Our journey begins at the Cathedral of St Andrew in Rochester, namesake of the monastery in Rome where Augustine was Prior. Here, in all it’s great norman solidity, is a building which links us directly with the pilgrims of old. Notice the scallop shells etched on the doorway and the erstwhile tomb of William of Perth – a pilgrim murdered on his way to Canterbury. Most pilgrims heading to the Shrines of Thomas a Becket and Augustine would have passed through here.
Rochester makes a good place to start for modern practical reasons – the high speed link to London and the week long walk to Ramsgate are convenient for busy schedules. But it also begins to pull you away from the every day, introducing a world of saints and ancient religion which survives to a surprising degree in this corner of England.
There are those who like to follow exactly in the footsteps of their forebears, even to the extent of starting in Southwark like Chaucer’s characters and walking through south east London. That is not for me. This route is about the spirit of pilgrimage as well as the history. As much as possible roads are avoided so that time can be spent on conversation or quiet contemplation. There are five shrines along the route, namely, Our Lady of the Assumption and St Simon Stock at Aylesford, St Jude at Faversham, St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, St Mildred in Minster and St Augustine in Ramsgate. Each is supported by a community, some religious, some lay people, all of whom welcome visitors. There are also many ancient churches, beautiful villages and old fashioned pubs providing locally brewed beer and good food. As for accommodation, there is everything from bunk barns to medieval hostels and boutique hotels.
Over the years I have walked many long distance paths. The joy of this type of holiday is not immediately obvious, but a long walk works its special magic slowly. To begin with there is lots of chat, news, opinions, jokes. After a few days that dies down and the real conversation begins.
Directions – 8.5 miles
From the main west door of the cathedral cross the road to the castle (open to the public) and continue down across a second road to a park and the river. Here turn left and follow along the bank for a mile and a half passing through a small nature reserve. The path continues behind gardens before reaching a junction in amongst some bushes. Turn sharp left up the hill to the road where turn right and pass under the motorway. Now take the lane immediately on your left and follow this for half a mile until reaching Nashenden Farm. Turn right, up through the buildings and over the railway then across the downs keeping to the right of a hedge. The path follows along this side of the hedge until emerging on the corner of a track. Keep straight on up the track taking time to see the view 100 yards up on the right. The track follows the top of the downs for another mile before coming to the drive of the Robin Hood pub (worth a stop). From here continue along the track for another 200 yards before coming to a footpath heading down the hill to the right. Follow the path down, heading straight through the crossroads. Look out for a footpath to the left just as you reach the houses. Take this and turn right at the T junction down to the road. Cross carefully and take the lane opposite (the footpath is behind the hedge to the left). This road heads all the way down to Aylesford via Eccles (the Priory is the first place you come to in the village).
The Carmelites at Aylesford
The Carmelites are an order founded on Mount Carmel during the Crusades. Known as the White Friars they formed part of a movement away from the riches of the Church towards a more simple form of religion based around prayer. In 1242 they began building Aylesford Priory and it was here at the first General Chapter outside the Holy Land that Simon Stock, an Aylesford man, was chosen as Prior General. In 1949 the Carmelites bought back “The Friars” and returned the buildings to their original purpose of accommodating pilgrims alongside a new shrine to Our Lady of the Assumption and St Simon Stock.
The Friars welcomes pilgrims (book in advance). Meals are served in the medieval refectory.
The station in Rochester is half a mile from the cathedral (up the old high street) and has frequent fast services to London and Kent.
There is a regular bus service connecting Aylesford to Rochester and Maidstone as well as a station with slow services to Strood, Maidstone and London.
There are pubs, restaurants and small shops in Aylesford.