The Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury

The Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury

Geoffrey Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales, one of the first complete books in English, depicts medieval pilgrims following the Pilgrims’ Way on their way to Canterbury. Much of the route can be followed today.

The Pilgrims’ Way

Maps are so much more rewarding than travelling by Satnav!  There is so much more to a journey than its destination. Often the journey itself provides the greatest pleasure. Rushing past by car on a motorway we miss so much. The best and most rewarding routes will be off the beaten track, on one of England’s treasures, its neglected old by-ways.To travel this gentler, far more beautiful old Pilgrims’ Way, you will need the Ordnance Survey map and also this excellent guide book. Your Satnav will never bring you here. The route follows along the edge of the beautiful North Downs.

‘The literature of wayfaring is long …..A walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells’. 

From Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Old Ways’

    This one certainly does ‘tell’, notably in Chaucer’s ‘Tales’. This is a much more ancient highway dating back to prehistory. Our ancestors have walked here for thousands of years. This is definitely not. ‘The road not taken‘ of Robert Frost! 

The Pilgrim's Way along edge of wood in Kent
The Pilgrims’ Way as it passes through the peaceful Kent countryside near Wrotham – photo by Chris Gunn – Geograph.

Pilgrimage along this pathway flourished following the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. The practice was banned in the time of Henry VIII and this old way was neglected and forgotten for centuries. Sadly only two thirds of the route is clearly known today and some of this exists as modern roads, the rest as track-ways or footpaths.

An old manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
A fragment of the manuscript of Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ – ‘The Hengwrt Chaucer’ – from the National Library of Wales.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Ever associated with this Pilgrim Way is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

‘Ere begynneth the book of tales of Canterburye compiled by Geffraie Chaucer of Brytayne chef poete:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
…..And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were sicke.

From the Prologue

‘The procession that crosses Chaucer’s pages is as full of life and as richly textured as a medieval tapestry’.  Chaucer’s pilgrims (a very mixed bunch!) were journeying from Southwark telling stories as they travelled. However, apart from this prologue, Chaucer’s ‘Tales’ have little to say about the Pilgrims’ Way or Canterbury itself. Instead the stories told by the various characters reveal much about the unsettled conditions of England in that late 14th century. It was the time of the Peasants’ Revolt 1381, John Wycliffe and the end of the reign of Richard II. Throughout the country there was a growing dissatisfaction with the ruling classes and with the corruption and superstition within the church. 

John Wycliffe

The reformer John Wycliffe at Oxford had begun preaching about the need for reform in the church. His followers, called ‘Lollards’, travelled around as lay-preachers with the same teaching. Wycliffe also saw the desperate need of an English Bible that ordinary people could read for themselves. He began an English translation of the Vulgate, Latin Bible that was finished by his followers in 1384.

Picture of John Wycliffe

Canterbury Cathedral in evening light

Chaucer’s stories are incomplete. He makes no mention of the pilgrims arriving at Canterbury. The reward for the best ‘tale’, a meal at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on the return journey, never seems to have been claimed!

Normally Canterbury will be crowded with visitors, most of whom have arrived by car to see this historic place. By contrast, the determined pilgrim walker who arrives with a completed ‘pilgrim’s passport’ stamped at various village churches along the way, will be given free entrance to the Cathedral. Though, sadly, not that free ‘pub lunch’ promised to the best of Chaucer’s story-tellers! Such a meal would be especially well deserved for those who make it all the way from Winchester.

Journeys may be interesting, but the destination is important. Life is a pilgrimage, we are just travellers passing through. As a Christian, I travel not as a wanderer, but as a ‘wayfarer’ on the Way that Jesus followed, my true destination somewhere so much better than Canterbury! I am also walking in the footsteps of that most ancient of pilgrims, Abraham, who pitched his tents and journeyed ever onwards in faith towards ‘that city whose builder and maker is God’ (Hebrews 11 v 10).

Top featured image – Painting by Paul Hardy (1903) – From Canterbury City Museum – Public Domain

5 thoughts on “The Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury

    1. I think most of us would agree. Having to try to study the book did not help. But the real Way to Canterbury through the beautiful Surrey and Kent countryside is altogether different. In other posts I must return and re-visit some of this wonderful scenery, parts of it familiar places in my past.

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  1. I hope this comment appears on your post. I wrote one the other day but it seems to have disappeared!
    I have never studied the Canterbury Tales but I know I read a childrens expurgated version when I was a girl and I also used to have a copy of the book with very useful notes to help with translation. I tried to find it after reading your post but it seems to have vanished too! Curiouser and curiouser!
    Thank you for this very interesting post, Richard. I have a book called “The Old Road – from Canterbury to Winchester” written by Hilaire Belloc in 1904 in which he discusses the history of the road and then recounts a walk he made along it with two companions. It is an excellent read and I would recommend it if you can ever find a copy.

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    1. Sorry about the lost comment, Clare. I hope it wasn’t due to a fault my end. The old ‘Middle English’ of Chaucer’s Tales makes them hard to read. No doubt this is what puts many potential readers off.
      In my research I looked at Hillaire Belloc’s ‘The Old Road’ online at the Project Gutenberg site. A very interesting read. Sadly I didn’t have any more room to mention it in the post.

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