The Pilgrims' Way (also Pilgrim's Way or Pilgrims Way) is the historic route supposed to have been taken by pilgrims from Winchester in Hampshire, England, to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury in Kent. This name is somewhat misleading, as the route follows closely a pre-existing ancient trackway dated by archaeological finds to 500–450 BC, but probably many centuries older, which ran from east to west on the southern slopes of the North Downs.
The course was dictated by the natural geography: it took advantage of the contours, avoided the sticky clay of the land below but also the thinner, overlying “clay with flints” of the summits. In places a coexisting ridgeway and terrace way can be identified, where the route followed would have varied with the season. The trackway ran the entire length of the North Downs, leading to and from Folkestone: the pilgrims would have had to turn away from it, north along the River Great Stour valley near Chilham, to reach Canterbury.
Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury became the most important in the country, indeed in all of Christendom, from his canonization in 1173 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 and it drew pilgrims from far and wide. Winchester, apart from being an ecclesiastical centre in its own right (the shrine of St Swithin), was an important regional focus and an aggregation point for seaports on the south coast. Travellers from Winchester to Canterbury would naturally use a direct route as represented by the ancient way, but a separate (and better attested) route to Canterbury was by way of Watling Street from London, as followed by the storytellers in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Indeed, the concept of a single route with this designation seems to be no older than the Victorian Ordnance Survey map of Surrey, whose surveyor, Edward Renouard James, published a pamphlet in 1871 entitled Notes on the Pilgrims' Way in West Surrey. Here he asserted that the route was “little studied” and that “very many persons in the neighbourhood” had not been aware of it. However, his insertion of the route name on the Ordnance map gave as it were an official sanction to his conjecture; and writers such as Hilaire Belloc were eager to follow it up. In fact, the route as it is canonically given on modern maps is not only unsuitable for the mass movement of travellers but has also left few traces of their activity. The official history of the Ordnance Survey acknowledges the “enduring archaeological blunder”, blaming the enthusiasm for history of the then Director, General Sir Henry James. Together, romantically inclined authors have succeeded in creating a “a fable of...modern origin” to explain the existence of the Way.
The ancient main streets of towns along the route — Farnham (where the old trackway converges with the pilgrims’ route), Guildford, Dorking and Reigate — align west to east, strongly suggesting that this was the most important route that passed through them. On modern Ordnance Survey maps, part of the route is shown running east from Farnham, passing to the south of Guildford, north of the village of Gomshall, north of Dorking, Reigate, Merstham, Chaldon, Godstone, Limpsfield and Westerham, through Otford, Kemsing and Wrotham, north of Trottiscliffe, towards Cuxton (where it crossed the River Medway). Along some stretches the pilgrims’ route left the ancient trackway to encompass religious sites, an example being at Pewley Down, near Guildford, where the later way passed St Martha’s Hill and The Chantries, some 500 metres to the south.