A Canterbury trail
Through the ancient cathedral city and tracks once followed by pilgrims
3.75 miles (6kms)
As you walk through the streets of Canterbury, you can't help but be aware that you are following in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims. They have been drawn to Canterbury cathedral every year since 1170, when Thomas Becket was murdered there, and have included some notable historic figures. Yet, out of all these people, the most famous pilgrims of all are fictional – they are the characters created by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1345–1400) in his epic poem The Canterbury Tales: 'And specially from every shires ende, Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende'.
Chaucer is acknowledged as the father of English literature, but writing wasn't his main occupation, it was just a hobby. Chaucer was born while the Hundred Years War was raging between England and France and, after several years working in the Royal household, he joined the army. He was taken prisoner in France but was released after the English paid a ransom for him. Chaucer then became a sort of roving ambassador travelling throughout Europe on various high level diplomatic missions. He could read French, Latin and Italian and when he travelled he took the opportunity to study foreign literature, which he put to good use in his own works. Back in England, he took on various official posts including customs controller of furs, skins and hides, and Knight of the Shire for Kent. He also found time to write several long poems and translate many works of prose.
He wrote The Canterbury Tales around 1387 and created a cast of lively, believable characters that tell us a great deal about life in the 14th century. There's the earthy Wife of Bath, who's already had five husbands and seems to have set out on this pilgrimage to catch her sixth; the too worldly Prioress, who puts on affected table manners and speaks French – unfortunately more like Del Boy Trotter than anything else; and then there's the corrupt Friar, who's not at all bothered about those in need, but who sells absolution to anyone who can afford it. The poem, written in Middle English, became the first printed work of English literature and is known all over the world. Chaucer himself s buried in Westminster Abbey.
Go right from Castle Street car park then right again down Gas Street to pass the castle. At the end turn left on Centenary Walk. Where this finishes go right and walk beside the road. Cross a bridge, turn left, go under another bridge and along the river to the other side of the road.
Cross some grassland, go over a bridge and through a children's play area. Walk across the car park and turn left up the road to join the Stour Valley Walk.
Go under a bridge and continue to a level crossing. Cross the railway, then stroll up past Whitehall Farm. Walk under the bridge, through a gate and over a stream. The path bends round and the main road is on your left.
At a junction turn right along the North Downs Way. Go over a bridge and up a lane. To your left is Golden Hill – from which pilgrims traditionally had their first view of the city. When you come to a track, turn left and follow it round. Go right along Mill Lane to the main road. Take the underpass to cross Rheims Way, turn right down London Road, then turn right into St Dunstans Street.
Walk into Canterbury to go under the Westgate, turn left along Pound Lane and into St Radigund Street.
Continue into Northgate, go left then right down Broad Street. You're now walking around the outside of the city walls. Turn right along Burgate, past a tiny 16th-century building called The Pilgrim's Shop. Soon you will come to a pedestrianised area that brings you out at the Butter Market and war memorial. On your right is the entrance to the cathedral.
Turn left, cross The Parade into St Margaret's Street and turn right down Beer Cart Lane. Turn left into Stour Street and on the right is the city museum, and almost opposite, down Jewry Lane, is Canterbury Wholefoods where you can finish your walk. To return to Castle Street, retrace your steps along Stour Street, turn left along Rosemary Lane and then right.
City streets and firm footpaths
Ancient cathedral city and tracks once followed by pilgrims
Keep on lead in city but can mostly run free on footpaths
OS Explorer 150 Canterbury & the Isle of Thanet
Castle Street or one of several car parks in Canterbury (fee)
Castle Row, off Burgate and off High Street
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About the area
The White Cliffs of Dover are an English icon – the epitome of our island heritage and sense of nationhood. They also mark the point where the Kent Downs AONB, that great arc of chalk downland stretching from the Surrey Hills and sometimes known as ‘the Garden of England’, finally reaches the sea. This is a well-ordered and settled landscape, where chalk and greensand escarpments look down into the wooded Weald to the south.
Many historic parklands, including Knole Park and Sir Winston Churchill’s red-brick former home at Chartwell, are also worth visiting. Attractive settlements such as Charing, site of Archbishop Cranmer’s Tudor palace, and Chilham, with its magnificent half-timbered buildings and 17th-century castle built on a Norman site, can be found on the Pilgrim’s Way, the traditional route for Canterbury-bound pilgrims in the Middle Ages.
In the nature reserves, such as the traditionally coppiced woodlands of Denge Wood and Earley Wood, and the ancient fine chalk woodland of Yockletts Bank high on the North Downs near Ashford, it is still possible to experience the atmosphere of wilderness that must have been felt by the earliest travellers along this ancient ridgeway.