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Along the Pilgrims' Way

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Popular interest in the so-called Pilgrims' Way is widespread, and for some years past there has been a very noticeable increase in the traffic on this picturesque downland track. In 1900, pedestrians along its course were few and far between; now, for the greater part of the year, it is, if not a thronged highway, certainly a well-trodden path, with tourists, singly and in groups, conducted classes of school boys and girls, or troops of girl guides or boy scouts, journeying eastwards to Canterbury or westwards to Winchester.

The enormous development of motor traffic on the main and many of the secondary roads has compelled those who travel afoot for pleasure to seek remoter and less-frequented parts of the country, and this may account for some of the popularity of the Pilgrims' Way to-day; but it is more likely that the appeal is to be found in the romantic ideas suggested by its name, and the many wanderers of these days take pleasure in the thought that they are treading in the footsteps of those ancient wayfarers who, in Chaucer's words,

... from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende
The Holy blisful martir for to seke.

This attitude has been encouraged not a little by the remarkable amount of literature dealing with every aspect of this ancient path, commencing as far back as 1871 with a pamphlet written by Major General E. Renouard James, R.E., and culminating in a very useful and informative pamphlet issued by the London General Omnibus Company, showing how the old road can be reached by motor-bus.

The Pilgrims' Wray may be regarded from topographical and historical standpoints, and while most of the literature about it is fairly sound in the descriptions of the course of the road, its physical features, its adjacent villages and their numerous points of interest, the accounts of the historical development of the path are full of conjecture and unsupported statements. In recent years the current views concerning this road have come under rather severe criticism, and it may therefore be of interest to state briefly the problems as they were and are.

The Pilgrims' Way is the name given to a route, now of far from uniform construction, part of which has been absorbed into the existing main road system, part still an unmetalled country lane, and part merely vague direction across open downland or through trackless woodland. It can be traced, and for the best part followed, from Winchester, along the well-watered Itchen valley, to Farnham, and thence through Surrey and Kent, following the southern slope of the North Downs to Canterbury, and even beyond, to the coast. If travelling in an opposite direction, it is possible from Farnham to reach Salisbury Plain instead of Winchester, by taking an old trackway known as the Harrow Way, which diverges at that town and passes through S. Mary Bourne.

The following summary includes practically all that has been claimed for this road: - the Pilgrims' Way is a continuous path of prehistoric date, leading from the Kent coast to Salisbury Plain, along, wherever possible, high ground. At an early stage in its existence its western terminus was diverted to Winchester and Southampton. During the Roman occupation, because of its tortuous character, it was neglected, and this neglect continued till the thirteenth century, when it suddenly sprang into life again as the road which was used by pilgrims (hence its present name) passing to the shrine of S. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. When pilgrimages ceased at the Reformation, a variety of causes led in some cases to its preservation as a by-road and in others to its enclosure and obliteration. It is proposed to examine, as closely as circumstances will permit, the various claims set forth in the summary above.

A study of a map of the physical features of southern England will make it quite clear that, presuming a landing of nomadic peoples on the Kent coast, they are practically compelled to make for the site which is now Canterbury, whence, if they still desire to move westwards, the line of the North Downs is the obvious route, as thereby the densely -wooded, clay-bottomed Weald is avoided. It is, therefore, more than a coincidence that exactly where invaders would be likely to march there is a path, portions of which show many indications of a primitive origin.

The first difficulty is to prove that the various stretches of road of very different character were really once part of one long hillside track. Likewise we gather from the various writers on the matter that they are by no means agreed among themselves as to which of the numerous more or less parallel tracks that score the hillside is the original route. Considering the conditions that may have prevailed, it seems likely that no successive bands would have followed the same path. Subsequently the various tracks became consolidated, and the definite path we have to-day is but the survivor of numerous earlier tracks. We have yet to find settlements or, indeed, any definite indication that these early wanderers used this route at all.

The general consensus of opinion is that the road may be of late Stone Age date, but up to the present this is unsupported by occupational evidence. It may be that aerial photography, which has added so much to our knowledge of other parts of the world, may one day be employed to elucidate the problem of the North Downs, but our existing knowledge does not allow us to point with certainty to any site where these early peoples may have nested or had temporary or permanent habitation. The oldest things on the line of the road are the rude stone monuments, a remarkable series of which are to be found in the area between Wrotham and Boxley, in Kent. One of these is the well-known "dolmen," Kit's Coty Hole or House, a notable landmark on the hillside between Maidstone and Rochester, on Bluebell Hill, but there are many others. At Coldrum Farm, near Wrotham, are the remains of a stone circle with a half-fallen dolmen in the centre; in Addington Park are two large groups of stones, now somewhat difficult to rearrange in any intelligible form, but clearly of like character originally. In a field below Kit's Coty House is another group known as the Countless Stones, while at Tottington Farm, near by, are still more examples. The only difficulty in associating them with the Pilgrims' Way lies in the fact that they are situated at the crossing of two highways, the Medway valley and our old road. That they should be associated with the latter rather than with the river seems more feasible, but the other possibility has always to be borne in mind.

Farther east, on the hills before reaching Canterbury, the road goes right through an ancient encampment on Bigbury Hill, proved by excavation to belong to the Iron Age period, yet here, again, it is not clear whether the road existed before the camp.

The continuity of the road to Salisbury Plain depends chiefly on the possibility of maintaining that the "Harrow Way " is part of the original route. The name is obviously an old one, and whether it is interpreted as the " Hoar " or ancient way, the "Hare" or boundary way, or, as is suggested, the "Heare" Way or Way to the Heathen Temple - i.e. Stonehenge - it indicates that the road was of considerable antiquity in Saxon times. There is no unsurmountable objection to this theory of continuity, but one matter must then be satisfactorily explained. How came Winchester to be on a road which, originally making for Salisbury Plain, would naturally miss that city?

The suggestion has been made that other migrants, later than the original stock, landed around the harbours of Portsmouth and Southampton, and wishing to reach the presumed metropolis on Salisbury Plain, journeyed via Winchester northwards to join the older track. But the more obvious way would have been north-west through Romsey to Salisbury. Yet we find that those writers who uphold this theory cause their wandering folk to turn eventually north-east to Farnham, that is, they are directing their steps once more to the sea from which they have but lately arrived. This explanation is unconvincing, and it seems to be a piece of special pleading designed to bring the two great religious centres of Canterbury and Winchester on one road, to prepare the ground for the development of the pilgrimage theory.

It is obvious that the Romans did not reconstruct the road, for though there are signs of Romano-British occupation along its course, and casual relics of that period are often unearthed, there is nothing that in the least suggests Roman road engineering. On the other hand, it is contrary to reason to imagine that it was abandoned. As a means of communication, it had its uses then as now. The most remarkable thing, however, about this road is its alleged association with religious pilgrimage. Manorial and other rolls have been searched in vain for some reference to this supposed use of the road or some indication in its name of its purpose. Only as the "Hill" road or the "Shire" road does it appear, never as the Canterbury road or any such title.

In Hasted's "History of Kent," published in 1778-99, the road is there shown on a map and entitled the "Pilgrim Road," but there is no description in the text. Another interesting fact is that the boundary between titheable and non-titheable woodland in the county of Kent is always given in legal documents as the "Pilgrims' Road," and useful research might be done by ascertaining exactly when this description was first used. Such evidence might add considerably to our knowledge of the antiquity of the name. All the various Pilgrim "Lodges," "Farms," "Houses," "Rests," and the like are modern, due to the recent spread of the Pilgrim idea. In some parts of the country, bridle and foot-paths are occasionally spoken of as "Pilgrim" ways, and it may be that this name arose in some such fashion and the religious association has been subsequently grafted on to. it. General James, who has already been mentioned as a writer on the subject, was an Ordnance Survey officer, and it is somewhat significant that during his connexion with the Guildford district the name makes its first appearance on the Ordnance Survey maps.

But a serious study of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages will show that it could not have been all that is frequently claimed for it. The poor and needy were not pilgrims, the serf and agricultural labourer were more or less bound to the soil and the manor, and only those of leisure and wealth could and did make the pilgrimage. But these people required food and shelter at night, necessaries unobtainable on the Pilgrims' Way, which, as one of its characteristics, avoids the towns and villages. Contrary also to popular opinion, the monasteries did not welcome all and sundry to partake of their hospitality, and even if they did, neither Waverley in Surrey nor Boxley in Kent were of sufficient wealth or size to cater for any great volume of guests.

It has been calculated that the average number of pilgrims to the shrine at Canterbury was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1,000 a year, a result arrived at from a consideration of the total of yearly offerings (about 200), and the average personal gift (6s. 8d.), and when it is remembered that these pilgrims came from all parts of the country, it will be seen that the Pilgrims' Way could not have carried a great deal of this traffic.

How, then, are we to account for this road being preserved? Undoubtedly by the fact that it affords a means of communication between the scattered hill farms and likewise gives access to the open downs for grazing. It was, in short, a drove road or cattle way. It also afforded an alternative route to the roads of the turnpike trusts, with their objectionable tolls. But a more likely reason appears when the great chalk pits that fringe the line of the way are considered. These must have been worked for centuries, and have been one at least of the sources of supply for the enormous quantities of lime and chalk used in the Middle Ages for building purposes. A favourite stone in the same period was "Raygate" stone, which, as its name implies, came from the Reigate area, which incidentally also produced fuller's earth and sand, important minerals in the past. The Pilgrims' Way played its part in the transport of some at least of these materials, but the oft-quoted story that the road was used for the transport of tin is now disproved. No ingots have ever been found along the road, and modern research has shown that the export of tin took place from the Isle of Wight. Not much, therefore, remains of the very circumstantial story with which this account opened. At the most, we may now say that in all probability the road is the survivor of a number of early tracks that followed the hills in Neolithic times, but that it carried any considerable traffic, pilgrim or otherwise, in the Middle Ages is, so far as we know, an unwarranted assumption.

The fact, then, that much that has been written in the past is picturesque and romantic but improbable is almost certain, but this does not in any way detract from the pleasure to be derived from a leisurely ramble along the Way. The life history of an old road can be studied in all its phases independently of any pilgrims. Here the road has been absorbed into a new concrete "speed-way," there it has been "by-passed" and is rapidly becoming grass-grown. Beyond, it is under the plough, a solitary tree in the midst of a field marking its old course. A little farther it is a sandy lane leading to a ford, after which it is swallowed up in a private park from which the public is excluded. But sufficient remains preserving much of its early character, the elucidating of which is a matter of fascinating interest, an interest the more abiding if one thinks of the first makers, back in the dawn of history.

The "Observer," in a leading article (in 1926), when encroachments on the course of the road were threatened, put the whole matter very succinctly: "That the name may be historically vulnerable matters nothing; the well-known route is among the very oldest of our bequests, furrowed into the map of England long before there was a Canterbury to be its objective, and traversed by the tribe of 'Tegumai' in the days when the man and the wolf were among the wayfarer's first considerations." With that comforting extract we may fitly leave an extremely debatable subject - debatable, that is, for the historian and archaeologist. Of its romantic possibilities there can be no doubt whatever.

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