Day One: London to Rochester (29 miles)
We started our pilgrimage in Bankside, at the site of the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer set the opening of his Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately, the Tabard Inn was one of those ancient inns that was demolished in earlier centuries, but the site is commemorated, and here we marked the “official” start of our walk.
Our small backpacks held our laptops, phones, and the few changes of clothes we’d need for five days on the road. Hats, boots, walking sticks—all we lacked were pilgrim badges.
Pilgrim badges were, essentially, tourist trinkets, sold to those who completed their pilgrimage to some holy shrine or other. Recipients wore these with pride, to prove they’d actually been to the shrine. Compare modern people, who often photograph themselves in front of signs to “prove we were there,” and the proliferation of gift shops in modern-day cathedrals. Pilgrims returning from pilgrimage often displayed their badges in their local parish church, where they were said to have healing properties. Just as often, though, they were thrown into rivers, presumably to ensure a safe crossing, or sewn into books as decoration. In the case of Canterbury, these lead-alloy badges generally depicted Becket’s murder. Canterbury sold more than 100,000 of these each year, until pilgrimage declined in popularity, largely due to the English Reformation.
After studying maps and GoogleEarth for months, I determined that there was no easy way to get from London to Rochester, our first stop and where the Pilgrims Way is first marked on trail maps, without walking through some grim-looking neighborhoods with nothing to recommend them but ugly post-war housing estates, or going several miles out of our way. We’d set ourselves the goal of completing the walk in five days, so we couldn’t dawdle nor detour too much. In the end, we planned to walk the first five miles from Southwark along the Thames to Greenwich, where we would catch a train the rest of the way to Rochester.
London to Greenwich (5 miles)
We started out with, literally, a spring in our steps, the weather perfect for walking, our spirits high. At last! We wound our way through the narrow, picturesque streets of Southwark, under the shadow of The Shard. The Shard is Western Europe’s tallest building and London’s “vertical city,” housing shops, restaurants, offices, residences, a hotel, and the UK’s highest viewing platform. We had drinks there earlier in the week, and the view is breathtaking, in more ways than one. We are both terrified of heights, and neither of us could bear to stand near the windows.
The wharves and warehouses along London’s great River Thames have mostly been converted into posh flats and offices, with cafes and shops on the ground floor. We enjoyed the tranquility of a riverside pedestrian walkway for the first two miles, then turned inland a bit and walked through a series of green and well-tended gardens and parks.
London is the greenest city in Europe, and soon to be the greenest city on Earth, with almost 11,000 acres of green space within its limits. From the edge of Southwark Park and into Greenwich—that’s where the green space ended. We walked through Deptford, where I found it very difficult to imagine that the playwright and Shakespeare contemporary, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, was killed in a tavern brawl here; all I saw was a busy commercial street, choked with traffic, fast-food restaurants, and the ubiquitous dry cleaning shops. RIP, Kit.
As we breathed in diesel fumes and dodged traffic, our springy steps turned into monotonous trudging for the next three miles. Without saying anything I knew we were both thinking, “What the hell are we doing? This is crazy, walking along these dirty sidewalks and breathing this foul air!” Early on, we’d agreed that, if anything conspired to make our walk unpleasant, we weren’t going to hold ourselves to walking every single step of the Pilgrim Trail. “If it pours rain,” I often said, “I’m getting an Uber!”
Just when I was thinking about what it would take to get me to find a ride, we spotted a pub across the street, and decided it was time for a break. It was early for lunch, but as soon as we tentatively pushed open the door, we were welcomed by the enthusiastic owner as if we were long-lost relatives. He ushered us to a couple of shabby, overstuffed armchairs overlooking the street, helped us off with our backpacks, and proceeded to pour us refreshing pints: cider for me, beer for Ben. He then said that he was just making some of his “famous” meat pies in preparation for the lunch rush, and would we like a couple?
While we waited for the pies to come out of the oven, we chatted about our walk, his family, his one trip to America (almost every Brit has that story), then he directed us to a table right under a photo of an old Airstream.
“I made these a little bit bigger for you,” he explained as he brought out two steaming plates, “since I know you’ve a long walk ahead.” After our first bite, all our former negativity about The Walk disappeared. Lightened in spirit, though a bit heavier after those delicious pies, we found our way to the train station, where a train was due in just a few minutes.
I am always pleasantly surprised, anew, every time I get on a train in England and the countryside slides by. Surprised at how, even with all the cuts, British Rail still manages to get to just about everywhere I want to go in a reasonable length of time, at a reasonable price, with few interruptions. I’m not saying they don’t happen, but after twenty years’ commuting in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ll take BritRail every time. One of the things I love about train travel is the ability to look into other people’s lives—not fellow passengers, but those people whose houses we pass—and make up stories about the quick glimpses we catch over back fences and into gardens. An old vacuum cleaner stuck in a child’s sandbox: now what can that be? And why did that guy decide a rusted bathtub under his kitchen window was a good idea? But before I could make up any good stories, we pulled into Rochester station.
Rochester grew from a small Saxon village into one of England’s finest cities. In 43 CE, the Romans made it one of their most important towns, building a fort and bridge over the River Medway that flowed through the town. In 1088, Rochester’s first stone castle was built on the remains of this same Roman fort. Rochester Castle has a complicated history. Its three-story Norman keep was built around 1127, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1215, King John famously besieged the castle, using the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine under the keep. Defenders were starved out within two months. The castle fell into disuse in the sixteenth century, and only a remnant remains.
The streets of Rochester are now charmingly Victorian, though by the time we arrived, shortly after 6pm, they were very quiet. Part of Rochester’s popularity is due to the fact that Charles Dickens spent time there and loved the place. Many of his novels include references to Rochester and the surrounding area. In Great Expectations, he renamed it Dullborough, and used the 1587 Elizabethan mansion known as Restoration House as the model for the home of the gently insane Miss Havisham. Restoration House was also where Sir Francis Clarke welcomed King Charles II home from his exile in France after the dissolution of the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in 1660.
After a delicious dinner and a couple of pints, we strolled through the town, enjoying the late summer warmth and the air of conviviality in the old town.
We had a comfortable and charming room tucked under the eaves at the Golden Lion pub. The earliest reference to a Golden Lion in Rochester is in 1808, however, it probably refers to the coat of arms of King Henry I, who reigned in the 12th century. This pub also had another, more sinister, name in the early 1800s: The Hulk, referring to a prison ship moored in the river that housed prisoners awaiting transportation to Australia.
I love these old hotels. You walk up the stairs, through a door, down a hallway, through another door, into a strange, hidden lounge where there’s either an old guy reading or two women talking together in hushed voices, down another hallway, up three steps, through another door, then down two steps into your room. We went to bed early, feeling, after taking the train part way today, like we still had to start the “real” walk.
Day Two: Rochester to Thurnham (10.4 miles)
In the morning it was windy and spitting rain, but the weather report said it would clear soon, so we clamped on our hats and waterproofs and started out, past the ruined castle, along the Medway River waterfront with its chic condominiums, and along a busy thoroughfare through the outskirts of town. In some places, the trail was clearly marked, but for the most part, we had to study our Ordinance Survey map (the best maps in the world!) and work out where to go.
The wind and rain soon slackened and stopped, and the road became a lane, then a mere path, squeezing us through a gate between two farmyards. Here, the path joins the North Downs Way and we climbed the chalk hilltops, giving us far-reaching views of the green countryside below. The North Downs Way and the Pilgrim Trail often overlapped, and we would follow the North Downs Way, on and off, throughout our walk.
The weather was perfect for walking: not too hot, and slightly overcast. One foot after the other, we wound gradually south and east along hilltops littered with fast-food wrappers, old tires, and all manner of sad detritus.
One of the glories of Ordnance Survey maps is the fact that everything—and I mean everything—is marked. Farms and fields, dams and dikes, gatehouses and gardens (but not all that trash, come on, people!), and, best of all, pubs. We’d seen one on the map, the Robin Hood, conveniently situated at about the half-way mark of today’s walk. And, just as it seemed the path would never stop climbing, we came out in a small clearing and spotted the Robin Hood, a 700-year-old hostelry catering to pilgrims, and still dispensing friendly hospitality and fine food and beer.
I’d vowed that I’d have no more than one pint of beer or cider at lunchtimes, so that I wouldn’t lose my momentum for the afternoons, and as much as I’d’ve liked to sit in an armchair and lose myself in the atmosphere of the pub, The Walk beckoned. Over lunch, our chatty barmaid told us all the ghost stories associated with the pub, and when we left, and climbed a hill into a dark forest, the mood was set.
While lunch did revive our flagging energy somewhat, it seemed our path would never stop climbing “uphill both ways,” Ben always tells me. Gradually, though, the path flattened out and became a lane, then a few scattered, rather posh, houses appeared. We crossed a busy road, and the Pilgrims Way diverged from the North Downs Way, taking us down a lane lined with stone gateposts and the occasional offering of farm-fresh eggs.
The afternoon was uneventful, we saw absolutely no one else on the path except the occasional dog owner being towed along on their leash, and I began to look forward to a fine dinner and the opportunity to just stop walking. When you walk all day, what you dream about is taking off your boots and sitting very still, in a comfy chair, for a very long time. If there’s a pint of good ale or a glass of wine next to you, and a log fire, it’s a bonus.
That’s what I was dreaming about when we approached the outskirts of a village. I knew the village we were staying in tonight was close and thought, “This must be it! I can finally stop walking!” But no, this was the village before our destination; we still had a mile to go. My dream evaporated.
What is a village? What makes it different from a town, or a city? Allow me to digress. The hierarchy of city, village, town, hamlet, etc. is complicated, but these four are what we mostly encounter. Keep in mind these are all rough numbers and concepts, and there are always exceptions (in other words, please don’t send us letters), but for the most part: In the 1540s, King Henry VIII established the association between being called a city and having a cathedral. The word cathedral comes from the Latin word meaning “seat,” and the cathedral was the seat of the bishop. Later, and on into today, city status in the UK is granted by the monarch. Apparently it’s quite a big deal to be able to call your community a city—there are actually only sixty-nine cities in the UK. A town generally has a population of one thousand to ten thousand, though a large town can have a population up to one hundred thousand. A town has the usual features such as police, fire, schools, etc., and can support a commercial district. It has no structured system of government, but receives services from other levels of government. A village, according to Dictionary.com, is “larger than a hamlet and smaller than a town.” Which is only helpful if you know that a hamlet is generally a community of fewer than one hundred people or a subdivision of a larger settlement.
Most of the settlements we passed are villages, a word that conjures up picture-postcard settings, half-timbered cottages with colorful flowers in window boxes, perhaps some ducks paddling on a gentle stream running under an old moss-covered stone bridge. And, in England, there are many of these! But, not always. And the village we passed through now seemed nothing more than a busy road, a wide sidewalk, and an unexpectedly complicated pedestrian overpass over the highway that took us up and down a series of unconscionably long staircases. At the end of what felt like the longest mile ever, we finally arrived in the village of Thurnham. And I thought, “At last, this is it!” Then saw yet another sign reading, Black Horse Inn, 1/4 mile. You don’t realize how far a simple quarter-mile can be, unless you’re tired and hungry, and have already walked ten miles. But, though the idea of sinking down and refusing to move seemed oddly attractive, I took Ben’s example and kept going. That man can walk.
Thurnham village is noted in Domesday Book as Turneham. Thurn in Saxon means tower, and ham a village. Situated on the Pilgrims Way, the Black Horse is on the route the Pilgrims took to Canterbury, and has offered food, drink, and bed and breakfast for travellers for hundreds of years. The flower pots hanging outside the pub and the flower beds leading to the rooms were filled with fall flowers, chrysanthemums and dahlias, in shades from fiery orange to deep plum, setting the tone for cooler and longer autumn nights to come. These flower pots come from a long tradition, started by the Romans, of identifying a tavern by hanging a bunch of leaves on a pole outside. Over the last thousand years, that has morphed into pubs hanging flower boxes and baskets outside. One pub in London, the Churchill, spends about £25,000 every year just on flowers.
The county of Kent is the center of hop growing in England, and the pub and dining room were adorned with bundles of hops, making it feel very medieval indeed. Wing-backed chairs and cozy fireplaces completed the pilgrim picture, just like in my walking dream. Our room, however, was modern and comfortable, and the inn’s locally sourced dinner menu and comprehensive wine list combined to make it a culinary adventure as well.
Day Three: Thurnham to Charing (9.9 miles, but really 13.9)
The next day, our walk was measured at just under 10 miles, ending at the delightful Shaw Grange bed & breakfast in the village of Charing. At least, that was the plan. I should have known this would be one of those days when, within the first few miles, we passed places with such bleak names as Coldblow Farm, Scragged Oak, and No Man’s Acre. The weather, at least, cooperated, and we had another cool, overcast day.
Sometime in mid-afternoon, when we’d completed just about seven miles, all of it on the well-marked Pilgrims Way, the path widened and then stopped, abruptly, at a busy thoroughfare. No sign of a trail, just a two-lane road with cars speeding by at regular intervals.
“Now what?” I asked Ben. We pulled out the map and our phones (I’m a big fan of GoogleEarth when lost) and, sure enough, the path merged with and followed this road for about a mile. But: no sidewalk, and the shoulder of the road was only about one foot wide. Beside that skinny little shoulder grew great tangles of blackberry bushes, but, when we stuck our walking sticks under the leaves to get a little traction, they met nothing but air—the bushes were growing on a steep slope. So, no escape there. Nothing for it but to set off, and hope drivers weren’t on their phones.
There were a few close calls, but in a little under a mile, we were never more happy than when we finally spotted, across the road, a tiny dirt lane with a very welcome sign:
We were no more than fifty feet from the road, but the ceaseless noise of cars soon faded away, and the path became noticeably quieter. We hadn’t stopped to eat all day—when your walking rhythm gets going, sometimes it’s hard to break the momentum—and asked a dog-walker for a good pub, “close by.” He directed us to The Bowl Inn, “just up the hill, can’t miss it.”
Well, we didn’t miss it, but it was over a mile, uphill, along a narrow lane between two hedgerows, to get to it. I love hedgerows: so picturesque. But when they squeeze eight-foot-wide delivery trucks into a ten-foot-wide space, and you have the other two feet, it can be harrowing. We dashed into the Bowl at last, only to be informed that they didn’t serve food until 6:00pm. It was just going on 4:00. We decided to stay, and did end up having a tasty and filling meal, but then we had to head out again, into the gathering darkness, to find our B&B. And then it started to rain, and the darkness came down on us like a theater curtain.
Long story short, it was a 2.6-mile walk to Shaw Grange from the Bowl Inn, along a dirt path increasingly slippery with mud. At least we had a flashlight, but it wasn’t much help when we got to the main road, and car headlights coming toward us, reflecting the rain, all but blinded us. Finally, though, we stumbled into the gate, and our hosts, Mark and Carmel, couldn’t have been more welcoming, serving delicious tea and cakes and bustling about, making us exceedingly comfortable.
Day Four: Charing to Chilham (7.6 miles for me, 10.5 for Ben)
At breakfast, we were discussing our upcoming day’s walk with Mark, who came up with the generous idea of driving us to a nearby trailhead so we could continue The Walk from where we’d overshot it the night before. Brilliant! Nearly three miles I wouldn’t have to walk!
Ben was having none of it, however; he insisted he wanted to walk every step of the Pilgrims Way. “That’s fine,” I told him, “and admirable. But, I’m not doing it. I’ll meet you at … umm…” Mark jumped in again with the suggestion that he (Mark) drive me to the Wagon & Horses pub on the Faversham Road (no village or even hamlet, just the pub), saving me 3.2 miles of walking. Since I had some work to catch up on—yes, I was working, even on The Walk—it sounded the perfect plan.
Ben set off on the trail, and Mark gave me a quick driving tour of Charing on the way to the Wagon & Horses. Charing is a small village of picture-perfect cottages and the remains of an 11th century palace that was used by the Archbishops of Canterbury as a stopping place between London and Canterbury. They say that it was a favorite residence of Thomas Becket. Of course, it was also a major stopping place on the pilgrim trail to his shrine at Canterbury. And, Charing is only about twelve miles from our Canterbury destination.
The Wagon & Horses is a traditional pub, on top of the North Downs. When I got there, around 10:00am, there was no one inside but a kitchen worker, who just waved me to a table when I asked if I could “just sit for a bit.” I pulled out my laptop and got quite a bit done before the door opened around 11:30 and Ben walked in. We had another tasty pub lunch, and set out for the village of Chilham, six and a half miles away.
Chilham is often called “the prettiest village in Kent.” In addition to the many charming half-timbered cottages surrounding the village square, it features two castles, a Norman keep built in 1174, and a beautiful Jacobean mansion. In 1616, Inigo Jones built the gateway to Chilham Park, now the local cross-country venue. Chilham church has its own historical mystery. During the Reformation, when St. Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury Cathedral was demolished, the ornate shrine housing the saint’s body was moved to Chilham. The shrine disappeared in 1541, and no trace of it has ever been found.
We’d hoped to be able to stay at the Woodpack Inn, a 600-year-old inn which, of course, was there in Chaucer’s day and catered to pilgrims like us. Though they didn’t have rooms available, we opted for an early dinner there, again locally sourced, delicious food and wine. And, again, our table was serendipitously situated, this time under a portrait of Chaucer, the guy who started us on this whole thing.
We walked another mile to a local farmhouse B&B whose owner, though exceedingly strict about house rules, was welcoming, and we enjoyed our final night of The Walk.
Day Five: Chilham to Canterbury (5 miles)
Our final day, and it was exactly five miles, door to door, from our B&B to the hotel in Canterbury (where we hoped our luggage had been delivered). I was definitely ready to stop walking! Dodging traffic on the busy road that was the direct route, we picked our way along a small stream, through gates and over stiles, and across farmers’ fields to the Pilgrim Trail, where curious livestock occasionally wandered over to say hello—horses and cows, though thankfully, no bulls. Apparently farmers are allowed to keep bulls in fields that are open to pedestrians—luckily, we didn’t meet any.
The nearer we got to Canterbury, the more evidence of the Pilgrim Trail appeared: random artwork revealed itself along the trail.
After a couple of miles, just when we could barely see the top spires of Canterbury Cathedral in the distance, the trail led us from the sunny open countryside up a steep hill into a deep, dark wood, surrounded by menacing-looking trees. Enormous mushrooms grew along a fence line, adding to the strange, Alice-in-Wonderland feel of the place.
Ben mentioned that he expected to see the Headless Horseman thundering towards us, so we quickened our pace until we soon dropped down to the level of the Great Stour river, and, keeping the Cathedral in our sights in the distance, we walked along the river, where we were passed by dogwalkers, bicyclists, and other walkers. Oddly, on our entire five days on The Walk, we never met another Pilgrim Trail hiker.
And yes, our luggage was waiting at the Pilgrim’s Hotel, up a steep, narrow staircase to a tiny room where we had to go outside into the hall to turn around.
So, what conclusions do I have about The Walk? Well, for me, it was a long-held dream, finally undertaken. Did I feel more connected to all those past pilgrims? I certainly felt their walking pain, their tired legs and feet, though the path is now safer from robbers and highwaymen. I was always sure of a (flealess) bed for the night that I didn’t have to share with strangers (in the Middle Ages, it was normal to share not only a room at the inn, but often the bed as well). I had the luxury of indoor plumbing and endless hot showers after a long day. Did I feel England’s bones? Most definitely. There is something about the rhythm of walking, the slow pace allowing you to look—and really see—the land, the trees, the buildings, the ever-changing sky. There have been people living on and altering the landscape of this country for thousands of years. You can’t help but feel that every step, every inch, has been lovingly taken care of, with future generations always in mind.
And now, we would pack up our walking sticks and head into other adventures, other long-held dreams.