May 2013: The Pilgrims’ Way; Medieval Holiday Route or Victorian Myth? – Elyot Turner

Elyot Turner took us on a fascinating tour through his research into the origins of this historic route, now the North Downs Way. Was it used by medieval pilgrims on their way from Winchester to Canterbury, or does it have less romantic origins?
Chaucer’s tales were based on the route from London to Canterbury. Much has been written about our route, but only since the 1800s. Hilaire Belloc and others promoted it as a pilgrims’ route, and Diana Webb identified hundreds of shrines between Winchester and Rochester, but there is no evidence of groups of people setting out in a consistent way on pilgrimages. Early maps make no mention of the “Pilgrims’ Way”. The term seems first to have appeared on a 1769 map for a short section near Otford. The Ordnance Survey used the term from 1854, but only in Surrey. Later OS maps showed the route as Pilgrims’ Way (course of) – perhaps it was this that fired the public’s imagination.
There is plenty of evidence of a trading route along the Downs and there is no doubt that it was used for this purpose for thousands of years, but its fame as a pilgrims’ route seems to be founded in a clever marketing ploy by the Ordnance Survey. It certainly helped to sell their maps!