The Old Way: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage to Canterbury

The Old Way: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage to Canterbury

For Vol. 24: Slow, one writer embarks on a modern-day pilgrimage to Canterbury which opens up a spiritual path.

This article first appears in Vol. 24: Slow.

a gentle ascent by Tolsford Hill, butterflies dance between
hawthorn blossoms. The Kentish breeze liberates crumbs from my
half-eaten sandwich. Dewy grass caresses my bare feet. Squinting, I
can see France on the horizon.

“Travel is like Star Trek.” I turn to my picnicking companion,
William Parsons. Almost choreographed, he thrusts his hazel- wood
staff back and forth, relaying his emotion. “Our cars, trains and
planes are teleportation devices that allow us to disappear from
the map,” he continues. “All reality traditionally encountered
between places is airbrushed into same-same grey tarmac. Our dream
is one of pure destination.”

We’re shy of four miles into a three-day pilgrimage
to Canterbury and behind schedule, though William is unruffled. I
check my watch again, not yet accustomed to the pilgrim’s pace.
Earlier that day I had met William and his dog, Holly, at Sandling
Station. He’s a classy riff on Huckleberry Finn, albeit with a
fancy camera. Having spent a decade as a wandering minstrel, he
co-founded the British Pilgrimage Trust with Guy Hayward in

Across the world pilgrimage is an ancient practice that is often
entwined with religion. Last year over 300,000 Christians walked
the Camino de Santiago across northwestern Spain, some 40 million
Muslims travelled to central Iraq to observe
Arba’een and over 100 million Hindus bathed in the sacred Ganges
for Kumbh Mela. Britain’s relationship with pilgrimage is patchier.
Such routes formed a vast network in the country up until 1538 when
Henry VIII banned the tradition during the Reformation.

Now the British Pilgrimage Trust is performing something of a
resurrection by attempting to open up the practice to everyone from
the religiously devout to committed atheists.

Over three days we walk the latter part of The Old Way, a
250-mile trail from Southampton to Canterbury taken from the
14th-century Gough map, the oldest surviving map of Britain. My
history-loving heart flutters as I learn we’re tracing the path the
four knights took to murder Thomas Becket, Archbishop of
Canterbury, in 1170.

To begin we slip down a covert footpath at the back of Sandling
Station, taking a moment to appreciate the transition from tarmac
to grass. It feels momentous. For the next three days my encounters
with modernity will be fleeting. Within a few steps I have acquired
a staff of my own, kindly sawn and secreted in a hedgerow by the
British Pilgrimage Trust. It’s my earthing connector and the
hallmark of any self-respecting pilgrim.

Our first major stop is the 11th-century Saltwood Castle, home
of the late politician and diarist Alan Clark, where his widow,
Jane, graciously shows us around. It’s a bizarre early interlude to
our journey in which I encounter some of the family’s private art
collection – think Rodin and Henry Moore – pet tortoises and touch
Kenneth Clark’s handwritten manuscript of Civilisation. Back on the
pilgrim’s path, we are guided by the geography of faith. Navigating
the bridleways, footpaths and hollow tracks of old Britain, our
route joins the dots between underused churches, cathedrals, river
sources and holy wells.

We meander through chocolate-box villages with lyrical names
like Lyminge, Elham, Bishopsbourne and Fordwich. On Tolsford Hill
we rest our foreheads on Bronze Age burial mounds and across the
Barham Downs we visit Old England’s Hole, where the Britons made
their last stand against Caesar’s legion in 54 BC. William
regularly breaks into song. Under one especially acoustic bridge I
join in, surprising myself at this newfound freedom. Along the way
our staffs make useful tools for thrashing nettles and brambles,
propping us up across rickety stiles and helping us scramble over a
barbed-wire fence when some cows get a little too interested.
Tracing the River Nailbourne I become ever more aware of nature as
a refreshing and rejuvenating tonic. The wind conducts an orchestra
of leaves, dappled sunlight dances through branches and I stop to
smell hedgerow lilacs, dog roses and elderflower. We cross coppiced
woodland, orchards and fields of roaming livestock – “Warning:
sheep grazing” cautions one foreboding sign. After gathering herbs
in a flask to make “pilgrim’s tea”, we clamber inside a hollow ash
and swing from an ancient beech. In Bedlam Wood, surrounded by wild
orchids, we scramble through a split branch in what William calls a
“rebirthing” ceremony.

The scars of humanity seem all the more incongruous after days
spent on its periphery. We pass a humming field of solar panels and
several mounds of fly-tipping. Of the rivers we cross, the steely
surge of the M20 thunders the loudest. Water, the source of life,
is a recurrent theme. We throw pieces of silver in holy wells,
drink water directly from streams, roll up our trousers and get
knee-deep in an ancient pond. For a brief spell, dark clouds bruise
the sky so we dance across an open field in the rain. “Water flows,
life is given” choruses William, “rises from earth, falls from
heaven.” He isn’t averse to lifting a manhole cover to get a peek
of Adam’s ale, nor dousing his face with holy water from a roadside
drain in Canterbury.

Yet what punctuates our journey most is churches. We
circumambulate each one – a practice drawing upon Buddhist, Islamic
and Catholic influences – pressing our palms against the eastern
wall. Venturing inside, I’m unsure whether my feelings are of
veneration or mere contemplation. I read stones, admire tiles, lie
down, close my eyes and bathe in the colour streaming through
stained-glass windows. I can’t help but feel like an impostor.
However, William reminds me that holiness needn’t be wrapped up in
religion. The word itself derives from the Old English word halig,
meaning whole. It’s for this reason that the British Pilgrimage
Trust has a BYOB policy – Bring Your Own Beliefs. Holy places are
places toward which you feel compelled to walk. It is up to you
what they are and how you engage with them, whether that be the
relatives of 9/11 victims seeking solace at Ground Zero or Elvis
disciples on a crusade to Graceland.

Far from being divisive, pilgrimage can be a universal
experience. Travelling for growth and change in search of a place
or even a state of being is something that can be shared across
cultural, religious and economic boundaries. Paradoxically, while
the object a pilgrim searches for can vary wildly, it’s their
transformative effect that connects them.

Institutionalised religion may be ebbing from British shores but
there’s a renewed hunger for spirituality that has, and I think
will continue, to swell the popularity of pilgrimage. There’s no
abstract theology to get your mind around, just a willingness to
make the body do what the soul desires. Sometimes I realise William
and I have been walking in silence for half an hour or more, yet
it’s not uncomfortable. The countryside has become a canvas for my
thoughts. Walking is a prayer, the rhythm of my footsteps a form of

I never did experience a jolt of clarity on my pilgrimage,
though perhaps I had a quiet epiphany instead. In a world where
time is money, pilgrimage is among the most extravagant forms of
travel and yet also the greenest – it took me three days to saunter
what I could have driven in 45 minutes.

Today we worship the god of connectivity. We set our thermostat
from our phones, check our bank accounts from our watches and are
increasingly disconnected from the land. We eat asparagus in
winter, soar across continents watching films and steer our cars
via sat nav. On a pilgrimage, however, unplugged from the digital
world, we have time to think, reflect, pray and meditate.
Travelling by foot forces us to slow down and honours our
destination in a way that no plane or car can.

Little, it seems, has changed since Thoreau’s 1861 treatise on
walking. “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom and
independence which are the capital in this profession,” he wrote.
“It requires a direct dispensation from heaven to become a walker.”
We arrive at Canterbury in time for evensong and the strains of the
choir echo across the cathedral. By some stroke of fate I end up
sitting in the Bishop of Dover’s seat and place my well-trodden
staff in the stand intended for his crosier – a fitting epitaph to
a distinctly divine experience.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

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