Non Angli sed Angeli (not English but Angels) are the words attributed to Pope Gregory the Great on coming across English slave boys in the market in Rome. This chance meeting prompted him to send Augustine to convert the English to Christianity. They had such a fierce reputation that at Aix en Provence his monks sent Augustine back to Rome to beg Gregory to release them from their duty. But Gregory urged them on, wishing to share in the joy of their labours in the “eternal country”. As it happens they were well received, partly due to the influence of King Ethelbert’s Christian wife Bertha.
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. The Fresco of the Baptism of Ethelbert is in the Northern Transept (above the welcome desk). Just past it are the old worn steps leading up to the Chapel of William of Perth where pilgrims still light candles and say prayers for the journey ahead.
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.
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.