Derek Bright – Author of The Pilgrims’ Way Fact and Fiction of an Ancient Trackway revisits history as it unfolds in the most unexpected ways.
There are days when the alarm radio permeates my early morning reverie leaving me with a sense of incomprehension. Such happenings have occurred more frequently in recent months and courses of events I’d consigned to history seem to increasingly draw me from dawn’s comfortable slumber. However nothing prepared me for the news item that seeped into my early morning consciousness yesterday. News that a bone, thought to be from Saint Thomas Becket’s arm would be returning by pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Becket’s bone, reported to have been transported in the middle-ages to Esztergom, Hungary, had made its return to England and by the week-end will arrive at Canterbury Cathedral, from where it is believed to have been removed sometime around 1220.
It is now nearly five hundred years since Thomas Cromwell’s and Cranmer’s contribution to the protestant reformation effectively put an end to pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine. Together with the abolition of saints days and the display of relics a new personal relationship between man and god was forged, which precluded a role for intermediaries such as Saint Thomas. So as to ensure that no room remained for confusion decrees were issued to eradicate all memory of Becket’s existence to the extent that his name was removed from records, his image forbidden, and his bones removed and the shrine destroyed.
Yet today many still come to walk the Pilgrims’ Way and visit Canterbury. Of these modern day pilgrims, many seek a deeper secular or spiritual meaning from their journey. For the journey can fulfil a basic human need for elemental feelings, which Hilaire Belloc recognized in the opening passages of the Old Road, when he wrote:
…we craved these things – the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth – before we made them; they are part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.
Of these primal things the least obvious and most important is The Road.2
Popular folklore lays claim to the Pilgrims’ Way as the path taken by thousands of medieval pilgrims to Beckett’s shrine, following his murder on 29th of December 1170, until the arrival in Canterbury of the Royal Commission for the destruction of shrines led by Dr Leyton in September 1538. There are however other voices that will assert that not a single pilgrim ever strode the ancient trackway along the edge of the North Downs enroute to Becket’s shrine. Although there is far less doubt amongst historians about the Pilgrims’ Way (or certainly large sections of it) having prehistoric origins, more open to question is its use as a route of medieval pilgrimage to Canterbury.
From its prehistoric origins through to the romanticism of Victorian and Edwardian pilgrimists, one will find a mass of contradictory views about how we should define the Pilgrims’ Way. For the many who enjoy walking the way; for the countless numbers of people who live close to it; for those whose work brings them into daily contact with it or those of us who simply have an awareness of the Way as a familiar historic feature within their locality, such a lack of clarity about the history of the Pilgrims’ Way can but detract from the full enjoyment of it. In many quarters the Pilgrims’ Way has been politely left in a form of limbo, shown on maps in books but not directly referred to. The persona non grata of ancient trackways, widely acknowledged but best not mentioned. However for its longevity alone, the narrative of the Pilgrims’ Way merits both re-examination and reappraisal. This is particularly the case, when one considers that the renowned historian of ancient trackways and Roman roads, Ivan Margary once described the Pilgrims’ Way as one of the most important ancient trackways in Britain.3
The Pilgrims’ Way as part of a National Trail
The story of the Pilgrims’ Way and how we interpret it, like all subjects with an historical lineage, continues to evolve; as has the trackway’s adaptation and use over the passage of time. In the last century, long stretches of the Pilgrims’ Way were incorporated into the North Downs Way. This long distance footpath is one of fifteen national trails established by the Countryside Commission throughout England and Wales after the Second World War as part of the Government’s effort to open up rural access and recreation for people living in urban areas. Today the North Downs Way National Trail comes under the auspices of Natural England and the two County Councils through which it passes. The trackway still holds an integral role within many of the rural communities found along its route, serving as a public right of way in the various forms of public footpath, bridleway or bye-way open to all traffic (BOAT). In a number of places it still maintains a status as a public highway, albeit of a minor nature. Today the trackway’s raison d’être is primarily as a leisure amenity, owing much to the laudable post-war aims espoused in the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. Nevertheless a broad economic rationale for its existence can still be found within the rural economy in the many farms, inns and small businesses situated along the Way.
Who has written about The Pilgrims’ Way?
Any reappraisal of the ancient trackway must draw from the work of writers who, over the previous two centuries, have postulated various theories about the Pilgrims’ Way.
Writers such as Hilaire Belloc and Julia Cartwright (aka Mrs Ady), who wrote the first comprehensive accounts of the Pilgrims’ Way and, in so doing, undoubtedly introduced it to a wider audience; the archaeologists and antiquarians such as Captain H W Knocker, F C Elliston-Erwood, Wilfrid Hooper, E R Crump and Edwin Hart, who debated the merits of the Pilgrims’ Way in the pages of publications such as Archaeologia Cantiana, the Surrey Archaeological Collections and the Hampshire Field Club Newsletters; the cartographers such as Captain E R James[Field] and Andrews, Dury and Herbert who put the trackway on the maps; the authors of the County Histories such as Edward Brayley, Robert Furley and Manning and Bray who included the Pilgrims’ Way in their accounts of the Shires; and the 19th century essayist Grant Allen, who sought to mythologize the Pilgrims’ Way as the great trackway across southern England from the West Country in an Arcadian past.
The role of “pilgrimage” in the development of the old track ways
Through an assessment of the numbers within the population at liberty to leave the medieval manor and take to the road, it is possible to place the road’s usage in a more realistic context. Whilst today’s walkers enjoy retracing Bellocs ‘old road’, we should ask ourselves how many of us would have been going on an extended pilgrimage if we had been living in the middle ages.
In consideration of the everyday hazards faced by wayfarers in the past, we need to reappraise how the road has served travellers over time. How did roadside crime affect the medieval traveller and to what extent did the dangers faced by travellers on the road determine the routes they chose to take? Would pilgrims avoid centres of population and, if so, why did some places present greater risks than others? What prompted legislation to be introduced that prohibited medieval travel and how did this impact upon pilgrimage? Today we may judge pilgrimage as a benign pastime, yet directives were issued to prevent people going on pilgrimage who did not possess the means to support themselves and monarchs at various times throughout the middle ages often viewed pilgrimage as an act of political defiance and a challenge to their authority.
We also need to consider the development of ideas critical of pilgrimage and the growth of anti-pilgrimage sentiment expressed by some medieval writers and the effect this had upon popular notions of pilgrimage at the time. Only once we have an awareness of issues such as these, and the questions they raise, can we begin to redefine the history of the Pilgrims’ Way for the thousands who walk it each year, enabling us to place our own experience of the Way within a credible and realistic context.
The modern day pilgrim will see numerous road signs on their journey, constantly reinforcing the veracity of the Pilgrims’ Way. Many signs, such as the ones made of pressed tin and enamelled with embossed scallop shells depicting the sign of St James, can be seen frequently by the wayside. Medieval houses bearing names of Pilgrims’ Lodge or Pilgrims’ Cottage suggest an historic lineage to the road we follow. Timber framed inns and restaurants display names such as the Pilgrims’ Rest or have adopted the names of Chaucerian characters to remind us of those who preceded the footsteps of contemporary travellers. Local products bear brand names derived from medieval pilgrimage, embracing history in an attempt to affirm certainty of their authenticity and continuity with a past. Today’s walker also has well way-marked routes to follow; with Ordnance Survey maps that show the trail with sections of the Pilgrims’ Way as Trackway depicted in Old English typeface.
Today’s travellers will meet local people who will often volunteer what appears to be a snippet of local folklore. As is so often the case when one is walking, local people are pleased to share their understanding about their locality and its history with those who take the time and trouble to walk and show an interest. They may well tell you about pilgrims leaving the original Roman snails that can still be found along the trackway today near Charing; or the pilgrims’ porch where pilgrims gathered to find safety in numbers from robbers before ascending into the dark depths of Kings Wood; or the lines of yews that mark the way on the hillside or the first view that pilgrims got of the Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Cathedral, as the Way emerges from the shelter of the woods above Godmersham.
The evidence for The Pilgrims’ Way
But as Oliver Rackham, the historian of the English countryside warns – beware of factoids.
Pseudo-history is made up of factoids. A factoid looks like a fact, is respected as a fact, and has all the properties of a fact except that it is not true.
So as we make our way to Canterbury, we must beware of factoids in an eagerness to find the Pilgrims’ Way. On the journey one will also meet those who will pronounce that the Pilgrims’ Way is simply a construct that exists in the imaginative minds of Victorian and Edwardian authors; or others who will tell you that we are merely using Saxon drover’s trails and farm tracks, connected together by the over enthusiasm of a few antiquarians. Of course, you may also meet modern day pilgrimists who will gladly share with you what they believe to be the evidence of pilgrimage scattered along the way between Winchester and Canterbury.
The book’s chapters explore much of the evidence both for and against the theories of the Way. It’s a back-packers guide to the history of the ‘old road’ – that attempts to discern fact from fiction, myth from reality. Its aim is to equip those who walk the Pilgrims’ Way with the background, from which to make their own judgment – which of course we can never entirely separate from a subjective view of our own history. However one should always bear in mind that even factoids weren’t created in a vacuum and are often simply the product of ordinary people trying to make sense of their own history.
With thanks to Derek Bright
Further posts on my gratitude walk along the Pilgrims Way are listed here.
Further information about walking tours Derek organises can be found here.