"All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings." --C.S. Lewis

We undertook the four day journey by foot to Canterbury because we wanted to follow the same ancient route as Chaucer's fictional pilgrims. As we discovered, though, it is a practical impossibility to use the exact path a medieval pilgrim would have taken, since most of the way now looks like this:

The A2 Crossing the River Medway
The A2 Crossing the River Medway

The Romans had a crossing at this same location over the Medway near Rochester, which is precisely where our journey began. Rochester is roughly half-way between London and Canterbury, so we had to imagine a journey twice the length of our own. Although walking the exact pilgrimage route today would be dangerous, the modern alternative is a trail that joins walkable parts of the ancient trackway with a few pleasant detours through the countryside of Kent.

Our path (in blue)

The North Downs Way National Trail stretches 153 miles across southeast England, and it offers hikers much more than just a good stretch of the legs. By following the North Downs Way, walkers experience something new at every turn: pastures, wooded paths, orchards, farm land, and the occasional town. The trail is dotted with surprises-- sites full of history and beauty-- and each one is a treasure for road-weary travellers to enjoy.


(Learn about the history of the North Downs Way in England by visiting the official website.)
We spent four days on the North Downs Way, walking from Rochester to Canterbury in what would have been a fourty-five minute train ride. We may have opted for the harder way, but ours was more rewarding! In places along the NDW, we were able to follow parts of the ancient Roman trackway known as Watling Street. This is the most likely route for Chaucer's pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, since the start of their journey was Southwark, near London.

This would have been the perfect place for the Romans to lay a road. The Downs are the chalky ridges rising over the weald below, running east-west and connecting London to the eastern coast. Some evidence shows that the Downs were a highway (literally) used before the Romans by Neolithic people to hunt migratory animals on this route. We learned a great deal more about the archaeological history of the North Downs, which you can read about here.

Medieval pilgrims did not have the convenience of having personal guides with Range Rovers to drop them off on the trail each morning, well-rested and fed! Derek, our guide, owns Walk Awhile, a tour group designed to help people enjoy to the fullest the experience of walking the North Downs Way.

Each day he met us at our bed and breakfast, walked us through the highlights of the day's journey-- every sign post, site of interest, and barking dog!-- and took our luggage to our next stopping place. He even packed our lunches!

Derek's brown bag lunch, made with local ingredients

We relied on "ordnance survey" maps, which showed every detail of our walk, and on our excellent guidebook, the "National Trail Guides: North Downs Way." At times the trail description had us looking for sign posts or other markers no longer in place, but that only added to the adventure! Derek also provided us with a basket full of books on the history of the Pilgrim's Way, which we looked forward to reading at our bed and breakfast each night.

Book by Neil Curtis and Jim Walker, 1992

We had as our constant companion the rich, verdant English countryside, but we seldom saw other walkers. When we did, we were most excited!

Ana making friends with the locals
Sarah and the Weald

While our inspiration for this journey was our love of literature and a desire to discover more about Chaucer's classical heritage, the motivation for the hard and dangerous pilgrimage which Chaucer's pilgrims undertook was as varied as his characters themselves. Religious pilgrimage was always at the heart of the Christian tradition in Europe, and those who set out had to endure bandits, fatigue, and the elements, as well as the loneliness of being far from home. Yet, they also had the opportunity not only to deepen their faith but also to experience new places, people, and ideas. The particular pilgrimage Chaucer's pilgrims made was to the shrine of
St. Thomas Becket, which was said to have healing properties. The site of his martyrdom is still visited today, and we ended our journey there just as our medieval counterparts would have done.

Site of Thomas Becket's Murder in Canterbury Cathedral

Though we cannot experience the exact path medieval pilgrims took to Canterbury, we are convinced that the walk we modern pilgrims take is in the same tradition of faith, discovery, and adventure as it always has been. Follow our narrative by clicking the link below, and enjoy the pilgrimage!

Continue to On the Road: Day One