What then happened to the ancient trackway if pilgrimages ceased in the middle of the 16th century following the reformation. It’s been argued that as the toll road system developed travellers reverted to using the old trackways to avoid paying fees to use the toll roads. William Cobbett, in his letters recommends that travellers leave the toll roads and explore the old trackways and wrote ‘those that travel on turn-pike roads know nothing of England’. Despite crossing the old road on many occasions, it would appear from Cobbett’s Rural Rides, that he himself knew nothing of the Pilgrims’ Way.
Another factor influencing the old road's use may have been that the chalk slopes of the Downs were never cultivated and as such allowed travellers to pass without trespassing on tilled land. F.C. Elliston Erwood makes the point that one cannot walk along the old road far without noticing numerous chalk pits, many abandoned and others still being worked. He suggests that perhaps the name ‘chalk road’ would be more appropriate. Belloc also suggests that chalk and lime working kept the old road in use following the demise of its use as a pilgrimage route. Nevertheless he also argues that later when the valley roads were developed, chalk pits were extended and would often cut into the route of the old road and as such ‘the exploitation of the pits at last destroyed it at these points’.
Today the trackway where it coincides with the North Downs Way National trail comes under the protection of the local authorities and Natural England, which was formerly the Countryside Agency. Natural England has funded £4m of work on National Trails in each of the last 3 years. It is still possible for modern day pilgrims to walk for miles along the old road without meeting another person, allowing time to reflect on the history of this ancient route. You will stop in many of the old villages situated close to the springs and water sources and seek respite in medieval Inns at the foot of the Downs that have served as resting places for travellers over the course of time.
This is an abridged version of an article written by Derek Bright.
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