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In the Footsteps of Charing's Pilgrims

A gentle circuit taking you along the ancient ridge-top track known as the Pilgrims' Way.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 98ft (30m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Firm field paths and ancient trackways, 3 stiles

Landscape Wooded tracks and lush fields

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 137 Ashford

Start/finish TQ 954494

Dog friendliness Generally good, watch out for horses

Parking Off High Street and off Station Road, Charing

Public toilets Old Ashford Road in centre of village

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1 From the church in the centre of Charing village, walk to the High Street, cross over and go up School Road. At the roundabout turn right on to the A252 and then cross the road to follow a public footpath that leads off to the left. Cross a stile and then walk diagonally across a field and through two metal gates. There are two tracks to choose from here - strike out along the left-hand track and make your way up to the trees.

2 At the hedge, climb a fence, then turn right and walk along the Pilgrims' Way. It's very easy going now, this is a popular route for dog walkers and horse riders. Continue to reach the house called Twyford. Where the track ahead forks, go to the right and come on to the A252. Cross over, turn left, walk about 50yds (46m), then turn down the Pilgrims' Way on the right-hand side. Pass a tarmac track on the right and continue to a large tree.

3 The Pilgrims' Way now continues ahead, eventually bringing you to Eastwell, the burial place of Richard Plantaganet, illegitimate son of Richard III. Unless you want to walk to Eastwell your route now takes you to the right, down a bridleway. This is an immensely atmospheric lane, with a thick canopy of trees and so old that it has sunk in the middle. Take care if it's wet, as the track is chalky and can get very slippery. At the tarmac road turn right.

4 Just past Pett Farm go over the stile by the green gate on the left-hand side. You soon see Charing church peeping through the trees. Walk towards the church, crossing another stile. At the bottom of the field turn right through a gap in a thick hedge, that brings you out to a small hut. Walk around the field, along a flagstone path and past a children's play area. Turn right up the fenced path and go into the churchyard.

Charing might seem like a quaint, rather sleepy village today, but for centuries it was one of the busiest and most important settlements in Kent. It was a convenient stopping place on the medieval pilgrimage route to Canterbury and practically all pilgrims, whether rich or poor, would have stopped here for the night, before setting off the next morning for the last leg of their journey.

Medieval pilgrimages were a bit like early package holidays - a way of seeing the world in the company of others, with itineraries taking in churches, holy relics and inns. And, as Chaucer revealed in The Canterbury Tales (1387), by the 14th century, pilgrims were often more concerned with enjoying themselves than with any devout purpose. As pilgrims were vulnerable to thieves who lurked in the woods along the way, they tended to group together for protection and, as they travelled, the atmosphere tended to become increasingly festive.

The route known as the Pilgrims' Way in Kent, which you follow for much of this walk, was an ancient trackway used as a trading route by prehistoric people. Wherever possible it followed the top of the ridge, avoiding the thickly forested areas and sticky clay lowlands that would be so difficult to negotiate - especially in bad weather. Pilgrims wouldn't, of course, have had the benefit of modern walking boots. While the wealthy would have travelled on horseback, everyone else would have walked - generally wearing traditional pilgrim's clothes of a broad-brimmed hat and long cloak, and carrying a staff and a 'scrip' - a small pouch which held necessities. Better off travellers might also have carried carved charms to protect them on their journey. Anyone undertaking the pilgrimage as a penance would probably have worn a rough, itchy 'hair shirt' as well.

While ordinary pilgrims would stay at inns along the way, bishops and archbishops expected something far grander, so archbishops' palaces were built at several points on the route. There was a particularly fine one at Charing as it was the last stopping-off point before Canterbury.

When the travellers reached the outskirts of Canterbury those on horseback would dismount and walk into the city; others would probably hobble, as no doubt their feet would have been hurting by then. After visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket in the cathedral, the pilgrims would troop off to buy badges to prove that they'd made it - rather like buying a T-shirt or car sticker today. 'Pilgrims do it on their knees', perhaps? Badges were generally decorated with a scallop shell, the symbol of St James of Compostella that is still used by pilgrims today.

While you're there

Pilgrims travelling to Canterbury on horseback would travel at an easy pace, not wishing to tire their horses by galloping, but not wishing to go too slowly. They rode at a comfortable pace that became known as a 'Canterbury gallop'. Eventually it became shortened to a 'canter' the term we still use today.

Where to eat and drink

The Pilgrims Table in Charing, (well, what did you expect them to call it?) is a popular restaurant and tea room in Charing High Street. During the day it serves imaginative lunches, sandwiches and cakes. From Wednesday to Saturday they do evening meals as well. There's a garden at the rear for warm days.

What to look for

You can still see the flint walls of the archbishops' palace, now Palace Farm, in Charing. Henry VIII stayed here, with an entourage of 4,000, on his way to meet the king of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. He liked it so much that he decided to take the palace for himself at the Reformation. It was owned by the Crown until Charles II sold it and it was eventually converted into farm buildings. The 14th-century Great Hall is now a barn.

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