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"Pilgrim's Way" is also the US title of Memory Hold-the-Door by John Buchan

The Pilgrims' Way (also Pilgrim's Way or Pilgrims Way) is the historic route supposed to have been taken by pilgrims from Winchestermarker in Hampshire, Englandmarker, to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterburymarker in Kentmarker. This name is somewhat misleading, as the route follows closely a pre-existing ancient trackway dated by archaeological finds to 500–450 BC, but probably many centuries older, which ran from east to west on the southern slopes of the North Downsmarker.

The course was dictated by the natural geography: it took advantage of the contours, avoided the sticky clay of the land below but also the thinner, overlying “clay with flints” of the summits. In places a coexisting ridgeway and terrace way can be identified, where the route followed would have varied with the season. The trackway ran the entire length of the North Downs, leading to and from Folkestonemarker: the pilgrims would have had to turn away from it, north along the River Great Stour valley near Chilhammarker, to reach Canterbury.


prehistoric trackway extended further than the present Way, providing a link from the narrowest part of the English Channelmarker to the important religious complex of Aveburymarker and Stonehengemarker, in Wiltshire, where it is known as the Harroway. The route was still followed as an artery for through traffic in Roman times, a period of continuous use of more than 3000 years.

From Thomas Becket's canonization in 1173 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 his shrine at Canterbury became the most important in the country, indeed "after Rome...the chief shrine in Christendom", and it drew pilgrims from far and wide. Winchester, apart from being an ecclesiastical centre in its own right (the shrine of St Swithin), was an important regional focus and an aggregation point for seaports on the south coast. Travellers from Winchester to Canterbury would naturally use the ancient way as it was a direct route, but a separate (and better attested) route to Canterbury was by way of Watling Streetmarker from London, as followed by the storytellers in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Indeed, the concept of a single route called the Pilgrims' Way seems to be no older than the Victorian Ordnance Surveymarker map of Surrey, whose surveyor, Edward Renouard James, published a pamphlet in 1871 entitled Notes on the Pilgrims' Way in West Surrey. Here he asserted that the route was 'little studied' and that 'very many persons in the neighbourhood' had not been aware of it. His insertion of the route name on the Ordnance map gave an official sanction to his conjecture; and writers such as Hilaire Belloc were eager to follow it up. In fact, the route as shown on modern maps is not only unsuitable for the mass movement of travellers but has also left few traces of their activity. The official history of the Ordnance Survey acknowledges the 'enduring archaeological blunder', blaming the enthusiasm for history of the then Director, General Sir Henry James. Together, romantically inclined authors have succeeded in creating a “a fable of...modern origin” to explain the existence of the Way.

The Pilgrims' Way is at the centre of the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale, with the camera panning along a map of the route at the start of the film.


The ancient main streets of towns along the route — Farnhammarker (where the old trackway converges with the pilgrims’ route), Guildfordmarker, Dorkingmarker and Reigatemarker (where a pilgrims' chapel, dedicated to St Thomas, was established) — align west to east, strongly suggesting that this was the most important route that passed through them. On modern Ordnance Survey maps, part of the route is shown running east from Farnhammarker, passing to the south of Guildfordmarker, north of the village of Gomshallmarker, north of Dorkingmarker, Reigatemarker, Mersthammarker, Chaldonmarker, Godstonemarker, Limpsfieldmarker and Westerhammarker, through Otfordmarker, Kemsingmarker and Wrothammarker, north of Trottiscliffemarker, towards Cuxtonmarker (where it crossed the River Medway). Along some stretches the pilgrims’ route left the ancient trackway to encompass religious sites, an example being at Pewley Down, near Guildford, where the later way passed St Martha’s Hillmarker and The Chantries, some 500 metres to the south.

South of Rochestermarker, the Pilgrims’ Way travels through the villages of Burhammarker, Boxleymarker, Detlingmarker and continuing in a south-east direction to the north of the villages of Harrietshammarker and Lenhammarker.

The route continues south-east along the top of the Downs past Charingmarker, to Wye and then turns north to follow the River Great Stour’s valley through Chilhammarker and on to Canterburymarker.


For much of its length the North Downs Waymarker National Trail parallels the old Pilgrims’ Way between Winchester and Canterbury. Much of the traditional route of the Pilgrims’ Way is now part of the modern road network and the Ramblers’ Association advises walkers wishing to follow it to use the North Downs Waymarker as an alternative.

Notes and references

  1. All three usages are noted on Ordnance Survey maps
  2. Wright, Christopher John (1971). A Guide to the Pilgrims’ Way. Constable and Co, London. ISBN 0094562407
  3. Encyclopædia Britannica (1998) Pilgrims' Way.
  4. Wright (1971: 16)
  5. Wright, Christopher John (1971): A Guide to the Pilgrims’ Way. Constable and Co, London.
  6. North Downs Way National Trail. Ramblers’ Association, accessed 2007-11-14

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