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Walking The Pilgrim's Way

I have long thought about walking the Pilgrims Way but foreign holidays always seemed a greater lure. However, due to the Covi pandemic there were quite a lot of limitations in terms of where I could travel to in 2020, particularly abroad, so it seemed a great opportunity to finally undertake this walk across south-eastern England. I'd never read The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, but knew of them and bought myself a paperback copy. The book itself is written in middle English and is extremely difficult to understand without sitting down for hours and hours picking your way through.

In essence, The Canterbury Tales are about a group of pilgrims who assembled at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just south of today's central London. It is from there that they set off on their journey to Canterbury Cathedral and to entertain themselves on the long walk ahead their host suggests that they entertain each other with stories, with the teller of the best story set to earn a free supper. The pilgrims themselves come from all sections of medieval society, from a crusading knight to a drunken cook, a friar, a clerk, a merchant, a squire, a physician, a prioress, a monk and nun and quite a few others. Their tales span a variety of styles, some serious, some comic and some romantic. Though unfinished at the time of his death, The Canterbury Tales is widely regarded as Chaucer's masterpiece and some would say one of the greatest and most influential works in English literature. To be honest I never gave more than an hour or two to try and read and understand some of the tales. I hoped that I would be able to do this along the way but for the majority of my walk it was raining and all of my kit was wet. I carried a copy of the book with me for the entirety of my journey and it too got wet so I never managed to do what I had initially hoped to.

Chaucer himself had a very interesting life. It believed that he was born in the 1340s although the precise date and location of his birthplace are not known. It's fairly widely believed that he was born on Thames Street in the Vintry Ward to John Chaucer and Agnes Copton. His father, in later life, became a Freeman of the City and Geoffrey was born into a well to do merchants family. Again, the location of his schooling is unclear but his writings exhibit a broad knowledge of Latin texts in particular. Chaucer worked in the household of Prince Lionel one of Edward the Third's sons. He eventually became one of the Prince's retainers. Records exist of Chaucer's various positions and overseas travels as a member of Royal parties. He was married before his mid-20s and he rose in position and took on various diplomatic and administrative missions on behalf of his Royal employers. He was granted, on more than one occasion, Royal Warrants of protection etc. Having already travelled to France on numerous occasions, in 1372 and 1373 Chaucer travelled to Italy to negotiate on behalf of the King with the Doge of Genoa regarding the use of an English Port. He also travelled to Florence and various other cities, territories and countries. Despite being well educated and usually being in senior and well-paid employment, his life was chequered with lawsuits and debt as well. His magnificent tomb at Westminster Abbey records him as having died on the 25th of October 1400. The re-interment of his remains in this 1556 tomb alongside the burial place of Edmund Spenser in 1599 subsequently led to that part of Westminster Abbey becoming known as Poets Corner.

Day One - Saturday 14th November 2020

I was up pretty early I went downstairs to do the final preparation on my kit bag. Then I enjoyed a really decent breakfast before driving to Winchester. On arrival it was raining heavily. I stopped to photograph the statue of King Alfred in the centre of Winchester, and then walked towards the cathedral. I was wearing waterproofs from head to toe and had a mid-sized rucksack with all my kit and camping gear. I took more photos and a short video on my phone just before setting off. It struck me that people had been doing this for hundreds and hundreds of years. there is nothing unique or particularly challenging about this journey but I am hoping that it will be rewarding in terms of the places that I get to see and possibly the people that I meet along the way.

For ease, I used the GPS app on my phone to take me to the beginning of the actual Pilgrims Way which would then lead me in an approximate northerly direction out of Winchester. It would only be six or so days until I got home which is far faster than the time most pilgrims would have taken. Even now it is recommended as a 12-15 day walk. I simply did not have the time to do it at a more relaxed pace. The rain was relentless from the outset. There was a considerable amount of water lying on the surface of the road and I was ever mindful of cars to avoid getting drenched if I was close to a puddle when they drove past.

Once out of Winchester the first place of note that I passed was Saint Swithen's church. A wonderful old building and one which I would like to return to. This was going to be a common thought as I walked my route. I simply did not have enough time to stop and look around but, instead, I just kept on walking and walking. There is a path at the rear of the church and it was very poorly signed so I was not sure whether to take it or to stay on the road. Finding the path was also often a challenge so I decided to stay on the road for now. At least I knew it was heading north-east which was the right direction for today.

I was completely soaked through in three hours. On the plus side I was warm but that was because I was still walking. I knew things would be very different when I stopped for the night. The night time temperatures recently have been only just above freezing. Whenever I do long distance walks, I tend to have very different thoughts from those in my day-to-day life. This was no exception. Being wet and with no idea of where I was going to sleep tonight, I started to appreciate the fact that bus shelters in rural Hampshire look fairly attractive places to sleep when you have limited options and the weather is terrible. They are wooden, have large benches, are sheltered on all sides with an open entrance and do not smell of wee! Sadly, though it was far too early in the day for me to be stopping any time soon. I had a goal of how far I wanted to walk today and it would mean walking well after dark. I know only too well how temporal pressure can feel and how bad it is if you fall behind in terms of the distance you need to cover on a daily basis as you rarely ever get the chance to make up a deficit.

There was plenty to see along the way. Quite a lot of wildlife and a lot of different birds. I walked past quite a few old mile markers so I realised that I was on the old road that led to London, parallel to the current A31. Soon enough I walked into Alton. It was already dark. I briefly stepped into a bus shelter and out of the rain. This was a horrid, modern glass bus shelter, and in a busy town. Certainly not a place I would consider bedding down. But it did have a very interesting map of the Pilgrims Way inside which showed more tantalising places of interest along my route. I had no time though. I popped into the supermarket, got some food that I could eat whilst walking and once again got under way. Next stop - Holybourne.

I realised that I had left street lights behind me as I walked down Church Lane and took a path dotted with puddles into complete darkness. I put my head torch on and walked head-down into the rain. It was miserable. The heavy clay made my boots slip as I walked. I was soon crossing fields and the signs were getting harder and harder to spot. Normally they were just small green circles, about three inches across, nailed to fence posts. I'm sure it would all seem easy if I did this in mid-summer and bright sunshine. I don't think many people do it in winter and I was beginning to understand why!

In the corner of one field, I had no choice but to wade through water that was half way up my shins, way over the tops of my boots. The rain had been coming down for over 12 hours and there was quite a lot of flooding and lying water. I was starting to get properly cold. I knew I needed to find shelter or to find a place that I could put my tent up. Another hour or so and I found myself in the small village of Upper Froyle. There were several flat grass areas that looked appealing but I also got the feeling that this was the sort of place where people would come out of their houses to move you on. Luckily, I soon spotted a graveyard on my right-hand side. It was elevated from the road so I knew it would not be boggy.

I crept in and managed to put up my tent without using my headtorch. I stripped off and rang out all my clothes including my top. I was utterly soaked. I slept completely naked. I was pretty cold but fairly dry. A dog and two dog walkers passed my tent but thankfully made no objection to me being there. Sleep was very broken but at least I was out of the rain.

Day Two - Sunday 15th November 2020

I woke several times during the night. I did not want to be woken by the minister or by people coming to Sunday Service so I was up and packed up by 5:00 am. I lay in the bottom of the tent cold, wet and shivering. I had to put on all of the wet clothes from yesterday. I did though have dry socks. They were dry to put on but after ten minutes they had absorbed water from my sodden boots. I did not want to venture out from the tent as it was still raining hard but by 6am I realised that I had no other option. I shook as much water off the tent as possible, rolled it up and strapped it to the rucksack.

First things first I needed to have a pee behind a tree. I simply could not have done that in the graveyard! Getting underway was tough. My legs and ankles were stiff and yelling at me. I had almost no charge on my iPhone and the cable I had brought had snapped. I had a large battery pack and solar charger but these were no use to me without the cable. An hour or so later it was light and I was walking through the village of Bentley. I stopped in at the newsagent to ask if they sold cables or if they had a coffee machine and the really nice Asian man saw I was soaked and cold and offered to make me a Pot Noodle. I truly would have loved that but needed to keep walking. If I got warm and comfortable it would seem even worse when I had to get back outside. I might as well stay wet and cold for now.

I made my first wrong choice of direction not long after that. I went up and down the driveway of a very posh house several times. It was only when I found someone and asked for directions that I discovered it was private land and that the Pilgrims Way was in the opposite direction. Oops! I walked through several very boggy fields with horses who decided to come and check me out. I was later treated to seeing lots of pheasant.

A few miles outside of Farnham the sun came out so I found a suitable location, took off my rucksack and stripped off most, but not all, of my clothing. I hung it, and my tent and sleeping bag, across several trees to dry out. I sat on a log in a t shirt and boxer shorts and ate a large bag of nuts, a large bag of chewy sweets and drank a whole bottle of water. The lady who walked past with her dog probably thought I was homeless. I must have looked ridiculous.

Feeling much happier with myself, I dressed, packed my dry kit and walked down into Farnham. A lovely castle and some steep steps took me to the town centre. I found WH Smith and bought a new cable for my phone. Glad to be connected to the world again. It's funny what matters and seems important even on a simple walk like this. When I left Farnham, I was no longer on Saint Swithen's way but rather the North Downs Way. The signs were different but everything else was just as before. I now started the long stretch towards Guildford, following the A31.

My walking speed was far better today. There was rain this morning and rain again just when leaving Farnham but the rest of the day had been sunny and lovely. It was less boggy underfoot and I felt pretty good. My walking speed had increased by more than 0.5mph and that was very uplifting. I got to the south side of Guildford about an hour after darkness fell. I was delighted to find a fairly clean public toilet and a drinking water dispenser at Shalford Park so that was where I decided to set up my tent for the night. I walked out onto a football field, far enough away from the main road so as not to be visible, and set up my tent in the dark. Far more comfortable tonight - dry sleeping bag, dry tent and no rain. I set up my small cooker, boiled some water and had a Pot Noodle. I enjoyed looking up at the stars in the sky and then got into my sleeping bag for a war, comfortable sleep. I felt great.

Day Three - Monday 16th November 2020

I was up early to avoid meeting anyone. I took down the tent under cover of darkness. My rucksack was on my back and I was setting off by 6am. The first street across the main road is called Pilgrims Way which told me all I needed to know. It led me into Chantry Wood and immediately it seemed I was miles from any town or village. I had very sore legs this morning. Though I had walked quickly for part of yesterday I seemed to be walking at a snail's pace today.

It was a long, slow and painful walk up the hill to Saint Martha's church. I sat and took my boots off on a bench. I popped some very large blisters and then wrapped them in tape. The path for a while became very difficult. It was also used by horses and was rutted and very muddy. Then the paths turned sandy. I just kept plodding on and on. I found myself in what looked like a small oil and gas storage facility and realised I probably was not supposed to be there. I marched through as quickly as I could and found myself on the A25 a mile or two west of Shere. This was good news indeed. I was not on the path but I was going in the right direction. I was off muddy pathways and I hoped my progress would be more swift and less painful.

I was absolutely delighted to stumble across a burger van in a layby on the A25. The burger tasted fabulous. I ate it sitting on the grass and did not care as the onions fell out and the grease ran down my hand. I simply wiped them on the grass when I was done, put my pack back on and set off once again. It's amazing how things we take for granted can make such a difference when you are deprived of them for a short time.

I met a former colleague, Debbie Mullen, just West of Dorking. We walked into town together, to Saint Martin's, where we also met Sharon Wyatt. We sat on benches at a picnic table and Debbie provided wonderful home-made soup, bread rolls and fruit. So very kind and hugely appreciated. Sharon had to return to work but Debbie and I walked through Dorking and out the other side in an easterly direction for several miles to The Arkel Manor pub. After Debbie turned around to go back home, I continued to walk slowly towards Reigate. I was only walking at 1.5mph.

I was met by Nancy Oliver from my office who had walked out to meet me and then walked back in with me to Reigate. My feet were pretty sore on account of all the blisters so I was chuffed to bits to learn that it had been arranged for me to use the shower at the office despite the fact I didn't have my security pass with me. I was also provided with a clean polo shirt which was a treat. Nancy then walked on with me several kilometres towards Redhill where I stayed on a friend's sofa. I was exhausted and when I sat down realised that my ankles were actually rather damaged. Very hot, swollen and I could hear the tendons creak. It was grim. I still had three days to go. I definitely should have done some training for this!

Day Four - Tuesday 17th November 2020

Got up at 6:00 am and had a delicious coffee with milk and sugar. Again - something so simple but so welcome. I sorted my kit and disposed of rubbish. The tendinitis in my ankles was wretched. Anyway, I plodded slowly up to Merstham and met another colleague, Gayle Mason. She brought me bacon rolls which we ate on the benches outside The Feathers pub. At this rate I will be putting on weight instead of losing it!

We walked across the M25 and headed east and got back onto the North Downs Way. There were some very steep paths and I was very slow to get up them. Gayle is half my weight, a very fit long-distance runner and was not carrying a big rucksack. I must have been infuriating to walk with. The walk afforded us wonderful views of the M25, the A23 and the M23. A few hours later we met Colin Vane, another ex-colleague from Legal and General near Caterham. Gayle walked a total of six miles with me and then ran home. Colin stayed on with me. We saw a group of four deer in the forest which was lovely. They surely heard us but seemed not too bothered.

The path was steep in places and went up to the top of the ridge and all the way back down to the level of the M25 several times which was infuriating and very tiring. Colin is at least 15 years older than me but it was me that kept stopping for a rest. In the end Colin walked seven miles with me up to Titsey Hill where his wife Peggy joined us and brought a flask of tea and Kit Kats. We stood by the car for a while drinking the tea and chatting about other people we mutually knew.

I kept going for a while and later on was picked up by Julie Lowe, a dear friend from my time on the BBC's Castaway 2000 program. She took me back to her home at Cotton Farm on the agreement that she would drop me back off in exactly the same spot the following morning to continue my walk. Obviously a far more appealing option than being in the tent again. It was great catching up, we had a great dinner and I also had a nice, dry, warm bed!

(My legs were now very worrying. I had to keep going but wondered whether I might in fact be doing damage that would take more than just time to heal.)

Day Five - Wednesday 18th November 2020

Got up around 6.30am and had two coffees with breakfast. Just as promised, Julie drove me back to the exact spot where she had collected me. Very kind of her.

I walked down the road towards Westerham (glad to finally be in Kent) which I now know has a wonderful public loo. Progress today was painfully slow and I did not stop to make notes or record much. My focus was solely on my lower legs. I made frequent stops to massage them and swallow anti-inflammatory pills. Several hours after darkness fell, I wearily wandered into the quaint little town of Lenham. By chance I walked past a Chinese take away and popped in and got some delicious chicken Chow Mein whihc I ate as I stood in a shop doorway and sheltered from the rain.

Walking back out of Lenham towards the Pilgrims Way and where I laid my head for the night was a steep walk indeed. It had been a brutal day but I was glad to have got as far as I had.

Day Six - Thursday 19th November 2020

I had slept very well indeed. I felt refreshed and ready for the day ahead. I wanted to finish today but knew it would not be easy.

The path started easily enough. the signs here are far better but one challenge is that they are mixed up with Cycle Route 17 so you need to watch carefully. I nearly had a run in with a very aggressive dog but that was the sole excitement this morning. The path here is generally wider than it had been in Surrey and the countryside seems more open and less heavily wooded.

As I approached the north side of Ashford it started raining heavily again. Once again, I was soaked through. It seems that goretex is not as good as some people think. I definitely need to find a better jacket if I am going to do more winter walking in the UK. Chilham was the last town before I started seeing signs for Canterbury. Walking the last few miles into Canterbury were very hard indeed. My achilles tendons on both legs were in quite a mess despite taking heaps of anti-inflammatory tablets and doing what I could to rest them. My walking speed on flat pavements was probably less than 2 mph.

On the outskirts of town, I came across a supermarket and went in for some hot ready cooked chicken and four beers. I started eating the chicken as soon as I walked out onto the street. I was drinking the first can of beer minutes later sitting in a bus shelter, taking cover from the rain and feeling (and probably looking) rather like a tramp. As I walked closer to the cathedral I phoned them to see if I would be allowed entry. My worry was that, due to Covid, it would be closed. I was told that I could access the cathedral by the south west door for 'private prayer.'

When I arrived (looking wet and very grubby) and explained that I had walked from Winchester, I was very warmly received. One of the staff gave me a tour of the areas that are normally closed off. I saw the Royal tomb of Henry IV, the shrine of Thomas Becket, the vestry and the Pilgrim Steps. It was absolutely fascinating. The cathedral itself was almost completely empty whereas normally it is full of worshippers and tourists. An hour or so later I had been picked up and was on my way home.

I was wet, cold, dirty and sore but it had been an amazing experience. I had raised almost £3,000 for the charity that I was supporting and would absolutely recommend this to anyone else who is thinking about doing it. Perhaps better to do it in summer though and to allow yourself more than six days to do it in.

(C) Mike Laird 2023