Another excellent overnight lodging at the Woolpack Inn at Chilham, with cheerful and welcoming staff.

A bright morning welcomed us as we climbed up the hill to St Mary’s Church, past some wonderful medieval houses.

The church was open but finding the stamp for updating our pilgrim passports was less easy. A large building on top of the hill, opposite the gate to Chilham Castle, the church was clearly well endowed by successive castle owners. One in particular, James Wildman, also owner of plantations in Jamaica, campaigned with William Wilberforce for the abolition of slavery, losing his fortune including Chilham Castle in the process.

St Mary’s Chilham
The Chilham Pilgrims

On past the White Horse Inn, known to Tom in his youth, we crossed the valley to Old Wives Lees. Originally spelt ‘lease’, it made us wonder what this satellite community was originally set up for. Here we caught our first shower of the day and met another pair of pilgrims heading in the other direction.

Traditional orchards

The landscape from here was dominated by fruit growing. First there were traditional orchards with larger free standing trees and sheep grazing between. Later we came upon the massive Mansfield Orchards – a huge acreage of smaller trees on trellises, not dissimilar to a huge vineyard.

The modern Mansfield Orchards

Here we chatted to a pair of Romanian fruit farm workers – a very interesting couple who’d worked here for some years. We talked about our visit to Romania in 1990, just after Ceausescu had been deposed, and our traverse of the beautiful Fagaras Mountains, which they knew. We also discussed the awful war in Ukraine. They were seriously worried about the implications for their home country.

Chartham Hatch appeared rather less interesting than its name suggests, despite the intriguing warning notices about dog-snatchers. On its north side, however, is a lovely area of mainly chestnut woodland known as Highfield Wood. The presence of chestnut suggested that we were now off the chalk and onto more acidic tertiary sands – progress, if you like, up the stratigraphic column, says Tom the geologist.

Dog snatchers beware!

At No Man’s Orchard, a derelict orchard of mostly dead trees, a committee has been established by local councils to enhance biodiversity. It’s first task was apparently to count the trees! We wondered if that had yet been successfully completed.

On past the Roman Fort at Bigbury, the crossing of the A2 was a noisy affair, reminding us of just how much Kent has become a corridor for transport. More fruit growing as we traversed the valley and up into Harbledown. This time soft fruits and what looked like gooseberries. Harbledown was the last stop for Chaucer’s pilgrims. Since the cook was too tired or drunk to tell a tale, the Manciple stood forward. His prologue explains that the name of the village means “bob up and down” in reference to the hill. We’d agree it was a steep climb up!

By now we’d fully exchanged the rural for urban, being confronted by busy traffic, roundabouts and few places to safely cross the road. What a shock! As always route finding was more difficult in the built up area. Pilgrims/North Downs Way signposts disappeared, to be replaced by bicycle routes and no entry signs.

Eventually we found our way to St Dunstans, the last church on the pilgrim route before the Cathedral. A place of worship and pilgrimage for more than 800 years, it was here in 1170 that Henry II began his act of public penance for the murder of Thomas a Becket by walking bare-foot in a sackcloth shirt to the Cathedral. In 1532 Sir Thomas More’s head was brought here by his daughter for burial after his beheading for refusal to accept Henry VIII’s Oath of Supremacy.

Thomas More window in St Dunstan’s

We chose to keep our boots on and forego the sackcloth shirts for the gentle walk down the hill to the River Stour and the Westgate.

Entering Canterbury Westgate

After a brief look over the bridge to check for a trout, we entered the walled city, and made our way up past the Weavers and its ducking stool (which always fascinated Tom as a young child) to the Cathedral Gate. Here we were approached by a blue uniformed volunteer asking if we were Tom and Julie, the pair of pilgrims they’d been expecting. What a welcome!

After a brief chat, we were joined by Canon Emma Pennington, the Canon Missioner, who invited us to follow her into the Cathedral for a Pilgrim Blessing.

The southwest door entrance to the Cathedral

With the ceiling scaffolding now removed, the Nave stood before us at last, in all its celestial grandeur. Canon Emma led us up to the Presbytery to the place where Becket’s tomb once stood, before it was destroyed by agents of Henry VIII in 1538 and his remains scattered abroad. Today a solitary candle burns in the centre of a wide stone floor space to mark the place. In the background the organ was playing ‘Have mercy Lord on me’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

The three of us gathered around the candle while Canon Emma led us in prayer. We gave thanks for our safe arrival, for pilgrims who have gone before us and for his gifts in the beauty of the landscape we have travelled through. We prayed for God’s help and support on our ongoing journey to Rome. We acknowledged our role as pilgrims on behalf of others, who through sickness or disability are unable to undertake it themselves.

We then visited the Martyrdom, where Becket was murdered. It was here that Pope John Paul and Archbishop Robert Runcie knelt together in prayer in 1982.

The Martyrdom where Becket was slain in 1170

Later having showered and brushed up in the Cathedral Lodge, we attended Choral Evensong sung by the Lay Clerks. The Dean who led the service gave us a special welcome by name.

Today was very special day for us, as we completed the first stage of our pilgrimage, and its memory will carry us all the way to Rome! Thank you Canterbury. Fifteen days walking done, just 100 or so more days to go…

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