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 Pilgrimist Writers and the 'Old Road'

Over a century ago the writer Hilaire Belloc penned the term the ‘Old Road’ to describe an ancient trackway that ran between Winchester and Canterbury.  Belloc’s work 'The Old Road', first published in 1904 has been described by a number of commentators as the first authoritative account of the Pilgrims’ Way.   Perhaps less well known is the fact that hardly anywhere within Belloc’s text does he refer to the road as the Pilgrims’ Way.  Instead he prefers to refer to it as the Pilgrims’ Road or simply the Way.

However nine year’s before Belloc’s ‘Old Road’ was published, Julia Cartwright aka Mrs Ady, an art critic and historian of the Italian renaissance, wrote ‘The Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Canterbury’, published in 1895.  Her book was already drawing attention to the ancient trackway that ran along the edge of the North Downs prior to Belloc's more extensive survey of the way.   Cartwright’s work, initially published in the Art Journal in 1892, like Belloc's, had seen at least two reprints prior to the publication of Belloc's Old Road. In it, she states that ‘the days of pilgrimages are over, their fashion has passed away, but still some part of the route which the travellers took can be traced, and the road they trod still bears the name of the Pilgrims Way’.  According to C.G. Crump in an essay first published in 1936, both Cartwright’s book ‘The Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury’ and Belloc’s ‘The Old Road’ had been preceded by an essay written a half century earlier by Mr Albert Way.  This contribution to the Pilgrims’ Way story first appeared as an appendix in Dean Stanley’s ‘Historical Memorials of Canterbury’.  The Dean's book was drawn from two lectures he delivered at Canterbury in 1855.

Belloc’s ‘Old Road’ between Winchester and Canterbury is 120 miles long and today, as Christopher John Wright states in his Guide to the Pilgrims’ Way and the North Downs Way, substantial sections of ‘the two routes - the Pilgrims' Way and the North Downs Way - coincide for much of their respective lengths’.  The North Downs Way National Trail that serves so well those wishing to explore the Pilgrims' Way today was established in 1978.  The idea for such a trail was first proposed by the Ramblers Association to the Scott Committee, which reported in 1942.  The North Downs Way National Trail is 131 miles long between Farnham and Dover via Canterbury and follows closely the route taken by the ‘Old Road’ or Pilgrims’ Way.

The Prehistoric Trackway

There is a fair degree of acceptance amongst historians and archaeologists that an ancient prehistoric trackway ran along the edge of the North Downs.  Hippsley-Cox suggested that it was one of the five principal pre-historic trackways believed to date from before 2000 BC.  More recently Dr. Oliver Rackham, acknowledged as being one of the leading authorities on the British countryside stated that the various ridgeways and the Pilgrims’ Way in Surrey are usually regarded as prehistoric main highways.  Furthermore, Ivan D Margary in an article entitled ‘The North Downs Trackway and the Pilgrims’ Way’, published in 1952 argues that ‘this trackway is one of the most important in Britain, certainly the most important in south and south-east Britain because it was the main route by which early man could penetrate readily into this island from the Continent, and indeed he probably began using it before the separation of the island had occurred.’  However it is the use of the trackway over the passage of time that is more contentious than its prehistoric historic pedigree.  In particlaular it is the trackways use as a pilgrimage route to Canterbury throughout much of the medieval period, which probably attracted most debate.

The ancient trackway has been described as both a ridge walk and a terrace way that follows the chalk escarpment of the North Downs.  For identification purposes a good rule of thumb is that the old trackway usually kept to the lower southern slopes that were less exposed than the upper ridges. The road kept just above the woods of the Weald or the cultivated land at the foot of the escarpment and avoided the claggy clay found on the lower ground.  Today, if one walks along the North Downs Way National trail it can be seen that sections of the trail signposted as the ‘Pilgrims Way’ are often just a few metres above the fields at the foot of the North Downs escarpment but high enough to benefit from the better drainage of the chalk and flint underfoot.  For example at Paddlesworth, just west of the Medway Gap, a large section of ancient trackway not incorporated into the North Downs Way National Trail can clearly be seen.  This track runs about two metres above the field system and passes within 500 metres of St Benedict’s church that is 900 years old.  The Churches Conservation Trust suggest in its history of St Benedict’s that many medieval pilgrims left the trail and stopped to pray on their way to Becket’s shrine.

Valerie Belsey, in ‘The ‘Green Lanes of England’ infroms us that the earliest pathways along the North Downs escarpment date back to when man hunted along tracks used by wild animals. Hilaire Belloc develops an economic argument as to why a west-east trackway across southern England may have existed.  He argues that after England became separated from mainland Europe by sea about 10,000 years ago the main route into the country was through the Straits of Dover with a second crossing to southern ports near Southampton and then overland to Winchester.  By the Bronze Age and later Iron Age, the west of the country served as the principal supplier of tin, lead and iron and to the east of the country was to be found the best cultivated land.  As such Belloc argues that natural trade routes developed along the chalk slopes of the Downs.  Frank W Jessup states that ‘an indication of the main trade routes is given by the finds of single coins belonging to this period (i.e. pre-roman Iron Age) and that most of the ‘single coins that have been found were either on the line of the North Downs trackway, near the Thanet coast or along the banks of the Thames.’
This is an abridged version of an article written by Derek Bright
Where applicable sources are quoted within the text.  For detailed references and further
source material please email history@pilgrimsway.net

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