AN ANCIENT pilgrimage route to Canterbury has been rediscovered by a group of enthusiasts who plan to relaunch it by 2020, and the 850th anniversary of the murder of St Thomas Becket.
The 150-mile route from Southampton was found on a map from the 14th century by Will Parsons, a co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, which has already established a series of walks through historic and picturesque locations.
He noticed a fine red line linking the two places on the Gough Map, said to be the first accurate representation of the British Isles. The Trust has dubbed it “The Old Way”.
“It is the oldest direct evidence of an ancient pilgrimage route that, I think, we have in the UK,” Mr Parsons said. “With increased leisure time, people are seeking new ways to enjoy themselves, and walking is a healthy and interesting way of doing this.
“The story of Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral, with its murder, miracles, and pilgrimages, was a major event in British history. Re-establishing the Old Way as an open pilgrimage route will help people reconnect with this heritage.”
The Gough Map, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, dates from about 1360. It is named after the 18th-century antiquarian Richard Gough, who donated it to the library. Often described as Britain’s first road atlas, it shows other ancient cross-country routes.
Mr Parsons said: “If we bear in mind that Canterbury was the most popular pilgrimage destination in Britain, with especial importance for European pilgrims, then the fact that the Gough route terminates at Canterbury, without continuing to Dover, implies that this was not a route for trade or military purposes, but a route for pilgrimage, because Canterbury’s significance has always been predominantly spiritual.
“As for Southampton, for many thousands of years this town was a main port of entry to England. King Henry II made his famous ‘Sorry about killing Thomas Becket’ pilgrimage to Canterbury from Southampton, and the ancient pilgrim hostel in Southampton Old Town was founded to shelter pilgrims to St Thomas of Canterbury.”
The Trust is now working to create a series of “sleep-over points” along the Old Way’s meandering course through the South Downs and the Weald of Kent. Based on historic churches, they mirror the numerous monastic houses along its original track, many of which were established primarily to provide shelter for pilgrims.
One is the 12th-century, Grade I listed St Mary the Virgin, at Apuldram, in the Chichester Harbour Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where a new church hall will provide basic facilities.
“We are not keen to follow tarmac and rushing cars,” Mr Parsons said. “Modern pilgrims seek instead quietness, natural beauty, and a sense of journeying through ancient undisturbed Britain. As such, Apuldram is incredibly appealing to us. We are not a religious organisation per se, but neither are we non-religious. The spiritual landscape of Britain, built and natural, is where we seek to send pilgrims; so churches like St Mary’s are crucial landmarks for our work.”
The treasurer of St Mary’s PCC, Graham Pound, said that the idea “excited” the village, not only as a way of bringing their historic church to a greater audience but also as a useful source of income. “Because pilgrims walk, and only stay overnight, it doesn’t impact on our other activities,” he said. “It is a perfect fit with what we already intend”.