Pathways > The Pathways book > Pilgrimage routes

Pilgrimage routes

pilgrimporch-(1).jpgThe heyday of the pilgrimage in Britain was in the mid to late middle ages. Churches, abbeys and cathedrals all vied for the pilgrims' custom, with sacred relics or, better still, your own home-grown saint being highly sought after items. For those with sufficient resources and leisure time going on pilgrimage was the standard way to seek penance for one's sins; some even directed others to go on pilgrimage on their behalf after their death, making suitable provision in their wills.

Our image of pilgrimage is heavily influenced by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Visiting St. Thomas Becket's shrine in Canterbury was indeed the best known of British pilgrimage destinations, almost on a par with Rome or Jerusalem. But in fact most pilgrimages were very short, perhaps just a few miles to the nearest minor shrine.

The Pilgrim's Way walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld. The walk features a fascinating church porch in which pilgrims could gather before an open fire before venturing into the local wood. Pilgrims were, of course, easy targets for robbers and likely to be carrying money and valuables.


Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
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Pilgrimage became a defining characteristic of the medieval church in Britain: it played an important role in placing the church at the centre of people’s lives. A declaration of sainthood brought considerable advantages to the church, abbey or cathedral in which a saint’s relics were held. As well as conferring status on the establishment, the shrine would become a magnet for pilgrims. Pilgrims brought money, both in terms of offerings and the purchase of souvenirs and, more generally, to the businesses of the town. It is not altogether surprising that churches, cathedrals and abbeys went to great lengths to either get themselves a local saint or, at the very least, lay their hands on some notable relics.

We think of a pilgrimage as a journey lasting several days or even months, but the vast majority undertaken in Britain during the medieval ages were much shorter. A believer with a mental or physical malaise, or owing penance for some relatively minor sin, might be sent to a saint’s shrine just an hour or two’s walk away. Few people had the leisure and resources to undertake the longer journeys to the best-known shrines. The pilgrimage from London to Canterbury described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would be accessible only to those with adequate wealth and free time.

Despite the popularity of pilgrimage, first-hand accounts by pilgrims are few and far between. Records exist of the offerings made at shrines, but these are purely monetary accounts and tell nothing of the individuals who made them. The miracle stories that authenticated a saint’s position in the eyes of the church are usually backed up with comprehensive details of the patient’s condition and miraculous cure. But only a tiny proportion of pilgrims will have witnessed a miracle, let alone been the subject of one.

There are, however, some surviving personal documents that give a glimpse into the lives of real pilgrims. Wills occasionally set out bequests for pilgrimages to be undertaken on the deceased’s behalf; in some cases these will have been fulfilled by a member of the family but there were also professional pilgrims who would undertake the journey for a fee. Some pilgrims were penitents, sent by their bishops to atone for their sins (adultery in particular required a long-distance journey, or sometimes a number of them). The penitent would often have to bring back a ‘certificate of performance’.

Pilgrimages are also mentioned in evidence at inquests, for instance where a beneficiary’s age needed to be proved. Witnesses would recall that they had seen a young person baptised, remembering the date because it matched a pilgrimage they were on at the time. In one example in 1373 a dozen men testified to being at the baptism of Walter fitz Waryn on the Feast of the Assumption in 1349. They knew they had the day right because, in their 20s at the time, they were in a company of pilgrims visiting Box that day.

One of the rare first-hand accounts comes from the remarkable Margery Kempe of Lynn, who like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath travelled to some far-away shrines, abroad as well as in Britain. Her story suggests that it was normal for women to go on pilgrimage on their own, although at times she was asked for a letter of permission from her husband, rather to her indignation. She was enthusiastic in her devotions, being by her own admission somewhat prone to loud wailing and weeping. Her husband accompanied her on a few of her early trips but was clearly embarrassed by her over-egged performance, as indeed were some of the monks. On one visit to a shrine Mr Kempe made himself scarce and pretended not to know her. From then on, it seems, he decided to stay at home.

It is easy to be cynical about the role of the church authorities and of the keepers of the shrines, who found plentiful ways of parting the pilgrims from their money. From the middle of the 14th century, the Lollards (the followers of reformer John Wycliffe) argued that pilgrims were gullible fools being fleeced by the unscrupulous. The common practice of selling ‘indulgences’ – reducing the time one would need to spend in Purgatory – did not help the image of the medieval Catholic church.

But in many respects the picture is more complex. The church did try to apply some level of proof to the claims of miracles, and we cannot expect the degree of scientific objectivity we would demand now. The Catholic church has canonised more than 3,000 saints. In the early years of the Christian religion ‘martyrs’ and ‘confessors’ (people who expressed their faith through their words and deeds) were venerated as saints in a somewhat haphazard way. In the late 12th century, however, the Catholic church announced that only the Pope had the authority to pronounce someone a saint and canonisation became increasingly complex and, some might say, political.

In medieval times there was a reasonably standard pattern to the process. It did help to have been martyred in some gruesome way rather than dying peacefully in one’s bed (beheading was especially auspicious). Very often the body was found not to have decayed in the normal manner; if removed, the head might have mysteriously rejoined itself to the body. The body of Cuthbert, the bishop of Lindisfarne, was said to have been perfectly preserved when his tomb was opened 11 years after his death in 687 – a miracle that contributed greatly to the cult that was already growing around him.

The keepers of a prospective saint’s shrine would hope to identify at least one miraculous cure that they could present to the papal authorities. This would be proof that the saint was interceding on behalf of his or her followers. If the miracle was found to be authentic – and the examination of the evidence was not unlike that of a court of law – then canonisation might ensue.

The Pilgrims’ Way
David and Chris Stewart seek out a winter pilgrimage route to Canterbury, the shrine of Britain’s greatest saint, Thomas Becket.



The cult of St Thomas Becket was initially home-grown, encouraged by the Augustinian orders at both ends of the classic pilgrimage from Southwark in London to Canterbury, but it did not stay that way for long. The manner of Becket’s death at the hands of four knights in Canterbury cathedral on December 29, 1170 caused outrage across the Christian world, and soon his shrine was drawing believers from every corner of Europe. Canterbury became a destination to rival Rome, Santiago and Jerusalem, bolstered by Becket’s unusually swift canonisation in 1173.

With pilgrims coming to Canterbury from across the country and abroad, there would have been a network of routes radiating out from the city. A good proportion of European pilgrims will have landed in the south coast ports and made their way gradually north-east, possibly starting more than a hundred miles from Canterbury with a visit to the shrine of St Swithun in Winchester. A chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket was set up in Portsmouth in 1181, suggesting that it was a starting point on a ‘Becket tour’.

The so-called Pilgrims’ Way, which runs from Farnham in Surrey to Canterbury, may have been used by pilgrims travelling this route. Most of the way it runs side by side with the North Downs Way, the modern long-distance path. The name first appears on 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, put there, it is said, by an OS employee called Edward Renouard James. It surely cannot have come entirely from his over-active imagination. One can only assume that he put the name onto the map because it was in popular usage by those living on or near the track.

It is quite possible that pilgrims did use the ancient tracks running along the escarpments of the North Downs, though factual evidence is hard to come by. These higher routes would have been drier and slightly more passable in the spring, which was a popular time for making the trip to Canterbury, as recalled in the very opening lines of Chaucer’s great work: ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…’

But the North Downs route was by no means the only way to the martyr’s shrine. The very busy pilgrimage route that opened up immediately following Becket’s murder was directly from London, roughly following the modern A2 and therefore not quite as appealing to today’s walkers. For a pilgrim, this route would have had special meaning, as it would match that made by Becket himself on his last journey from London to Canterbury. It was in fact the route that King Henry himself took in penance for his part in the saint’s murder.

Driving back to England after a trip to the French Alps, we emerge from the Channel tunnel near Ashford in Kent. Looking at the map, we see a short section of what is known as the Pilgrims’ Way running from Wye just north of Ashford to the village of Chilham, just short of Canterbury. There’s a rail line linking the two villages, so we figure we can catch a train from Chilham to Wye and walk the section in one direction. Seven miles is all we have time for, as it’s January, nearing lunchtime, and we’ll be lucky to complete the walk in daylight.

We leave our car by the railway station at Chilham. On the short journey to Wye we discuss pedigree dogs with the guard, dwelling particularly on the iniquities of the Kennel Club breed standards that mean that our Jack Russell is a breeding reject, thanks to the patches of grey on his back. Throughout the conversation Brough gets a lot of petting, so he’s happy enough. Getting off at Wye, we find an old-fashioned ticket office cum waiting room, complete with a bookcase of novels and a sturdy wooden bench on which we sit to adjust our laces.

Just outside Wye is St Eustace’s Well. In 1200 Eustace, the abbot of a Cistercian monastery in Normandy, gave his blessing to a spring. The chronicler Roger of Hoveden reports that he sent a woman who was possessed by a demon and inflated by dropsy to the spring, where she vomited out two enormous black figures that turned first into dogs and finally into asses. For some reason the woman felt impelled to chase them but ‘a certain man who had been appointed to look after the spring sprinkled water from it between her and the monsters, which immediately rose into the air leaving behind them a foul smell’.

The story is intriguing because it seems likely that the spring or well was already favoured as a site of worship or healing, and perhaps had been for centuries. Eustace may simply have been acting as a canny agent of the church in bringing it into the Christian fold. Certainly the church was at pains to outlaw unofficial shrines and to throw doubt on any claims of cures or other miracles taking place in those places. The blessing of an outdoor spring seems at odds with usual Catholic practice and more in keeping with older pagan rites.

Back at the station in Wye, we cross the railway lines at a gated level crossing and find our way onto a muddy path that rises gently towards the North Downs. The path is puddled and sticky with mud, thanks to recently melted snow, and strewn with shreds of plastic, broken crates and mounds of frozen carpet, the detritus of last season’s picking and packing. The nearby farm is no tidier. We pass between some forlorn poly shelters, with dead fruit bushes, more shredded plastic and wooden pallets.

Crossing the main road, there’s a straight path across an open field, with the church of Boughton Aluph standing clearly ahead of us. The name comes from the owner of the manor from 1210, Aluphus of Boctune. He is believed to have begun work on the present-day church, replacing an earlier Anglo-Saxon structure that would probably have been of wood. Construction continued in stages, with much completed in the 13th and 14th centuries. The church is much as it would have been in the heyday of the pilgrimage. One feature in particular draws our attention. The red brick south porch has a chimney and inside there is a large Tudor fireplace. The story goes that pilgrims waited here until there were enough of them to venture on through King’s Wood without fear of being robbed.

That fear was not entirely unfounded. A group of pilgrims from Warwickshire reported being attacked and robbed at ‘la Bleo’ on their way to Canterbury in 1332. The location is presumed to be Blean Wood on the London Road, just a few miles outside the city. People on pilgrimages would have been an attractive target. As well as funds for eating, drinking and staying overnight on their journey, pilgrims would have the wherewithal to make offerings, buy souvenirs and give alms to poorer folk travelling the same route.

In Canterbury you could purchase small phials containing water in which there was, supposedly, a microscopic quantity of the martyr’s blood. The liquid could be drunk in time of need or, more likely, hung around the neck as protection and as outward proof of your visit. Pilgrims could also purchase small pewter moulds, with images of the shrine or of Thomas Becket himself, which were perhaps pressed against the tomb before being taken away.

We stroll round Boughton Aluph church, with its crumbly flint walls repaired here and there with red brick. There’s a flying buttress at one corner, no doubt erected to forestall an imminent collapse. We try all the doors, including the oak door into the south porch, and find them all locked. The south side is covered with scaffolding: much-needed repairs are under way. It’s mid-afternoon and threatening to rain, so we plod on across another field and along a farm track.

None of this seems authentically medieval, but now the path bears left and begins to climb up onto the escarpment. We pass a team of conservation trust volunteers planting a new hedgerow, and the incline increases. Finally we enter the woods and climb up to a path junction. Here we turn right onto a track that seems much more likely to be on the original ancient route. The going is difficult as the track is deeply rutted in places and very wet. It’s easy to imagine it being much like this in medieval times during the winter months, with any carts passing along worsening the surface for those unfortunate enough to be on foot.

It’s possible that those looking after St Thomas’s shine were aware of the problem of marking the anniversary of his death at the end of December. In 1220 his relics were moved to a new shrine within Canterbury, the day of inauguration being a much sunnier July 7. The move set off a period of heightened promotion. There was a prescribed tour, taking in the place of the murder, the original tomb, the new shrine, a second shrine containing the saint’s severed scalp, plus other churches in the city dedicated to St Martin and St Augustine. The midsummer date would have encouraged many more people to travel along the hopefully dry-baked trackways to the town.



The track runs close to the crest of the ridge but for the first couple of miles there is wood on either side. It is mainly coppiced hornbeam but the stems have grown high from the ground-level stumps and on a dark afternoon it’s hard to see far into the wood. At one point the dog spots or hears something in the undergrowth and disappears for a few minutes. Even with his white coat we cannot pick him out in the trees. We sit for a while and wait for him to return, a little impatiently as darkness is descending and we really want to be out of the wood while there is still some daylight.

A little further on a view opens out on our right-hand side and for the last mile or so on the ridge we have the wood only on our left. It brings a welcome evening glow onto the path. Finally, as it begins to get really gloomy, we start on the last slope down towards Chilham Castle. We feel some of the relief our pilgrims must have felt on leaving the enveloping trees behind. As we walk down the road into the village, we pass some timber-framed houses that may well have witnessed the traffic of real medieval pilgrims.

Arriving at the pub in Chilham, we can’t help thinking that pilgrimage illuminates our relationship to walking more than following any other historical pathway. The notion that we are striving for something, even if it is no longer strictly religious, remains. For the pilgrim the act of walking – the journey itself – was a integral part of the experience, one that brought them to closer to Christ. It wasn’t just a means of getting to one’s destination. With that at least we modern walkers surely have something in common.

 

Below is a list of other pilgrimage walks:

Bedfordshire

Two spectacular nature reserves with streams and woodland are homes to many plants and animals which are scarce in the rest of Bedfordshire. The Barton Hills are believed to be John Bunyan's 'Delectable Mountains' in The Pilgrim's Progress.... More info

ID:
2877
Length:
6.8 Miles
Grade:
Moderate Walk

A 14th Century cross stands in the centre of the village of Stevington. In The Pilgrim's Progress, the cross is the point where Christian loses his burden. The walk takes us from the village along to the Bromham to Northampton disused railway line,... More info

ID:
3558
Length:
5 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

Scottish Borders

Following in the footsteps of St Cuthbert on his pilgrimage to Lindisfarne, we leave Melrose Abbey and walk to St Boswells over the Eildon Hills, with a return to Melrose using public transport.... More info

ID:
1753
Length:
7.5 Miles
Grade:
Strenuous

Devon

A walk that will suit all the family and with enough interest to last all day. It takes in the quaint fishing port of Brixham with its fine harbour that houses a working, full-size replica of Drake's ship the Golden Hind, as well as the old wooden... More info

ID:
778
Length:
3.7 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

Dumfries and Galloway

Bishop Ninian established a church in nearby Whithorn in about 400AD and is credited with the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland. This gentle walk leads down to St Ninian's Cave, which it is said he often used as a retreat and which has been... More info

ID:
1977
Length:
3.1 Miles
Grade:
Gentle Stroll

Durham

This interesting linear walk along a section of the Weardale Way is almost the full route of the annual St Cuthbert Pilgrimage between Chester-le-Street and Durham City. The terrain comprises riverside paths, fields, lanes and quiet roads and as a... More info

ID:
7121
Length:
8.1 Miles
Grade:
Moderate Walk

Kent

You begin near a tunnel on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and soon climb on to the North Downs. Past Westfield Sole and Bredhurst, you walk through Monkdown Wood to Scragged Oak on the outskirts of Maidstone and then use the North Downs Way at high... More info

ID:
2742
Length:
8.7 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

From the large, well-developed and much used country park, you walk past Trottiscliffe (pronounced Trosley) Churchm then on to visit a Neolithic long barrow and the outskirts of Ryarsh Village. The return leg is along a section of the North Downs and... More info

ID:
2744
Length:
6.8 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

This circular walk from Harrietsham on the North Downs, via High Wood and the Ringlestone Inn, covers varied terrain including pasture, woodland and the ancient Pilgrims' Way.... More info

ID:
4913
Length:
6.8 Miles
Grade:
Moderate Walk

Originally designed as a 'Pilgrimage' between Sandhurst's two churches, this walk leads gently downwards from the wonderful viewpoint where St Nicholas' Church stands, through fields once hung with hop gardens and on to the main village – a chance to... More info

ID:
5366
Length:
2.5 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

A linear walk using the train from Chilham to Wye and then walking back. The walk follows a section of the Pilgrim's Way from Boughton Aluph through King's Wood. The walk is featured in the 'Pathways' book.... More info

ID:
6071
Length:
6.8 Miles
Grade:
Moderate Walk

Lancashire

A walk from Irwell Vale up to Holcombe Moor; walk to Pilgrim's Cross over the moor, returning to Irwell Vale via two woodlands and a cycleway.... More info

ID:
6397
Length:
6.8 Miles
Grade:
Moderate Walk

Northumberland

Paying close attention to the tides, we cross a vast expanse of sand to gain Lindisfarne - Holy Island. Once across, we continue past Lindisfarne Abbey to the castle before returning to the mainland across the causeway. If this walk is timed... More info

ID:
507
Length:
10 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

Fenwick Village to Lindisfarne Priory, crossing the causeway or following the pilgrims' route on the final part of St Cuthbert's Way.... More info

ID:
1759
Length:
6.2 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

Oxfordshire

An annual pilgrimage in honour of St Birinus follows this route from high on the downs, through ancient villages, across water meadows and over the Sinodun Hills to the old abbey at Dorchester-on-Thames.... More info

ID:
5340
Length:
11.2 Miles
Grade:
Moderate Walk

Pembrokeshire

A gentle walk from Nevern, following the Afon Nyfer and also visiting places of interest on the way.... More info

ID:
3647
Length:
2.5 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

Somerset

A short tour of the town, allowing optional visits to the Abbey Ruins and Glastonbury Thorn, the Chalice Well and other points of religious interest, plus the 'obligatory pilgrimage' to Glastonbury Tor and a suggested visit to the Rural Life Museum... More info

ID:
1081
Length:
3.1 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

Surrey

A pleasant, scenic and varied walk along part of the North Downs Way and Pilgrims Way south of Guildford. ... More info

ID:
2614
Length:
6.2 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk

Aquitaine

A delightful country walk following old pilgrim trails along the Bescat Ridge at the entrance to the Ossau Valley, visiting the panoramic viewpoint before returning cross-country to Bescat.... More info

ID:
4481
Length:
5 Miles
Grade:
Easy Walk