Pilgrims Way: A 1000 Year old Route

The Pilgrims’ Way is the historical route believed to have been taken by pilgrims from Winchester in Hampshire, England, to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury in Kent.

This designation, which emerged relatively recently, is attributed to an ancient trailway, with archaeological evidence dating it back to between 600–450 BC, although its origins likely extend back to the Stone Age.

The prehistoric route followed the “natural causeway” from east to west on the southern slopes of the North Downs.

The course was determined by the natural geography: it utilized the contours, avoiding the sticky clay of the land below but also the thinner, overlying “clay with flints” of the summits.

In some places, a coexisting ridgeway and terrace way can be identified; the route followed would have varied with the season, but it would not descend below the upper line of cultivation.

The trackway extended the entire length of the North Downs, leading to and from Folkestone: pilgrims would have needed to divert from it, heading north along the valley of the Great Stour near Chilham, to reach Canterbury.



The prehistoric trackway extended further than the present Way, providing a link from the narrowest part of the English Channel to the important religious complexes of Avebury and Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, where it is known as the Harroway.

The way then existed as “broad and ill-defined corridors of movement up to half a mile wide” and not as a single, well-defined track.

The route was still followed as an artery for through traffic in Roman times, a period of continuous use of more than 3000 years.

Pilgrims Way, near Birling
Pilgrims Way, near Birling

From Thomas Becket’s canonisation in 1173, until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, his shrine at Canterbury became the most important in the country, indeed “after Rome… the chief shrine in Christendom”, and it drew pilgrims from far and wide.

Winchester, apart from being an ecclesiastical centre in its own right (the shrine of St Swithin), was an important regional focus and an aggregation point for travellers arriving through the seaports on the south coast.

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It is “widely accepted” that this was the route taken by Henry II on his pilgrimage of atonement for the death of Bishop Thomas, from France to Canterbury in July 1174, although this has been disputed and some evidence points to his having taken a route via London.

Travellers from Winchester to Canterbury naturally used the ancient way, as it was the direct route, and research by local historians has provided much by way of detail—sometimes embellished—of the pilgrims’ journeys.

A section of the lower route of Pilgrams Way, eroded into the slope, Surrey
A section of the lower route, eroded into the slope, Surrey

100,000 Pilgrims

The numbers making their way to Canterbury by this route were not recorded, but the estimate by the Kentish historian William Coles Finch that it carried more than 100,000 pilgrims a year is surely an exaggeration.

A more prosaic estimate—extrapolated from the records of pilgrims’ offerings at the shrine—contends an annual figure closer to 1,000.

A separate (and more reliably attested) route to Canterbury from London was by way of Watling Street, as followed by the storytellers in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

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Conversely, the concept of a single route called the Pilgrims’ Way could be no older than the Victorian Ordnance Survey map of Surrey, whose surveyor, Edward Renouard James, published a pamphlet in 1871 entitled Notes on the Pilgrims’ Way in West Surrey.

While acknowledging that the route was “little studied” and that “very many persons in the neighbourhood had not been aware of it”, he nonetheless caused the name to be inserted on the Ordnance Survey map, giving official sanction to his conjecture.

The Pilgrims Way at Westwell Downs, Kent
The Pilgrim’s Way at Westwell Downs, Kent

Pilgrams Way Ordnance Survey

Romantic writers such as Hilaire Belloc were eager to follow this up and they succeeded in creating “a fable of…modern origin” to explain the existence of the Way. In fact, the route as shown on modern maps is not only unsuitable for the mass movement of travellers but has also left few traces of their activity.

The official history of the Ordnance Survey acknowledges the “enduring archaeological blunder”, blaming the enthusiasm for history of the then Director, General Sir Henry James.

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However, F. C. Elliston-Erwood, a Kentish historian, notes that tithe records dating from before 1815 use the well established name “Pilgrims’ Way” to reference and locate pieces of land. Earlier still, surviving thirteenth-century documents show a “Pilgrim Road” by the walls of Thornham Castle, Kent, on what is today considered the route.

The Pilgrims’ Way is at the centre of the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale, with the camera panning along a map of the route at the start of the film.

Significance of The Pilgrims Way

The popularity of the pilgrimage can be traced back to the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in his cathedral in 1170.

Becket, who had previously served as Lord Chancellor and was a close confidant of King Henry II, was appointed as archbishop in an attempt to improve the king’s relations with the Church.

Portrait of King Henry II of England (1133-1189). The UK National Portrait Gallery, Montacute House, Somerset, UK.

Initially reluctant, Becket was ordained as a priest and consecrated as bishop at an unprecedented speed. However, once in his position, he prioritised loyalty to the Church over pleasing the king.

This led to increasing tension between Becket and Henry. On the fateful day of his assassination, a group of knights, allegedly acting on the impulsive words of King Henry II, entered Canterbury Cathedral seeking Becket.

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The king, in a fit of frustration, had reportedly exclaimed, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”. Taking this as a directive, the knights interpreted it as a call to eliminate Becket.

Finding Becket within the cathedral, the knights confronted him and demanded that he submit to the king’s authority. When Becket refused to yield, a violent altercation ensued.

In the ensuing chaos, the knights ruthlessly struck Becket down with their swords, inflicting fatal wounds upon him. Becket died a martyr’s death, his murder shocking the nation and sparking widespread outrage.

Martyrdom of Saint Thomas of Canterbury.

The brutal killing of Archbishop Thomas Becket reverberated throughout England and beyond, leading to his swift canonization as a saint and cementing his status as a symbol of ecclesiastical resistance against royal encroachment.

Becket’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral subsequently became one of England’s most significant tourist attractions.

Unfortunately this shrine was totally destroyed during the Reformation in 1540, when King Henry VIII ordered his bones to be destroyed and all mention of his names obliterated. 

Today, the place of Thomas’ death in Canterbury Cathedral is marked by a simple stone bearing his name.

Route of The Pilgrams Way

Anyone walking the ‘Pilgrims Way’ from Winchester would have begun their journey along the Roman road eastward, tracing the route through New Alresford, Four Marks, Alton, and Bentley to Farnham. This path roughly follows the modern A31.

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The ancient main streets of towns along the route from Farnham (where the old trackway converges with the pilgrims’ route) through Guildford, Dorking, and Reigate align from west to east, strongly indicating that this was the most significant route passing through them.

Map of Pilgrims Way
Map of Pilgrims Way near Titsey, Surrey. The upper route, on the brow of the North Downs, is the ancient trackway (note the archaeological finds at the top left); the lower, almost in the valley, is the route surmised by the Ordnance Survey in the 19th century

On modern Ordnance Survey maps, a section of the route is depicted running east from Farnham via the heights by Guildford Castle, then north of the village of Shere, north of Dorking, Reigate, Merstham, Chaldon, Godstone, Limpsfield, and Westerham, through Otford, Kemsing, and Wrotham, north of Trottiscliffe, towards Cuxton (where it crossed the River Medway).

Pilgrims Way Passing

South of Rochester, the Pilgrims’ Way passes through the villages of Burham, Boxley, Detling, and continues in a southeast direction to the north of the villages of Harrietsham and Lenham.

Close to the Pilgrims Way
Close to the Pilgrims Way as it crosses the busy A229 and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is the White Horse Stone – the white horse being the symbol of Kent. According to legend the stone marks the grave of the Saxon chieftain Horsa, though this sarsen stone is more likely a prehistoric megalith. (The group of German women seen in the photograph had been told that the stone was endowed with the mystical properties of a maiden stone.)

The route then continues southeast along the top of the Downs past Charing, to Wye, and then turns north to follow the valley of the Great Stour through Chilham and on to Canterbury.

Along certain stretches, the pilgrims’ route deviated from the ancient trackway to encompass religious sites. For instance, at Pewley Down, near Guildford, the later path passed St Martha’s Hill and St Catherine’s chantry chapel, located some 500 metres to the south.

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At Reigate, a thirteenth-century chapel of St Thomas and a hospice were constructed for the pilgrims’ use, although they were not situated directly on the route. Boxley Abbey, with its revered Rood of Grace, was another recognised detour.

Why does the route start at Winchester?

The ‘Old Road stands as one of the oldest English roads, predating by far the Christian shrines it traverses. Following the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror dispatched troops westwards along this ancient route to secure Winchester.

With the onset of Christian pilgrimages to Canterbury following the murder of Becket, attention also turned to the older shrine of St Swithun in Winchester.

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This was particularly convenient for foreign pilgrims arriving by boat at Portsmouth or Southampton. However, Chaucer did not commence his journey at Winchester; instead, he was familiar with the road from London. His characters assemble in Southwark, situated at the southern end of London Bridge.

Medieval Pilgrimages

During the Medieval period, pilgrimages held profound significance in the lives of people across Britain and Europe. Pilgrims embarked on arduous journeys to sacred sites, motivated by religious devotion, the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and the quest for divine intervention.

These pilgrims came from all walks of life, ranging from peasants to nobles, each seeking solace, healing, or redemption through their pilgrimage experiences.

Medieval Pilgrim with the characteristic staff, wide brimmed hat and bag decorated with a shell

For many Medieval pilgrims, embarking on a pilgrimage was not merely a physical journey but a deeply spiritual undertaking. It offered an opportunity to demonstrate piety, express devotion to saints and holy relics, and atone for sins.

Pilgrims often traveled long distances on foot, enduring hardships and challenges along the way. Yet, despite the physical rigours of the journey, the spiritual rewards were considered worth the sacrifice.

Medieval pilgrims were also drawn to pilgrimage sites by the allure of miraculous relics and sacred shrines. These sites, such as Canterbury Cathedral were believed to possess healing powers and divine favor.

Pilgrims would often bring offerings and prayers, seeking intercession from saints and miracles to alleviate ailments or grant petitions.

Medieval pilgrims were hardy and often undertook the walk in winter but summer and autumn offer the chance of seeing hops, hillside vineyards, lavender fields and orchards bursting with growth.