Appropriately it was in April with its “shoures sote” (sweet rain shower) that the great 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer said: “than longen folk to goon pilgrimages… And specially, from every shires ende Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende” to visit the shrine of the archbishop, St Thomas Becket, murdered in 1170 in the cathedral.
Chaucer’s characters took a more northerly route, but there are many routes across the North Downs to Canterbury that follow the Pilgrims’ Way. This is an ancient ridgeway used long before Christianity reached these islands, which countless pilgrims have walked before and since. As you trace the pilgrim’s footsteps, you can just imagine them sharing stories as they neared their journey’s end.
1. A STATION START
This 8-mile walk starts at the railway station in Harrietsham,
a delightful village nestling at the foot of the North Downs. It finishes at Charing station. Both stations were opened in 1884, on a branch line from Maidstone to Ashford. They now form part of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway with its London terminus at Charing Cross – Southeastern Trains operates an hourly service in either direction.
From the station footbridge, walk alongside the railway on a path that heads east, then north, before climbing gradually towards the steep, south-facing escarpment of the North Downs, a good view of Harrietsham’s late-15th-century parish church tower to your right.
2. FOLLOWING THE PILGRIMS PATH
Past a copse, you will reach the North Downs Way, here turn right past a sign for the Pilgrims’ Way. This long distance path and ancient trackway follows the middle level of the escarpment, with the Downs ridge peaking about 50m above.
This first stretch takes you on a narrow and peaceful tarmac lane, passing or pausing at Pilgrims’ Rest, with its wooden figure of a monkish pilgrim – Brother Perceval or Percy – sitting
the view south over Harrietsham.
3. ENTERING THE OPEN LANDSCAPE
Beyond the Marley tile and brick works, the tarmac gives way to a path where you continue with views south over Lenham village amid its trees, and out over the Weald. Continue on a short stretch of road past Lenham Chalk Cliff, a Site of Special Scientific Interest where chalk and sand were once quarried; it’s worth diverting for a visit. Next, in a good downland section of the path, you pass Lenham’s war memorial, a cross
cut into the chalk.
4. A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
The Pilgrims’ Way continues ahead, across another lane. Immediately to your right you’ll pass the access to Highbourne Park, along with a modern development of houses and flats, built on the site of the old Lenham Chest Hospital. The hospital was founded in 1914 after it was thought the invigorating air of Kent would help tuberculosis sufferers.
Beyond this development, enjoy the wide views to the south. Uphill, sheep-cropped downland with beech copses punctuate the skyline. At a junction with another lane, the Pilgrims’ Way/North Downs Way kinks right and then left again, heading to Charing.
5. LEAVING THE PILGRIMS’ WAY
Just before a clap-boarded cottage, Twyford, turn right onto
a lane, soon crossing a main road – the A252 – and continuing ahead into The Hill, the road into Charing village. Charing is a beautiful village, with fine old houses and cottages, plenty of shops and a couple of pubs.
Make sure you divert left into Church Lane to visit the church at the end of the former market place. To your left lies the remains of a palace, once belonging the Archbishops of Canterbury, now a farm with walls dating largely from the 14th-century.
Continue along Charing’s High Street, then cross the A20 into Station Road. From Charing station, catch a train back to Harrietsham station, marking the end of the walk.
5 High Street, Charing TN27 0HU 01233 712612
Try the excellent gastropub menu or stay in its attractive en-suite rooms.
West Street, Harrietsham ME17 1HX
Not far from Harrietsham station, it offers hearty, homemade food as well as nine en-suite rooms.
In a glorious lake setting, the medieval castle is open year-round.
2½ miles south-east of Charing, is a Kent Wildlife Trust heathland nature reserve, including a series of lowland bogs, rare in Kent.
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NORTH DOWNS WAY