Part of a series of events focusing on the use of cultural routes to restore meaning to disconnected heritage sites, a mini-pilgrimage was organized from 6-7 May to provide an authentic taste of what thousands of pilgrims who walk or cycle the routes of the Camino de Santiago or the Via Francigena experience each year. Essential elements include: following a historic route that was once travelled by medieval pilgrims, comradery, good food, a libation or two (in this case in the form of a good Kent cider), and the magical ingredient of the generosity of strangers.
The UK has only 20 miles of the 1800 km route from Canterbury to Rome. Despite this small section, the Via Francigena in Kent has much to offer walkers and pilgrims. Starting at the UNESCO World Heritage Site which includes Canterbury Cathedral, St. Augustine’s Abbey and the church of St. Martin’s, it winds its way down country lanes and across fields, through delightful villages with their historic churches and quaint cottages, along the Downs to the port of Dover. Nestled between the stark white cliffs on either side, travelers have departed the British Isles from this port for centuries – as the magnificent bronze-age boat in the Dover Museum attests. The objective of the mini-pilgrimage on the Via Francigena was to introduce participants to this historic and natural heritage through the experience of a pilgrimage.
The small but intimate group began their journey with a blessing in the crypt of the Cathedral at 10am on 6 May. Leaving the city we passed St. Augustine’s Abbey and stopped at St. Martin’s, the first Christian church in Britain. A sacred spring was pointed out to us just outside the church grounds by one of the group – was this where King Ethelbert was baptized by St. Augustine ca. 597? Turning onto the appropriately named Pilgrims Way, we quickly found ourselves following a country lane past apple orchards until we reached the picturesque village of Patrixbourne. At the church of St. Mary’s, with its splendid Norman carvings, the group stamped their pilgrim credentials and relaxed in the churchyard where our knowledgeable guide Jo Tinkler pointed out the medieval sundials carved into the door jam.
The next 5 miles were through fields of bright yellow rapeseed, along paths lined with poplars and past the estate of Higham Park, noted for such guests as Mozart, Jane Austen and Ian Fleming. Fleming was in fact inspired to write his children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by the car of the same name built by Count Louis Vorrow Zborowski, the owner of Higham in the 1920s. In Womenswold village we were greeted by church warden Marilyn Lewis, who generously prepared us much needed tea, coffee and biscuits. We were now only 4 miles from Eythorne, where we would rest for the night. As we turned off the Via Francigena to follow a country lane to Barfrestone and Eythorne, the World War II defenses stretching along the train tracks on the Canterbury/Dover line were pointed out to us by Steven, a Shepherdswell resident and pilgrim for the day. They were pyramid-shaped concrete blocks that were placed along this line to stop tanks in case of an invasion. Amazed that something so significant could be so inconspicuous I found myself gazing into the undergrowth from that point on, wondering what other evidence I could find of this uncertain period in Britain’s history. Jo called to the head of the group at this point to turn down Pie Factory Road, where a few minutes later we confronted by an expected sight – a micro-pub! Tucked down a driveway in what seemed in the back of beyond was a cozy converted barn. Clearly a draw to locals of Barfrestone, no doubt a group of ten pilgrims with large rucksacks were a surprising sight, but we were made extremely welcome and were delighted by the selection of Kent ciders. The elderflower cider was the most popular choice – smooth and sweet we felt instantly refreshed as we gathered round tables to take a well-deserved break and to get to know our fellow pilgrims a little better. We were in high spirts a few hours later as we set off on the last mile to the accommodation in Eythorne.
One last cultural stop was at St. Nicholas Church in Barfrestone. St. Nicholas is an absolute gem of medieval architecture. The stone carvings found within and without are both beautiful and whimsical. Taken aback by the variety in designs and carvings, Jo challenged the group to find the carving of a monkey. 10 sets of eyes went straight to work but not one of us could locate it among the many animals and faces of the carvings. With relish Jo pointed it out on the wall facing the door, worked into a group with a donkey and a rabbit. It was only the promise of lasagna awaiting us in Eythorne that tore us away from the delightful church. Within 10 minutes we were walking up the drive to the Resource Centre of Eythorne. The door was open wide, welcoming us in.
Rev. Sue White greeted us with smiles and a spread of lasagna, garlic bread, fruit flan and wine. We wasted little time in serving the meal and sitting down to start an evening of good food and conversation. By 9pm we were seated contentedly, sipping wine and enjoying the film, The Way – one man’s journey on the Camino de Santiago. It had been a day filled with history, architecture, spirituality, good company and beautiful scenery. We slept that night as true pilgrims, taking what was offered. In this case it was warm and dry, but perhaps a little uncomfortable on a yoga mat with a sleeping bag. The fresh air and exercise however, ensured that we slept despite the discomfort. By 7am the sun had long been up, and we were preparing for another day on the Francigena.
A breakfast of pastries, tea and coffee set us up for our first 2 miles from Eythorne to rejoin the Via Francigena in Shepherdswell. On the way out of Eythorne we passed the East Kent Light Railway station. This historic station is a time capsule of the railway that used to serve the surrounding coalfields, which closed in 1987. Once on the Green in Shepherdswell we stopped in at the Victorian church of St. Andrew’s for tea and coffee. After some refreshment and a preview of the church choir, practicing for the Sunday service, we were out into the fields again heading for our final destination of Dover.
This part of the route runs through varied landscapes of fields of rape and wheat, rolling meadows, tracks of woodland, and finally descends to the bustle of Dover. We kept up a good pace throughout the day. We made a stop at St. Pancras church at Coldred, located on a once Roman site and later a Norman mote and bailey. There are only six churches in Britain named for the saint of children, jobs and health who was martyred on the Via Aurelia in Rome. Another church to the saint was inside St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, and of course one at the station of its name in London. We managed to have a quick visit inside before the bell rang for the Sunday service. From Coldred the route takes walkers through the estate of Waldershare Park. Expanses of fields and parkland lead to the impressive brick façade of the house. The Church of All Saints was unfortunately closed and so we missed the opportunity to see the lovely 18th century marble memorial to Sir Henry Furness, then owner of Waldershare Park. On we continued, past woodlands covered in wild garlic, and then to the Roman Road which would take us the rest of the way to Dover. Although still recognized as a road, it is now a path that has recently been leveled and in areas resurfaced thanks to the management of The North Downs Way. After crossing the A2 by joining the New Dover Road, we continued along country paths and lanes until we found ourselves in the heart of Dover. The day couldn’t end here however. Our merry pilgrim band was eager to find some sustenance and refreshment. Perhaps unconventionally, we ended up in Burger Bros. which had just opened the week before. The owner gave us a proper pilgrim welcome, and even offered to sign our pilgrim credentials.
As we tucked into our meal and reflected on our two-day pilgrimage we spoke of the lovely people we had met and the heritage we had discovered: from medieval sundials to World War II invasion defenses, coalfield railways and a Roman road. One route, 20 miles, and 10 pilgrims resulted in new friendships and discoveries of local culture, history, heritage and communities.
Looking forward to meeting new pilgrims and friends on the next mini-pilgrimage on the Via Francigena in Kent! – Julia