What is the difference between the North Downs Way and the Pilgrim’s Way?

The North Downs Way is a National Trail (there are 15 National Trails in England and Wales chosen as they pass through our finest landscapes.)  which runs from Farnham in Surrey to Dover with a loop via Canterbury.   It follows the highest point along the downs wherever possible.

The Pilgrim’s Way as shown on maps in the area is a series of minor roads that run along the bottom of the downs.  It was established in the Victorian era and runs between Winchester and Canterbury.    Much of this route is filled with traffic and isn’t pleasant to walk.  It isn’t a separate waymarked route for walkers.

The Pilgrim’s Way and the North Downs Way follow the same route at times.

Background to the history of the Pilgrims’ Way from ‘Walk AWhile’ Holidays

The ancient trackway that runs across southern England from Winchester in the west to Canterbury in the east has become popularly known as the ‘Pilgrims’ Way’. The trackway is 120 miles (192 km) in length and two thirds of the old trackway is still identifiable today.

The old trackway was both a ridge walk and a terrace-way as it followed the North Downs escarpment. For the most part the ancient trackway keeps to the lower southern slopes, away from the exposed ridge of the Downs and just above the woods of the Weald and the claggy clay found at on the lower ground.

However much of the North Downs Way National Trail follows the more picturesque route along the ridge of the Downs. Nevertheless there are many stretches where the old trackway and the North Downs Way converge, especially along sections where the ‘Pilgrims Way’ has not been incorporated into a metalled lane.

The trackway before Pilgrims.

Originally Becket’s death was commemorated on its anniversary, which was the 29th December. However, following his translation to sainthood in 1220 the main feast was moved to 7th July, which made for much better conditions. In fact Ravensdale points out that the old Roman road may have been very difficult to pass along, especially in the valley bottoms, in the middle of winter.

“Wite ye nat wher ther stant a litel toun

Which that y-cleped is Bob-up-and down,

Under the Blee, in Caunterbury waye”

When Chaucer died on 25th October 1400, the Canterbury Tales remained unfinished. It is believed he started work on the Canterbury Tales in 1387 and worked on them until his death. He planned to write 120 tales but on his death had completed little more than 20 tales . Canterbury Tales was one of the first literary works to be printed in everyday English and Terry Jones argues in his book Chaucers Knight that Chaucer was an important ironic satirist of the period. Jones also argues that Chaucer was far more political than has been previously thought and has put forward the conspiratorial theory that Chaucer disappears just one year after Henry IV seizes the English throne.

Chaucer started to write the Canterbury Tales 212 years after the murder of Thomas a’ Becket in 1170 and was writing at a time when the pilgrimage had reached its height. . Not only had pilgrimages reached a high point but also by the time that Chaucer was writing pilgrimages for some, had become associated with leisure rather than a form of penance. As such puritan groups such as the Lollards has were critical of the medieval pilgrimage because they viewed it as a waste of money and an excuse for sinful living along the way . In the sixteenth century the shrine of Thomas a’ Becket was destroyed by Henry VIII and pilgrimages to Canterbury effectively came to an end .

The post pilgrimage trackway

Nevertheless, even if pilgrimages ceased in the sixteenth century, during the following two centuries the terrace way along the side of the North Downs escarpment continued to be used by travellers avoiding the new toll roads.

The second influence that Christopher John Wright cites for the continuance of the old trackway is the fact that it followed the chalk slopes of the Downs and as such was never cultivated. This allowed the traveller who would not have been permitted to trespass on tilled land to use the track as a legal thoroughfare. Moreover many chalk pits were dug along the way due to the abundance of chalk. The chalk was burnt and made into lime, which was then transported along sections of the old trackway.

Today the trackway, where it coincides with the North Downs Way continues, under the protection of the local authorities with the support of Natural England, as a National Trail. The route of the National Trail passes close to some of the most densely populated areas in England. Nevertheless it is still possible to walk for hours along sections of the Pilgrims Way without seeing another soul, allowing time just to simply reflect on the history of this ancient trackway.


 Please click here to visit the National Trail website





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