The Pilgrims Way is an ancient route that runs almost 200 kilometres between Winchester and Canterbury.
The historic pilgrimage route finishes at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, home of the shrine of St Thomas Becket. In the Middle Ages, Christians took pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury.
It’s impossible to know how many pilgrims followed this particular route in medieval times, but historians believe that as many as tens of thousands did so each year and many still flock to the route for a taste of history.
Though it is not a single promoted long-distance path, it is largely made up of two routes, the St Swithun’s Way and North Downs Way.
The trail was dictated by the natural topography of the area, following a major chalk ridge through scenic countryside and taking advantage of the contours, avoiding the sticky clay of the land below but also the thinner, overlying flints of the summits above.
As well as being favourable in terms of gradients and terrain, the route has some impressive scenery along the way including characterful villages and historic churches.
The Pilgrims’ Way merges with other walking routes, which can make it a little confusing when mapping out your trip but further below we have outlined the standard itinerary. The trail is mostly flat, with a few uphill challenges just to keep you on your toes.
There is a route from Rochester to Canterbury that takes around five days to walk and is often referred to as the Pilgrims’ Way but it is in fact just a subsection of it.
It is also possible (and widely done) to walk from London down to the Pilgrims’ Way and join on for the final section if preferred.
- Walk in the footsteps of pilgrims that hiked this route hundreds of years ago and take a step back in time.
- Contact Winchester Cathedral to organise a blessing and a Pilgrims Passport after you attend Evensong.
Both Kent and Canterbury are relatively major transport hubs with regular trains and buses coming in from around the country.
Take a direct train from London to Kent, which takes a little over one hour from Victoria.
For anyone coming from further afield, the closest airport is Gatwick, less than one hour’s drive away, from where you can get a taxi or shuttle to the start point. Driving yourself is equally easy with Kent lying just off the M20 or M2.
Getting the train back from Canterbury to London involves changing once at Ashford but will have you back at St Pancras in no time.
Most people complete the path in 11 to 14 days, varying with walking experience and how much of a challenge you fancy.
Doing the walk in 11 days you’ll need to average around 19 kilometres a day with the longest day being around 28 kilometres.
Lengthening it out to 14 days will be less demanding on your feet and give more time to fully enjoy the path and wild life.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The good news is that the first pilgrims sought the easiest route, meaning that apart from a few unavoidable rises in ground and the occasional steep hill, there are plenty of long flat stretches.
The Pilgrims’ Way is along a shelf on the side, rather than the top, of the North Downs but still high enough for stellar views.
The valleys are dotted with chapels, castles and river crossings to break the journey up.
The ancient rutted path can be partly flooded in wet winter months, which will slow progress.
No special equipment is required for this route as it is relatively easy walking on ancient byways.
The only experience needed is the ability to walk long distances over consecutive days. Before setting off do a few long-distance hikes near you, throwing in a couple of steep hills for fitness training.
There are no permits needed or fees to pay to walk the Pilgrims’ Way or any subsection of it. If you want a Pilgrims Passport you will need to organise this in advance of your arrival.
Guided or Self-Guided
The Pilgrims’ Way guidebook is a useful tool for those going self-guided, providing historical information and describing the routes both from Winchester in Hampshire (192 kilometres) and London’s Southwark Cathedral (125 kilometres), with an optional spur to Rochester Cathedral.
As well as the detailed route description there is an OS map, advice on making the most of a trip and local points of interest.
With this in hand, some signage along the way and a phone with GPS, the route can easily be done self-guided.
If you’d prefer to have the hassle taken out of your trip, there are plenty of trekking agencies that can put together a package, starting at around £1000 and including luggage transfer, accommodation and some food.
Although medieval pilgrims often undertook the walk in winter, we’d recommend opting for summer or autumn, which will offer the chance of seeing hops, hillside vineyards, blooming lavender fields and orchards, as well as longer daylight hours.
However, any time between April and October will be nice enough on the Pilgrims’ Way, though accommodation will be difficult to obtain on UK national holidays unless booked well in advance.
A typical two-week trip would look like:
Arrive in Winchester, visit the Cathedral for Evensong if desired.
Winchester Cathedral to New Alresford following the St Swithin’s Trail – 16 kilometres
New Alresford to Alton – 21 kilometres
Alton to Farnham – 16 kilometres
Walk the North Downs Way from Farnham to Guildford – 23 kilometres
Guildford to Dorking – 16 kilometres
Dorking to Reigate – 14 kilometres
Reigate to Westerham – 22.5 kilometres
Westerham to Wrotham – 14 kilometres
Wrotham to Rochester – 19.5 kilometres
Rochester to Thurnham – 19.5 kilometres
Thurnham to Lenham, with optional detour to the beautiful Leeds Castle – 17.5 or 5 kilometre options
Lenham to Wye – 17.5 kilometres
Wye to Canterbury – 21.5 or 13.5 kilometre options
Ambitious walkers can combine stages to complete the route in 10 or 11 days.
Accommodation along the Way is in a mix of bed and breakfasts and country inns, hotels, hostels and even some campsites.
Depending on which of the routes you plan to take, there is plenty of accommodation in Winchester, Alton, Farnham, Guildford, London, Dartford and Rochester. Sometimes it may be necessary to get transport from the route to your hotel or B&B.
The guidebook details the Pilgrims’ Way accommodation listings and details of facilities and transport links can be found in the appendices.
There are many amazing holy places along this route. From ancient churches and holy wells to hillforts and the occasional ruins. Visit Polesden Lacey’s Edwardian mansion, walled garden and spectacular parklands, or enjoy lunch in the conservatory during a visit to the vines at Denbies Wine Estate.
More highlights of the full route include St Martha’s Hill by Guildford, Kits Coty House near Rochester, and the holloways around Lenham.
If you’ve got a few hours to spare or a rainy afternoon to fill, stop in at Farnham Castle and Palace, Watts Gallery Artists’ Village just south of Guildford or The Saxon Church at Albury Park
And if the historic landmarks aren’t enough the landscape is equally beautiful. The south-facing scarp of the North Downs in Surrey rises steeply from the valleys, covered in dense forest, with big gaps where grass and wild flowers thrive.
This is a rare landscape that is highly valued by wildlife trusts and the perfect place to settle for a picnic or well-deserved rest.
Box Hill is another great stop off and is famously the scene of the picnic in the Jane Austen novel Emma, where everybody has “a burst of admiration” on first arriving.
Try the Mole Valley Stepping Stones below, which cross the River Mole, before climbing the steep grassy slopes to the National Trust restaurant at the top.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Difficulty||2/5 - 3/5|
|Starts at||9 The Cl, Winchester SO23 9LS, UK|
|Finishes at||Cathedral House, 11 The Precincts, Canterbury CT1 2EH, UK|
|Length of route||192 Km|
|Average time to complete||10 - 14 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||271 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots|
|Countries visited||England, UK|