Welcome to my Introduction to the Pilgrims’ Way blogs and video.
This post is a bit long, so if reading is not your thing I’ve also created an introduction video which contains some of the information contained here. This post, however, is more detailed and contains the high-res pictures used in the slideshow portion of the video.
If you rather watch the video before reading the post, here it is.
Still here? Good! – there is quite a lot of detail below that I had to cut out from the video as I couldn’t read it all in 10 minutes or less.
But before we move on, two things:
I’ve created three Pilgrims’ Way collections with different designs for T-shirts, mugs, phone cases, water bottles, pullovers and other items that pilgrims might find useful, will be able to wear or use during their pilgrimage, and keep as a memento after it.
- I published a post on the 25 of August 2020 (a week before setting off) in which I introduce the pilgrimage and write about my plans. It might be a good idea to read that post before this one, if for no other reason than to compare before and after. I am not going to repeat here what I’ve already written in that previous post.
Please note that this post comes to you five months after the fact – but better late than never.
Although this was the shortest cycling pilgrimage I’ve done, it was also one of the most unusual. That’s because there was a German TV crew following and “directing” me, capturing all sorts of video footage for a TV documentary about the Pilgrims’ Way that will be aired in Germany and France at some point in 2021.
the German TV crew was already waiting to record some made-up scenes, as if I was starting the pilgrimage that day, whereas in fact I set off the next day, a bank holiday here in the UK. After several takes in various places, the crew invited Katy and me for dinner in a local pub and after that we went back to the B&B we were staying in that night, just a few hundred metres from the cathedral grounds.
The next morning I flew the drone up from the B&B’s garden to capture some footage of the town and the cathedral. I wasn’t authorised to fly the drone over the cathedral grounds, but the German TV crew was (unlike me, their drone operator is a qualified pilot).
Before I could start the pilgrimage, we spent nearly two hours recording a number of video “takes” that challenged my really poor acting skills. They filmed me arriving at the cathedral on my bike, being greeted by Canon Andy Trenier, and receiving my pilgrim’s credential and the first stamp. They also captured the going-away blessing and then recorded me leaving the cathedral grounds. All of this meant we left Winchester much later than we had planned. Katy also cycled with me from Winchester to Farnham that day.
Four days later and many experiences and obstacles behind me, I found myself in Canterbury, again being greeted by the German TV crew for a series of takes of my arrival, receiving the blessing and the final stamp from Canon Emma Pennington, and recording some drone footage of cycling up the hill in the campus of the University of Kent at sunset. It wasn’t until the next day that I was able to fly my own drone up to capture some footage of Canterbury – and I did so over waters of the Great Stour river and over the fields of the river side trail between the village of Chartham and Canterbury, to minimize the potential of breaking any rules.
OK, starting with places, before starting the pilgrimage I bought Leigh Hatts’ “Walking the Pilgrims’ Way” guide book as, as, to my knowledge, there isn’t a Pilgrims’ Way guide written specifically for cyclists, and it turns out there aren’t that many pilgrims who have done this pilgrimage by bike either. During my planning I also searched and downloaded a few GPX files I found online with walking routes taken by a few pilgrims.
The route of the Pilgrims’ Way typically follows a major landscape feature of southern England, the North Downs. This is part of a chalk ridge extending from the Ridgeway in the west to the white cliffs of Dover in the east and the major towns along the route are found where this ridge is broken by rivers such as the Itchen in Winchester, the Wey in Guildford and the Mole at Dorking. For the most part, the Pilgrims’ Way is on a terrace on the south of this ridge, where you’re going to come across several typical English villages, churches and pubs.
The spelling of many of the towns or villages is a bit of a tongue twister for a foreigner and, as it is often the case in England, you don’t pronounce the names as they are written. I dare you to try and then compare to what I say in the videos to come (I had to do my own research to try and get it right): Winchester, Alresford, Alton, Farnham, Guildford, Mertsham, Oxted, Otford, Wrotham, Halling (which I skipped), Aylesford, Harrietsham, Boughton Lees, Boughton Aluph, Chilham and Canterbury.
There are, however, stages that start or end in places other than a town or village, such as Box Hill
(although there is the village of Box Hill to the east of the summit as well). Box Hill is considered an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty by the National Trust of England and, at its peak, the 224m elevation is the highest single-day climb you’ll have to face on the entire journey, which is made more difficult by the stepping stones crossing over the River Mole and the 275 steps going uphill (not all of which were necessary to climb, thank God!).
Adding together all distances outlined in the guide results in a total distance of 222km (incl. Halling), but I rode a total of 244km on the four pilgrimage days. The additional 24km is due to detours where I could not get through with the bike or for route changes and various other reasons. There were several stages where my route took me close to the suggested start or end points given in the guide, but not exactly there. I’ve also had to skip the village of Halling, as I decided to ride straight to the Aylesford Carmelite Priory as the TV crew was waiting for me there . The picture below highlights the differences between the walkers’ route I dowloaded from the internet (in yellow) and the one I did (in red).
I created a time-lapse video for each stage I rode and will write at least one blog post for every day of the journey covering the stages I did that day.
As mentioned before, part of my plan was based on a GPS track I found and downloaded from the internet. It provided the route taken by a pilgrim on foot and from that I planned my four-day ride using an app called Komoot, making the changes for some of the deviations from the walking path that I already anticipated, but… oh, boy… if only I knew.
For me personally my ‘places’ highlights were:
- The start and end points, i.e. the cathedrals in Winchester and Canterbury.
- The Nuns Walk trail leaving Winchester
- The crossing of the river Itchen in Itchen Abas
- Cycling on natural corn field “corridor” towards Ropley
- The view from the Church of St Martha-on-the-Hill few Km from Guildford.
- St Barnabas Church in Ranmore
- The view of Dorking from the vineyards of Denbies Wine Estate.
- The Box Hill Stepping stones over the river Mole and the natural staircase (a challenge as much as a highlight)
- The sunset view from the Inglis Memorial near Reigate.
- St Botolph’s Church at Chevening Park near Otford
- The forest trails between Wrotham and Holborough.
- The Aylesford Carmelite Priory and my brilliant piece of acting for the TV crew cameras.
- The history behind the All Saints’ Church in Boughton Aluph and the ride through the, once dangerous, Kings Wood, just before Chilham.
- The final ride to Canterbury from Chartham alongside the Great Stour river.
Having met Leigh in Canterbury the year before, I was fortunate to get in touch with him for some advice and support for my adventure. I was told (and already knew) this wouldn’t be an easy route to cycle on due to the existence of many Kissing Gates and stiles (something that those who live or have lived in the UK are probably familiar with). These are intentional barriers to contain livestock, but have
the unintentional result (one would presume) of being serious obstacles for bicycles also, even on tracks where riding a bicycle is allowed… yes, there are tracks exclusive for walkers where bicycles aren’t allowed and they’re are aptly named “footpaths”. I tried to stay away from these, but there were moments where the deviation was simply too big to justify, so I dismounted and pushed the bike. This gave me the idea of writing my own Pilgrims’ Way cycling guide… watch this space!
Still, even with all obstacles and the demands of a TV crew, I managed to cycle all the way to Canterbury more or less according to plan.
The most challenging day of the four was without a doubt the second day. I left Farnham around 9:00am and had planned to ride roughly 75km. I knew it would be challenging, not only because of the greater distance, but because I had two hills to climb: Box Hill and Reigate hill, both over 260m elevation.
Still, I thought it was doable, as it would be a day entirely dedicated to riding, with no filming scheduled.
What I didn’t know was that the climb on Box Hill would be made pushing my bike up at least 150 steps. I also had to make several detours, as there was a larger number of kissing gates and stiles that I wasn’t able (or willing) to cross on my own and that would lead to footpaths, where cycling is not allowed anyway. All of this contributed to the fact that, after nine hours, I had ridden only 55km, little more than two-thirds of the way, trying my best to keep on the original walkers’ path. Of these nine hours, however, at least three hours must be taken off as time I used to take pictures, fly the drone (twice) and lunch, since I had no breakfast that day. As I got to the Inglis Memorial near Reigate the sun was already setting and I still had over 20km to ride to my final destination. I definitely didn’t want to ride on the gravel paths and dirt-tracks in pitch-black conditions, so at the car park after Reigate Hill, I had Komoot re-route the remaining third on an urban route on roads, but still I arrived at my destination (the Days Inn Hotel in Westerham, by the M25 motorway) in the dark at around 8:30pm that night.
The kissing gates and stiles were no doubt the biggest challenges along the way, even more than the hills. I have not counted the number of them, but they were numerous. Luckily, I was able to get through (or over) most of them, but there were a handful that were simply too narrow and I didn’t feel like throwing my bike over them by myself, so I had to stop following the original pilgrims’ path and find alternative routes in these situations.
I also had a mechanical fault on the bike, which meant I had to go looking for a bike shop to try and fix it. I lost one of the screws that fastened the rack to the frame of the bicycle, probably due to the fact I was lifting the bike vertically all the time (to overcome the kissing gates) with the load still attached the rack. Katy indicated a bike shop in Kemsing to me, but I couldn’t find it (it appeared to be a home workshop with no signs), but I found a car garage and they were kind enough to provide a temporary fix by screwing the rack to the frame with a self-tapping screw, which might have damaged the frame, but it was better than a lose rack. This also meant a little detour and extra time, but gave me also the opportunity to get to a pharmacy for some lip balm for my dry lips.
Even with all the detours and challenges, my route closely matched the walking route for perhaps 85-90% when compared to the GPS track I downloaded from the internet and to Leigh Hatts’ guide. If my Pilgrims’ Way Cycling Guide becomes a reality, I will make sure the suggested route is appropriate for cycling and provides an enjoyable experience, because some of the walking paths are clearly unsuitable, or not even allowed, for cycling.
Some people were constant presences before, during and after this pilgrimage. Particular thanks to Katy for her help and support during this experience. She rode with me from Bracknell to Winchester, then did the first day to Farnham and after that kept in constant touch advising on possible alternatives and providing help to find a place to fix my bike problem (and, later, helping me work out how to pronounce some of the place names). Also, thanks are due to my good friend Fernando, who came to pick us up in Canterbury two days later.
Then there were the four members of the German TV crew: Izzy (who is actually Welsh and not German), Michael the cameraman, Sven the audio guy (and drone operator) and Mareike, the producer of the documentary. They are professionals, of course, with a specific job to do, but we were in constant contact through these days and we had some good laughs together, mostly as a result of me goofing around and my bad “acting” skills. My thanks also go to Canons Andy Trenier and Emma Pennington at Winchester and Canterbury cathedrals respectively, for their lovely blessings at the start and end of the pilgrimage, which isn’t something every pilgrim can benefit from. Joe Bailey is a member of the Winchester Cathedral staff and was coordinating with the TV crew, and videoed a reflection moment with Katy and me and posted it to the Cathedral’s YouTube channel. Then there was Christine Chantal and her husband, the owners of the B&B we stayed in Winchester the night before we started the journey – they are really lovely and warm-hearted people, and I hope they managed to do their planned sailing in Greece, despite Covid.
I encountered numerous people on the paths or roads of the Pilgrims’ Way, but very few pilgrims. To all the people that laughed at this crazy guy with a loaded bike struggling to get up Box Hill steps, when even on foot they were struggling… the laughs were on all of us, but trying to do that with a loaded bike made me feel very “special”. I encountered two gentlemen walking in Alton and I immediately knew they were pilgrims, not only for the rucksack and stick, but also because one of them was carrying Leigh Hatts’ Pilgrims’ Way guide. I also encountered two women pilgrims on a gravel patch after Otford and a couple touring on bikes (not pilgrims) whose destination was the west coast of England / Wales (still hundreds of miles away). Compared to the Camino de Santiago and other pilgrimages I’ve done, the Pilgrims’ Way is largely a lonely one, which might be something some pilgrims particularly enjoy.
It is not easy to select a few over so many in four days, and obviously “moments” are connected to places, people, experiences and challenges. So, in order not to repeat myself, the very first moment of note is when, months before the pilgrimage had even started, I decided I was going to do it and all the activities that followed that simple decision, like buying and reading the guide, the exchanges with the author and countless other people, and looking for information that could be relevant for a cycling (as opposed to walking) pilgrimage. Other moments – many of which I would not have been able to experience (because of Covid), were it not for the fact that I was taking part in a documentary:
- Leaving Winchester Cathedral and arriving at Canterbury cathedral as mentioned before.
- My visit to the Carmelite Priory in Aylesford, the history lesson I had from the friar, and seeing the room I would have stayed in, if they hadn’t been closed due to the pandemic.
- The blessing from Canon Emma at the cathedral’s high altar, right under the dome of Thomas Becket shrine, the spot he was murdered.
- The singing Katy did there, filling the place with her wonderful voice.
- The veggie burger at the Compasses Inn in Gomshall, at their riverside beer garden just before the climb to Box Hill.
- The many moments of introspection riding by myself in the middle of the many forested pars of the North Downs way.
- The drone-flying moments – with my continuous fear of messing it up and crashing causing a degree of stress.
- The moment, a few kilometres before Lenham, that I realised I had fallen of my bike and hit my head, which I have no memory of (it’s a complete blank for about 10–15 minutes!).
As I said, moments are numerous and associated with all three other categories, so it’s hard to pick just a few.
So there you go: something about the places, challenges, people and moments of the Pilgrims’ Way.
To finish, you may be curious about things like detailed stats and cost. I’ve put a Google Sheets spreadsheet
together, containing all my expenses itemised by day and type, as well as the telemetry from my Garmin Edge 810 cycling computer (distances, heart rate, calories, elevation gains, etc.
with an average heart rate of 143.75bpm, at an average speed of 13.10km/h, and there was a total 3,330m elevation gain. I also spent £290.34 in the four days – an average of £72.59 per day – and £478.43 in total when the overnights before and after the pilgrimage are included, making an average of £79.74 per day.
I hope this provides you with a good introduction about my experiences along the Pilgrims’ Way and entices you to keep following the series of videos and blog posts that will come over the next weeks.
I wish you all a “Buen Camino” – and stay safe!
(Click on the picture to enlarge)
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