The Pilgrims Way is an ancient road, much travelled by pilgrims following the murder of St Thomas à Becket in 1170. The original route began at Southwark at the site of St Mary’s Priory an Augustinian order, which has now become Southwark Cathedral.
An Augustinian foundation existed also in Canterbury and is an interesting site to visit today. In 1173 St Thomas à Becket was canonized and this led to an increase in the popularity of Canterbury as a site of veneration and pilgrimage.
The Pilgrims route therefore travelled along what is now the A2 through to Rochester crossing the Medway by horse ferry in olden times.
The pilgrims then set off south for Canterbury staying in inns and hostelries along the way. Chaucer comes into our story next. He was born in 1343 and died on the 25th October 1400. He was like Becket a highborn. He shone in the light of the court and married the sister of Katherine Swynford wife to John of Gaunt the son of Edward III.
Chaucer studied law and became a member of the court probably as a valet and finally became clerk of the king’s works. His first book, ‘The Book of the Duchess’ an allegory was written in honour of Blanche of Lancaster the previous wife of John of Gaunt who died in 1369.
Chaucer, pilgrims and the pilgrim’s way are connected by the horse. For it would have been by horses that the great and good travelled to pay their respects to Becket’s memory. The word ‘canter’ describing a slow gallop exists only in English and is derived from the slow loping gait at which the pilgrims arrived on horseback.
So it was that we decide to attempt to reconstruct a journey that pilgrims would have taken to Canterbury and when we got to Canterbury we would tell stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Three Heads in a Well story telling group agreed to come to Canterbury and so Janet Dowling and Richard Troncer joined Caroline Baldock in the evening of the 26th to tell stories from the Canterbury Tales.
Our first attempts to find a route were to no avail. The A2 cannot be crossed by horses and therefore London to Canterbury was not possible. The only place the Medway can be crossed today on horseback is at Aylesford, where a lovely old packhorse bridge remains, an ancient stone roadway in a sea of modern roads and housing.
We researched the route following as best we could the Pilgrim’s Way from Epsom which is where Caroline Baldock’s horse is stabled. It became clear that much of the route would be on roads or on track way and that none of it could be done on the North Downs Way as most of that is footpath.
We selected photographic opportunities and mapped out lunch and evening stops. Luckily we found the Westercote family who agreed to put us up near Chevening. The next stop was Cobham Manor Stables and the last Chilham Equestrian centre next to Chilham castle. The last few miles on the last day would be mainly on the A 252 and the A 28.
The plan was for three of us to ride the journey of an average of 28 miles a day with a last day of 10 miles.
The best laid plans of mice and men! Meipe’s horses were both lame. Peebles came out for a 9 mile reconnoitre of Walton Downs and his legs were puffy the next day. So he was out. Her other horse had been suffering with lameness for a while and did not look like a contender. Athena the Paso was looking good until she got kicked in the field the night before we were to leave. It was down to Caroline and Melmott.
Our team of helpers badly needed a horseman. And one emerged just in time in the guise of a horse whisperer from Chile, Campbell Porter. Campbell was a star, coping with horses vans dogs people and the rain all without much ado. The trustees were all there to see the rider off on the morning of the 23rd September along with Gill Nurse and Meipe Boyde the luckless other riders.
Our blessing from The Revd Simon Talbott of St Martin of Tours, Epsom was moving and beautifully chosen. He reminded all of us of the relationship between the horse and mankind for thousands of years and of the horse’s service to us. “They are all God’s creation.” He told us. He wished us a safe arrival and a safe journey.
We were off. Melmott and Caroline headed for Walton Down. The downs are large and criss-crossed with paths and bridleways. You need to know your way around. With that behind her Caroline made for Gatton and the motorway underpass. All was well she headed for Rockshaw road.
The rain began. But worse was in store. The climb to Pilgrim’s fort was steep and a short cut was found along a bridleway to Gravelly Hill. Lunch at the fort was very wet.
Then Caroline and Melmott set off in increasing poor weather along the bridleway. It looked great to start with but was blocked further down and badly overgrown. She got to the footbridge after an unpleasant ride and then should have been able to get to Winder’s Hill.
This is where it all went wrong. The rain plummeted down. Now soaked despite having a waterproof in name only she took a wrong turn and went south instead of east.
She crossed the M25 and then the A 23 and had to double back to the Pilgrim’s Way, thanks to help from Campbell. Now soaked and tired with many miles left to go Campbell followed the couple in his van making sure that traffic did not hit her.
She found that walking on verges was dangerous as they were strewn with litter. The cars travelled far to fast and being eager to pass the equine obstacle nearly on several occasions created some near misses.
Finally they reached the Pilgrims Way with only 9 miles to go to Chevening. Urged on by Campbell, Caroline and Melmott kept going until as day was fading Melmott saw a pony in the distance, Amy and Nutmeg had come out to fine them. Whinnies were exchanged and the final miles were completed in wonderful company with Suzanne and Amy and there at the entrance to Chevening William waiting to show them across the estate on the old Pilgrim’s road.
The trustees of the Chevening estate has agreed to allow Caroline to pass along the old track way closed to travellers in 1770. Edward Barham, the chair of the Chevening Trustees, said, “We were pleased to support Caroline and the Museum of the Horse team by opening up this historic track.
Melmott was given a deep straw bed and real bed offered to Caroline who despite her declaring that she would be happy to sleep in hay barns was more than happy to enjoy. Caroline described her welcome at Chevening as making it all worthwhile.
After a meeting in the morning it was decided that Melmott’s legs were not up to another day of roadwork and he was boxed home. Happily they were able to complete the ride on the Sunday riding from Chilham with Meipe and Dolly and Caroline and Melmott to Canterbury.
The Abode Hotel, offered the travellers a room to freshen up in which was so welcome and then Shepherd Neame offered the travellers a reception at the Miller’s Arms.
The two horse riders were greeted at the Cathedral by The lord Mayor Cllr Pat Todd and his wife the Lady Mayoress Mrs Barbara Todd and the horses were blessed by the Revd Clare Edwards the Canon Pastor of Canterbury Cathedral. Under the awning of the information centre the rain now in steady torrents the small group of well wishes and storytellers.
The evening stories included the story of Pony Boy, the autistic child who was taken to Mongolia to be cured by Shaman. The Dun Horse, Tales from the Ingolsby legends, The Franklin’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Pardoner’s Tale. Story tellers were Gi Gi Hanna, Eleanor Allitt, Jeremy Harte, Caroline Baldock Janet Dowling and Richard Troncer.
The rain was still falling as we left the Cathedral precinct for home, and Caroline did have a canter, across the Chevening estate.
Caroline Baldock © 2010
Photographer Campbell Porter.
Interview with Joe Talbot BBC Surrey
Listen to Caroline talking to Joe Talbot on BBC Surrey about the trip down to Canterbury. Copyright © BBC. Interview 25th September 2010.
Journey with Us on Horse Talk Blog
Follow us during our Pilgrimage to Canterbury on our Horse Talk blog. You can follow as it happens. Posts will be added as and when possible to keep you informed of the progress towards completion at Canterbury Cathedral on Sunday 26th September.