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Photographs - Above left Horse shoe Reach River Medway; Above right - The Snodland rocks (causeway) by kind permission of Andrew Ashbee and the Snodland Museum.

The Medway Crossings - Into the Valley of Visions

The breach in the North Downs carved out by the river Medway,  known as the Medway gap presents the largest natural obstacle for any traveller following the trackways that run along the North Downs escarpment between the Surrey Hills and Dover.  Today, walkers can follow the North Downs Way National Trail and cross the River Medway using the footpath that runs along the side of the M2 motorway bridge that links Cuxton with Borstal.  Alternatively walkers crossing the Valley of Visions can deviate from the North Downs trackways and cross the Medway up stream using the medieval bridge at Aylesford or continue downstream into Rochester and cross the Medway at the old town, where a bridge of one kind or another has existed since the Roman occupation.  However travellers in the past may have had three other crossing points situated between Rochester and Aylesford.   These were located at Snodland, Halling and Cuxton.

An understanding of the inter-relationship between the North Downs trackways and the Medway crossings and how this relationship has changed over time is a fundamental part of the Valley of Visions’ story. The link between much of the valley’s rich history, from the Mesolithic through to the present day is inseparable from the evolving story of the how people tackled the challenge presented by the river crossing.  From the inescapable presence of the Medway megaliths to the less palpable evidence supporting medieval pilgrimage along the Pilgrim’s Way – the crossings of the Medway are central to any understanding of the story the valley has to tell.  Those of the opinion that medieval pilgrims seldom used the ancient trackway along the side of the North Downs, assert their arguments with vigour particularly in discussion of the pilgrimage route east of Rochester.  Critics of pilgrimist theories tend toward the view that between the Medway and Canterbury, the roman road, known by the Middle Ages as Watling Street would have been a traveller’s preferred route.

Watling Street or the North Downs Trackway

Certainly, roman roads remained a key part of England’s road network throughout the middle ages.  Hindle, in Medieval Roads informs us that there were 8000-10,000 miles of Roman road, built by AD 150 that provided a basic network.   He states that very few new roads were built in the medieval period. The evidence of the Gough Map includes about 3000 miles of main roads in 1360.  Medieval roads also have a different character than Roman roads, is as much as Hindle states, ‘the road was not a physical entity’.  Instead it was a right of way, which would diverge and deviate onto new routes as and when conditions underfoot required .

Therefore a recurring theme in the Canterbury pilgrimage is the question as to why medieval pilgrims would choose the North Downs trackways in preference to the predominant network of Roman roads that made up so much of the medieval road system.  As Jusserand reminds us, 'there was in England a very considerable network of roads, the principle of which dated as far back as the Roman times”.

The question of Watling Street in preference to the Pilgrims' Way is developed in an essay by E G Crump, in his criticism of both Brayley (1850) and Albert Way (1855).   Edward Brayley, who claimed to have discovered a portion of the trackway running through Albury wrote that ‘the ancient path called the pilgrims way, which led from the city of Winchester to Canterbury, crosses this parish, and is said to have been much used in former times’.   Crump’s scepticism of Brayley’s assertion turns to incredulity when he considers Albert Way’s hypothesis, which he argued extended what he saw as the misconstrued theory of the North Downs pilgrimage route east of the Medway.  Of Albert Way, Crump states, “and yet to him, and to no other, is due the great discovery that the Pilgrims' Way did not go to Strood, but crossed the river Medway and took its course along the slope of the downs to Charing and thence to Canterbury.”   Crump’s view of the theories expressed by both Brayley and Albert Way is very apparent from his comments when he states, “if he had gone further (referring to Brayley’s statement in 1850), and surmised that it had once been used by pilgrims from Winchester to Rochester, whence the pilgrims could easily reach Canterbury, it would have been fantastic, but perhaps not absurd”.

Whilst Crump falls short of ridiculing of Brayley’s contention about the pilgrimage route, it is fairly obvious that he viewed Albert Way’s extension of the Pilgrims’ Way due east of the Medway and along the North Downs scarp, with incredulity.  Robert H Goodsall, who lived close to the trackway at Stede Hill overlooking Harrietsham, which as it happens is situated on that part of the Pilgrims’ Way east of the Medway, summarised the theme of the detractors when he wrote‘… that there is a good deal of evidence of a negative kind to disprove its use by pilgrims, at all events from the Medway crossing to Canterbury’.  Goodsall, in his book, The Ancient Road to Canterbury (1955) concedes that, whilst the part of the trackway lying across the western portion of the county may have been used as a pilgrimage route, he repeats the doubts expressed as to whether pilgrims would have continued along the southern flank of the downs. Whilst suggesting that the trackway east of the Medway may well have been used as a long distance route for the purpose of transporting chalk from the many chalk pits found along the southern flank of the downs, he nevertheless doubts its use as a thoroughfare for pilgrims. Goodsall argues that ‘from the Surrey Kent boundary to Snodland on the Medway, may have been used by Pilgrims coming from the west of England and the shires, but on reaching the latter point, it is far more likely that they would have continued via the trackway which led to Strood and Rochester, crossed over Rochester bridge and journeyed along Watling Street to Canterbury, so joining the main stream of pilgrims coming from the north’

The above text is an abridged version of a longer article written by
Derek Bright - references are quoted where relevant and for details of detailed sources please
contact history@pilgrimsway.net


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