskirts of Maidstone, my familiarity with the route grew. I encountered sections of trail I had walked in summers gone by but this time they possessed far greater meaning. There is so much packed into this beautiful 35 mile stretch of trail; amazing viewpoints up at Bluebell Hill and White Horse Woods Country Park and beautiful woodland trails in the King’s Wood. Then, to top it all off, I passed through some of the prettiest villages that Kent has to offer. Detling, Hollingbourne, Charing, Boughton Aluph, Wye and Chilham; they really do just come one after the other. The hardest decision I was having to make was where to stop for lunch!
As I walked up St Dunstans and through the Westgate Towers on my 10th and final day of walking, the realisation hit that my time on trail was almost over. I had visited Canterbury Cathedral many times before but as I walked that final 1/2 mile, I knew seeing it this time would be different. That evening, when I returned to listen to the choir’s beautiful Evensong, I reflected on how fortunate I am to call Kent my home and how grateful I was to have been afforded the time to go out and explore this absolute gem of a walking trail.
If you’d like to take a closer look at my journey along the Pilgrims Way then you can check out the film of my journey below.
Planning Your Own Pilgrims Way Walk
- Hike your own hike
If you don’t have the time to walk for 10 or more consecutive days then do not despair. Many walkers prefer to complete the route by undertaking short sections each year or just enjoying numerous loop walks that eventually tick off all parts of the trail. Do whatever works for you.
- Prefer the bike then use it
The majority of the North Downs Way is made up of multi-use trails where bikes and walkers share the path. If you want to move faster or reduce the stress on your feet and joints then cycling would be a great way to enjoy the trail. Remember to be respectful of others though.
- Contact the cathedrals
Some of the best memories I have from this walk were made inside the cathedrals dotted along the route. Regardless of your connection with the Christian faith, contact the cathedrals beforehand and they will do their best to enhance your walking experience.
- Book accommodation in advance
Most towns and villages along the North Downs Way have some form of accommodation suitable for walkers however it can often be hard to find and may get booked up fast by walkers and non-walkers alike. Try to book as much as you can before setting off to avoid having to make detours off trail.
- Utilise Explore Kent
When planning my pilgrimage, I used the guides, blogs and links offered by the team at Explore Kent and they really helped. Have a read through these when you’re preparing for your walk and you’ll learn lots about what you should expect to encounter along the way.