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Late last year, when I finally agreed to walk the three-week South Downs Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Canterbury, I felt strong internal resistance. Preparations were intense before leaving – I barely did anything else for a whole week, all the while uncertain of my goal.
This was first confirmed in Winchester when we took the Wayfarer’s Dole – the oldest continuous pilgrims’ charity in Britain, a horn of ale and slice of bread from the Hospital of St Cross, free for anyone who asks.
Pilgrimage is a powerful way to reconnect with past ways of life, to learn how our land and nation became what they are today.
We also sang and slept at the Weald & Downland Museum, a ‘rescue’ centre for old buildings and traditional crafts like carpentry, woodcutting and thatching.
When meeting the Long Man of Wilmington, a hillside chalk-carved pilgrim, we climbed up opposite sides with our staffs both tapping his. At Hythe Ossuary  a place of four thousand skulls, we sang a song of how life is like leaves on a tree, fading and falling with the seasons (watch video). On arriving in Canterbury Cathedral we sang ‘Maria’ at the site of Becket’s Martyrdom and reliquary, kneeling in concave flagstones worn down by the knees of millions of pilgrims previous. What I learned of ritual is that within the bounds of respect, one is free to engage with a place in any way, unfettered by dogma.
It is strange I have got this far without yet talking of the important equipment required for pilgrimage: a pack, a bowl and spoon, sleeping bag and mat, good woollen clothes and stout boots (barefoot we were not).
If like us you feel that Britain needs more pilgrimage, please help us to make this happen.
These are ten mini-pilgrimage routes into Canterbury from the surrounding East Kent countryside.
Each route is footpath-based, and has been selected for its safety, beauty and closeness to holy places, as well as its accessibility via public transport. If you use a GPS-enabled Smartphone or other GPS device, you can download the GPX files for each route.
We are currently designing our own mobile app, to make following pilgrimage routes free and easy for pilgrims.
Francis Coulson's original, secret recipe is the stuff of culinary legend, so much so that every member of staff at Sharrow Bay has signed a secrecy agreement to not disclose the secret recipe that is held in the hotel's vaults.
In a time when people seem ever more disconnected from land and spirit, my friend Will and I took a quest to discover what pilgrimage in modern Britain really ‘does’. Pilgrimage was an obscure pursuit, and it meant taking time off from earning money, my career, and my new girlfriend.
With a handful of old local songs and various foraging skills, we were relying on strangers and the ‘pilgrim’ password. We next met the cathedral, to drink sweet water from the holy well (where King Alfred was baptised) in the crypt below the High Altar.
We had slept beside the ‘Gospel Oak’, under whose once mighty boughs Augustine preached 1400 years ago. He gamely powered through a hard day’s walking, despite my unwelcome protestations that it couldn’t be that bad. As well as hilltops and woodlands, this meant laying low in donkey sheds, lambing pens, summer-houses, yurts and barns. Throughout our pilgrimage we were helped by many people, who gave food, shelter, suggested improvements to our pre-planned route (sometimes sending us in whole new directions), and even outdoor baths under the stars. I don’t think I’ve ever met so many people, and engaged with them so deeply so quickly, as when I walked out in Britain calling myself a pilgrim.


Pilgrimage showed me that modern urban lifestyles can often insulate us from more ‘whole’ and beautiful ways of life that Britain once knew well. Walking through lesser-visited parts of Britain also revealed lesser-known aspects of modernity.
But like many people in 21st century Britain I was a novice to such things, having to follow my intuition to know how best to behave.
Helen near Hastings (watch video) we cleared the water channel of debris and thanked the great oak and beech trees guarding it, before ‘auto-baptising’ ourselves with three full immersions.
Catherine’s Hill and Itchen Stoke (microcosms of pilgrimage?) and at Chanctonbury Rings we walked winding journeys to the centre and back again. Our charitable trust is striving to make pilgrimage accessible and inclusive, but we have a long way to go. In 2007, an anonymous bidder paid ?32,000 to the Children in Need charity in order to stay at Sharrow Bay and be allowed to make the pudding alongside the pastry chef.
Catherine’s Hill, the old Saxon hill-fort of Winchester, brought everything into clearer focus: the drinking of wild river water, the refreshingly oxygenated sleep, the morning view from my sleeping bag. In town, after a quick round of song, refreshed with donated food and compliments, we set off feeling strong.
This was also the last tree left standing in Hampage Forest 500 years later when the roof was built for Winchester Cathedral. It was not until a day of relentless freezing hailstorms on top of the Downs that we first enjoyed the hospitality of the Church of England. The challenge of asking for help, and being willing to receive it, was difficult and humbling. One example was a Downland vicar explaining the local church ritual of ‘climping’, where the community hold hands and dance around the church to offer the building a blessing, and ‘Downs Day’, where the congregation walk and sing to bless the Downs that surround them. I loved our daily practices, such as ‘meeting’ the places where we would sleep through prayer and silent conversation, singing over food before eating, or greeting trees with a friendly tap from our wooden staffs. To give examples: when laying my head in churches for the night, I discovered the need to thank the church first, to assure it we were there as humble guests. We ‘charged’ these staffs by tapping all the great trees and stones we met, as well as the ground with every step. Just like magic, the track will appear on the map, and you can follow it all the way to Canterbury. Britain has a deep cultural memory of pilgrimage, an unending precedent of helping each other along the way. Winchester Cathedral’s holy well, we reasoned, must be of the purgative variety (despite our filtering it). We met local grandees like Laetitia Yhap, the artist at the centre of Hastings’ fishing community who has painted the changes for over fifty years, who showed us secret springs and caves; another was Claire, the landlady of the Harrow Inn at Steep, whose mother and grandmother ran the pub before her, and whose locals have been drinking there for sixty years. Another more prominent example of a modern tradition was the bonfire night of Lewes, with its majestically anarchic procession and bonfire on which effigies of unpopular political figures are burned. We also improvised special ‘one-off’ rituals, such as when we stirred in opposing directions the waters of Winchester Pool near Wilmington in an attempt to connect us (and distance us) from the holy water of Winchester Cathedral; or when I placed a rose on the grave of my landlord Geoffrey Rose’s nanny Rosa in St.
He was my most constant mirror, and spending so much unbroken time together (more than most married couples!) in such intense conditions, it was inevitable that the uglier aspects of my character would find space to shine through.
Though it appears challenging from behind the starting line, the world always looks dark when you’re sat on a sofa indoors. The spiritual tradition of purging, intense cousin of fasting, is mostly forgotten in Britain, but globally it’s well known as a powerful cleansing preparation to ritual.


It was her pea and ham soup, cooked to the same recipe for 100 years, which finally settled the turbulence caused by Winchester holy well.
It let me test the depth of puddles, gave me propulsion going uphill and balance coming down. Yet this presented great opportunity: both to love (myself and him), and, even stranger, to ask for love. The advantage of downloading the maps is that you don’t need signal or wi-fi, the app will work anyway. The thin carpet was dry and the loos didn’t need digging – and this luxury cost only one verse of ‘To be a pilgrim’. My vague fears of being cold and alone in the dark were banished like the wolves, as people gathered round with kindness and warmth.
I rediscovered myself as a part of living nature, eroding the old illusion of separation between self and the natural world. It took the risk out of misplaced footsteps, turning potential sprains into minor stumbles. Behaving lovingly when challenged does not always seem possible; yet the need to continue in open unity toward our journey’s goal meant I had no real choice.
I encountered trees, wayside plants and herbs (often using them for medicine), birds, water, insects and rainbows in a heightened ‘present’ way, rather than just fumbling along, lost in my head. On pilgrimage, following the footpaths, there are no doors to slam nor comforting televisions in separate rooms to slump before.
Without food energy, we were running on what Will called ‘clear-fire’, a ghostly power whose source is nowhere. Thus, pilgrimage has probably taught me the lesson of companionship more powerfully than any other activity in my life so far.
But on arrival at Canterbury I let it go, throwing it into the River Stour to make its own journey to the sea.
The soaring spires of medieval churches took new relevance, evolving from places to ‘merely’ discover local history, make music, enjoy sumptuous architecture and find peace – they became even more fundamental sources of water, electricity and sanctuary. Of course, I was not always perfectly present to everything, but nevertheless this deep immersion in nature, journeying at the speed of my perambulating soul, gave me a more conscious connection to life than any day walk I’ve previously made. We discovered the different flavours of sleep in holy places, as we lay down to dream as close as possible to the high altar. One man gave us food for precisely the reason that fifteen years earlier, when he needed it most, no-one had helped him. Perhaps this was due to destination – short walks are blinded by its imminence – while on pilgrimage the end is mythic and distant, allowing present reality far more space to breathe. Well, pilgrimage is essentially a shortened dramatic representation of our lifelong journey from birth to death, and one of its greatest teachings is to stop clinging to things we believe we need.
After all, it’s what we will do with our bodies upon death, so best to start practising now.



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