Yes, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here…. Writer’s block, you ask? No, just lack of time and of course we’ve all been stuck in lockdown and have been unable to go on long trips!
But this is about to change now, as in a weeks’ time I’ll be cycling the Pilgrims Way here in the UK (going abroad is unadvisable due to the still-lingering coronavirus pandemic).
So, I decided… why not write something about this journey before I set off? Would be good for a “before v. after” comparison.
I first became aware of the Pilgrims’ Way during the Canterbury Pilgrims Festival last year (2019). I was invited to participate as a panel member to talk about my cycling experiences – and also on the panel was Leigh Hatts, who has written a guidebook (for walkers) about the Pilgrims Way and is one of the leading experts on this pilgrimage. Since listening to his presentation, I have had the Pilgrims Way on the back-burner for when I had a few days off work (the route begins only 70km from my house – I could even drive to Winchester, ride for a few hours, drive back home and continue some other day from the point at which I stopped). Given what has happened in 2020, it is now a route that I am planning to do at a rather slow pace but in one trip, with time to visit other places in Kent (considered by some as the garden of England).
As usual, what attracts me in these cycling pilgrimages is not just one thing, but a combination of many. The route roughly follows the North Downs, known for its beautiful views. There are some challenging hills along the way, such as Box Hill in Surrey, and also some places where I might have to get the bike up some stairs (to cross railways and other obstacles), so there is the physical aspect of the challenge. Then there is the history… this route has been in use by human beings for at least 3,000 years, well before it became a pilgrimage route. For me it is also an important time for reflection and thinking, with a personal spiritual component in there as well.
2. What is the Pilgrims Way?
This ancient route has existed for at least 3,000 years. It has probably been a track since the Stone Age (archaeological finds have shown it to have been in use at least since 600–450BC) and the Romans used it as one of the main traffic arteries to the West. It became a place of pilgrimage after the canonization of Thomas Becket in 1173. Becket, formerly a close friend of King Henry II, was assassinated on 29 December 1170 by four knights who apparently interpreted the King’s famous words ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ as a royal command to kill him (which was allegedly not the King’s intent). Soon after his death, the faithful throughout Europe began venerating Becket as a martyr, and on 21 February 1173 (little more than two years after his death) he was canonised by Pope Alexander III in St Peter’s Church in Segni, Italy.
… and so, a pilgrimage route is born!
One important aspect of this pilgrimage is that (according to Leigh Hatts’ guide), as with the Camino de Santiago, there is more than one route. Leigh’s guidebook has walking instructions for those starting in Winchester Cathedral (the more traditional route), but also for those starting in London (Southwark), with the destination always being Canterbury Cathedral. The latter route was made famous by Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, studied by generations of English literature students!
The route from Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral is about 220km (137 miles) on foot (give or take a few kilometres/miles). I am still planning the cycling route as I write this post, but I can already tell you that the walkers’ route includes tracks there are impassable on a bike – either because of obstacles that would be very difficult to surmount, or because cycling is forbidden on certain stretches – so I expect the cycling route to be about 10km longer than that taken by walkers.
Well, I am planning to do it in four days, which is a comfortable average of around 57km a day. I will NOT, however, do an equal distance every day:
- Day 1: From Winchester Cathedral to Farnham, about 53km.
- Day 2: From Farnham to Westerham, about 73km.
- Day 3: From Westerham to Lenham, about 60km.
- Day 4: From Lenham to Canterbury Cathedral, about 35km
My budget is about £460. I have already booked accommodation for all four nights, including the night before in Winchester and two nights in Canterbury. That is a total of £270. I have not selected the cheapest possible accommodation: this is not a “Camino de Santiago” type of pilgrimage where there are pilgrim hostels in every little village. I expect to spend an average of £35 a day on food over four days: A total of £140. Adding another £50 for extras, this comes to a total of around £460. I’ll provide details, after the pilgrimage.
I am sure this can be done with a lot less money!
Well, that’s it for now! I think I covered the basics, but there is more to tell you. I’ll keep that for the next blog post though.
If you like to comment or ask questions I will try to answer with the information I have at the moment – but keep in mind I have not done this ride yet, so the answers might be complete bollocks 🙂
Wikipedia on the Pilgrims Way: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilgrims%27_Way
Wikipedia on Saint Thomas Becket: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Becket
Pilgrims Way Page on the British Pilgrimage Trust: https://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/pilgrims-way-to-canterbury/
Pilgrims Way Page maintained by the Canterbury Cathedral: https://www.pilgrimswaycanterbury.org/
Page I got the Pilgrims Way GPX file from (walking route): https://www.walkingenglishman.com/ldp/pilgrimsway.html
Leigh Hatts’ Pilgrims’ Way Guidebook (Cicerone Press): https://www.cicerone.co.uk/the-pilgrims-way
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