The clock is ticking and there are now less than 3 weeks left before I set off from St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke to St Peter’s Rome on a 1,600 mile journey into the unknown to help raise funds to repair the leaking roof at St Peter’s Church, of which I am the Treasurer. The walk will take me via Salisbury to Winchester along the Clarendon Way, thence to Canterbury along the Pilgrims’ Way and across Europe to Rome along the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim route that has been in use by English pilgrims to Rome since the Dark Ages. It is an exciting prospect, but also, if I’m to be totally honest, a rather daunting one!
So why am I embarking on this slightly bonkers venture? I am 57, have never walked more than 300 miles in one go in my life, and my training over the last 6 months for the journey ahead has comprised nothing more strenuous than a bit of light gardening and a couple of daily dog walks! It is hardly the sort of training regime that would set Bear Grylls’ pulse racing!
The simple answer to that question is that St Peter’s Church needs some urgent repairs to its roof and we currently don’t have sufficient funds in the kitty to afford them! Parts of the roof leak, and although it is probably not in danger of imminent collapse, without urgent attention, the condition of the roof is only likely to deteriorate further. Hence the decision to set up the Raise the Roof Appeal and embark on a 1,600 mile charity walk.
So why go to all the effort of raising funds for St Peter’s? Well, apart from having been married in the church to Olivia in 2015 and living adjacent to the church, there is the little matter of history, a subject dear to my heart. So let’s delve a little deeper into the history of St Peter’s Church and help explain why I am going to the extreme lengths of trying to raise the funds necessary to keep it open as a place for regular worship, weddings, christenings and funerals and as a communal hub for a range of village activities for young and old.
St Peter’s is a Norman church whose origins predate the Norman Conquest in 1066. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, when it was held by King William, in 1066 St Peter’s was held by Queen Edith. She was the wife of King Edward the Confessor and sister to the last Anglo Saxon monarch – King Harold., who famously died at the Battle of Hastings with an arrow through his eye. Some historians believe may that it was Queen Edith who may have created the Bayeux Tapestry. So St Peter’s has royal connections!
According to the Domesday Book, in 1086 the population of Winterbourne Stoke (or Wintreburn as it is called) totalled 50 individuals comprising 15 villagers, 15 small holders, 11 slaves and 5 freedmen.
Although little survives of the original Norman structure of the church, St Peter’s can boast an impressive and distinctive 12th century Norman doorway which gives some idea of the importance of the church during that period.
In 1825 the church featured in William Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides‘ when it was described as ‘ a church sufficient to contain two or three thousand people’ . This was probably a printer’s error with two to three hundred people being a more accurate figure for the congregation at that time! In 1851 two services were usually held each Sunday in summer, one each Sunday for the rest of the year: in summer the morning congregation totalled around 110 adults, the afternoon one around 150 and around 70 children attended Sunday school.
Sadly, like many small rural churches, congregation numbers at St Peter’s have dwindled steadily over the last 200 years since William Cobbett’s day and nowadays services are limited to once a month. But the church is still used regularly for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’ and plans are afoot to develop it into a communal hub so the village can use it for a range of communal activities. Hopefully my walk to Rome will provide the spark of ignite fund raising activities and ensure that St Peter’s can remain open for regular worship for many more years to come. As an old Chinese proverb goes, ‘the journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step’.
Ok this blog post is a bit geeky – it’s about what kit I’m taking with me and what I’m leaving behind. I’m indebted to two people for most of the ideas that follow: Brian Franklin, who lives in the next village (Shrewton), is a veteran of many long distance pilgrimages and is about to set off from Canterbury to Lausanne having completed the Via Francigena from Lausanne to Rome last year. The other is, author and journalist, Harry Bucknall, who completed the Via Francigena in 2012.
Boots: Meindl Respond Mid GTX. Lightweight, goretex with some ankle support
Boot liners: Boots active gel
Sandals: Birkenstock Eva (150g)
Socks: Injinji toe sock liner + hiker × 2
Hiking shorts: Karpos Rock Bermuda
Hiking Trousers: Rohan stretch bags (250g)
Briefs: EDZ Merino ×2
T shirt × 2 inc 1 long sleeved (Rohan Trail shirt (235g)
Maps/guidebooks: OS/IGN/Kummerly Frei + GR145 Topoguide Canterbury to Reims (in French)
The above kit totals 8kg (including 2.2kg/2 litres of water). I plan to post the maps to poste restante addresses in France and periodically post maps, which I have used, back to the UK.
I debated long and hard about whether to take a tent and sleeping mat. In the end I decided that the extra weight (1.5kg) was worth the peace of mind and flexibility for the French section of the Via Francigena particularly with the ongoing Covid 19 situation. I only plan to use the tent ‘in extremis’ when no other accommodation options are available!
I’ll also be using the TopoGPS app, the VF and Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome(CFPTR) apps, IGNrando app and Canon camera connect app to transfer photos taken with my camera to my phone/upload to my blog. I plan to transpose information on accommodation locations from the Lightfoot/VF and CFPTR data sheets onto the maps.
Why am I taking maps (and a compass!) rather than just using a GPS app? Call me a technological dinosaur,but I prefer looking at larger scale hard copy maps with topography details rather than at a mapping app on my phone.
My focus is on travelling as light as I can and reducing the risk of injury and blisters!
People have been making pilgrimages to Rome since the fourth century when , with the Edict of Milan in AD313, the Roman Empire became Christian, unleashing a veritable flood of pilgrims anxious to visit the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul in the city. These early pilgrims were aided in their undertaking by the well-maintained infrastructure of Roman roads and the network of mansiones (inns for travellers) at intervals along the way, as well as by the frequent termae (Roman baths) to be found in many places along the route.
Gradually, however, the numbers of pilgrims swelled to such an extent that the existing accommodation no longer sufficed, and as early as the fifth century, dedicated pilgrim ‘hospitals’ (places where hospitality was offered to travellers, both the sick and the well) began to be built. These early pilgrims had no linguistic abilities, as they were able to convey their needs in Latin (a language spoken only by clerics). As early as the ninth century, phrase books appeared, with the most important everyday vocabulary provided in the languages of the countries or areas the pilgrims would pass through.
However, with the Barbarian invasions of the sixth and seventh centuries, pilgrim life became much more difficult. Roads and bridges ceased to be maintained, inns and other accommodation were not kept up, and in areas no longer under Christian rule pilgrimage became increasingly dangerous, with pilgrims beset by bands of robbers, barbarian invaders and pirates during sea crossings, to say nothing of storms, wild animals, lack of food and sickness, and the pilgrim was not at all sure he would reach his destination, let alone return home in one piece.
All these trials and tribulations are well documented in writings from the sixth century onwards, and many pilgrims wrote accounts of their experiences, recounting the everyday happenings as well as the dangers of the route. One of the earliest of these was the English monk Gildas the Wise, who went to Rome in AD530. The two journeys made by St Wilfred, in 666 and again in 673, are also well documented, while the first ‘tourist guide’ to Rome, the Salzburger Reisebuch, was produced as early as the seventh century and listed all the places a pilgrim should be sure to visit. The EinsiedlerManuskript of AD750 went a step further, providing the pilgrim, in addition, with ten ‘tourist walks’ round the city to take in the principal sights of ancient Rome.
Sigeric and the first guidebook
The first real ‘guidebook’ to the Via Francigena route from Canterbury – and the one which has had the greatest influence on subsequent pilgrim journeys – was made at the instigation of Sigeric ( known as Sigeric the Serious!) Archbishop of Canterbury, when he went to Rome in AD990.
Sigeric’s time as Archbishop coincided with the struggle for control of England between Anglo-Saxons and Danes, which generally meant that the Danes had to be paid off in order to prevent them from causing trouble. There is a record of Sigeric being one of the group of advisers who persuaded King Ethelred to buy off the Danes in 991, and there is also evidence that Sigeric had to take similar action himself in 994 to prevent Canterbury Cathedral from being burned down.
Like all his predecessors, he went to Rome to receive his pallium – a white woollen stole/scarf with six black crosses on it that formed his seal of office – from the Pope.
Sigeric went there with a considerable retinue, in 79 daily stages, spent 3 days in Rome, during which he dined once with the Pope and visited 23 churches, and then set off back home again. On the return journey, he asked his secretary to write up a description of the route, the result of which is a list, in Latin, of those stages and where they spent the night (the manuscript is now in the British Museum)
This ‘guidebook’ became the basis for future journeys to Rome made by pilgrims from Britain and places along the way, and fixed what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Sigeric route’, the one which has become known today as the Via Francigena.
One of the first people to remedy some of the practical difficulties of this route was the Merovingian Queen Brunhilde who, towards the end of the sixth century, organised repairs to the Roman road system in her domain, from the Channel coast down to Therouanne, Arras and beyond. Although it is now a tarred road for the most part, this route still bears the name Chaussee Brunehaut (‘Brunhilde’s Road’ ), and modern pilgrims follow or shadow it for a considerable part of their journey through northern France.
Well D-Day finally arrived after 9 months of wistful musing, bouts of frustration (as planned departure dates were postponed), renewed optimism (as new plans germinated) and a final month of frenetic activity including kit purchasing, accommodation booking and extensive training. Well actually forget the bit about extensive training as there wasn’t any apart from a knackering 40 mile walk from Winterbourne Stoke to Winchester. In all honesty, my training comprised nothing more energetic than a gentle daily stroll with our dogs, Puzzle and Islay! So I am crossing my fingers that my creaking 57 year old body is up to the rigours of the journey ahead!
This morning I woke at 5am and immediately began thinking about a strange incident which occurred a couple of months ago, the significance of which, at the time, escaped me. It concerned a bird which alighted in the church yard at St Peter’s and a strange inscription on one of it’s legs. More of that in a subsequent blog!
After an interview about my walk with Jonathan Fido of BBC Radio Wiltshire, we enjoyed a rousing service at St Peter’s, conducted by the Reverend Jonathan Plows, who has been a great help supporting and publicising my charity walk to Rome.
There were over 30 people at the service to see me off. The service included a blessing of the keys that I am taking with me to St Peter’s, an impromptu appearance by ‘Puzzle‘ our 6 month working cocker spaniel who proceeded to run riot towards the end of the service, and a stirring final hymn of ‘ He Who Would Valiant Be’ ( by John Bunyan which includes the immortal line “There’s no discouragement, Shall make him once relent, His first avowed intent, To be a Pilgrim”) which was sung with great gusto in the churchyard
After a final mug of coffee at The Old Rectory, and a ceremonial first stamp in my Pilgrim Passport, we bade fond farewell to family, friends ‘Puzzle‘ and ‘Islay‘ and embarked on our merry way towards Pitton.
Olivia returned to The Old Rectory at the end of the day’s walk, somewhat battered and bruised. 30 minutes into the walk she tripped over a boot lace, went flying and ended up in a crumpled heap on the track above Asserton Farm with a bloodied knee. Tight ill fitting boots added insult to injury, and by the time we reached Pitton in the late afternoon, Olivia was hobbling in pain nursing a king sized blister on her foot.
Our route initially took us south via the Druid’s Lodge Estate, owned by the Guinness family of brewing fame. It is currently a large 2,500 acre farming estate and home to the Druid’s Lodge polo club. But a little over a 100 years ago, Druid’s Lodge was the location for a notorious racing stables known as the “Druids’ Lodge Confederacy” or the “Hermits of Salisbury Plain.”
Owned by an eclectic group of gamblers and trainers, they became the scourge of the nation’s bookmakers. The group of five was headed by Alan Percy Cunliffe, an Old Etonian whose brother was Governor of the Bank of England, and also included Irishmen Wilfred Bagwell Purefoy an aristocratic breeder and music hall investor, Edward A. Wigan, Frank Forester and Holmer Peard, a noted vet. Their betting coups became the talk of the racing fraternity, shrouded in mystery and speculation. The remoteness of the stables enabled them to train their horses in complete secrecy; any inquisitive visitors would have been noticed and given short shrift. Stable lads were locked up at night and often didn’t know the identity of the horses they were riding nor any idea of the weights they carried. They bought many horses in Ireland and developed them with Jack Fallon, also an Irishman, as trainer and later in 1906 by Tom Lewis.
They pulled off some spectacular betting coups, making them the terror of the bookmakers. Buying horses for small sums at the sales or horses that had shown little form, they built up their capabilities on the Druids’ Lodge gallops entering them in handicap races at weights that made good betting propositions. It was subsequently found that the Confederacy had cleaned up a sum of £100,000 in all, an amount which in today’s money that would be in excess of £9.5 million.
Hackler’s Pride was their most successful horse in terms of winning them the money, but in the 1913 Derby, (known as “The Suffragette Derby” because leading suffragette Emily Davison was killed when she tried to grab the reins of the King’s horse Anmer) Cunliffe’s horse Aboyeur was declared the winner when Craganour was disqualified.
The 1914-18 war put an end to the Confederacy, the bookmakers breathing a sigh of relief that their nightmare was over.
After crossing the Druid’s Lodge Estate we descended into the Woodford Valley via the picture postcard villages of Upper and Middle Woodford and then via a footpath past Little Durnford Manor.
This part of Wiltshire, just 5 miles outside Salisbury, is positively teeming with opulent residences including Lake House, an Elizabethan mansion, currently owned by the musician Sting and his wife Trudie Styler,. This was where in the early 1990s. Sting wrote and recorded his albums Ten Summoner’s Tales and Mercury Falling. Fields of Gold was apparently inspired by his love of the surrounding fields and the wildflower meadow beside the house.
Sadly we were on a tight schedule and didn’t have the time to drop in and see Sting and Trudie. We did, however, pass through Stratford sub Castle, a small village nestled below the site of the ancient hillfort of Sarum and its rather magnificent church of St Lawrence, which seemed disproportionately large in relation to the small village.
And therein lies a tale connected to one of the most illustrious families in British Parliamentary history, one of the most corrupt and infamous rotten boroughs in the country and possibly the world’s largest diamond! As we walked past the church we came to Mawarden Court, the childhood home of William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham and English Prime Minister from 1766-1768.
William Pitt’s grandfather was a chap called Thomas Pitt, who has gone down in history with the soubriquet ‘Diamond’ Pitt. It was he who financed the lavish expansion of the Church of St Lawrence in 1713 with the proceeds of the sale of the world’s largest diamond! While working for the East India Company as the Governor of Madras, in 1701 he purchased a 410 carat diamond from an English sea captain, who had stolen it from the servant of a local ruler.
Pitt bought the diamond for 48,000 pagodas or £20,400, and sent it back to England in 1702 concealed inside his eldest son, Robert’s shoe. For two years from 1704–1706, the famous London jeweller, Harris, worked away cutting a 141 carat (28.2 g) cushion brilliant from the rough stone. Several secondary stones were produced from the cut that were sold to Peter the Great of Russia. After many attempts to sell it to various European royals, including Louis XIV of France, Pitt and his sons went with the diamond to Calais in 1717. With John Law acting as agent, it was sold that year to the French regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, for £135,000, becoming one of the crown jewels of France. Today, “Le Régent”, as it came to be known, remains in the French Royal Treasury at the Louvre, where it has been on display since 1887. It is arguably the most beautiful and purest diamond in the world.
For the Pitt family, their interest in Mawarden (which was once the Vicarage) lay in Old Sarum. As a defunct medieval borough, it retained the right to send two members to Parliament, although, by the 17th century, nobody was actually living there. Votes were cast by the absentee tenants of burgage plots, appointed by the lord of the manor. For this reason, it was the most notorious rotten borough in the kingdom.
We reached Salisbury at around 3pm and made a bee line for the Cathedral to acquire my first bona fide stamp in my Pilgrim Passport. Or so I thought! Sadly the Cathedral was closed to visitors (including pilgrims) we were informed in no uncertain terms by a chap who claimed to be the verger. This was something of a disappointment but there was little we could about it. It looks like I’ll have to wait a bit longer for that first bona fide pilgrim stamp!
We followed the Clarendon Way towards Winchester passing by the ruins of the Clarendon Palace, owned by the King of England in the early middle ages when it was the site of the largest deer park in the country. There are now just a few scattered stones as well as a rather incongruous flock of llamas which are used to keep the vegetation under control.
Clarendon Palace was the scene of two important events during the reign of King Henry II. The first event was the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 which attempted to restrict the privileges of the English clergy, a move that was fiercely resisted by Archbishop Thomas Becket and ultimately led to his murder in 1170 after Henry’s intemperate outburst ,“Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” , was answered by four knights who rode to Canterbury and hacked Becket to death in Canterbury Cathedral as he presided over Vespers on the 29th December 1170. The other event connected to Clarendon Palace was the Assize of Clarendon in 1166 which was the first attempt by a Norman king to formulate criminal law and procedure.
Our destination for the day was the small village of Pitton which we reached at 5pm. On arrival we were surprised to find that a massive party was taking place in the field behind the village hall. We passed a bemused looking youth with what appeared to be a large python casually draped around his shoulders ambling towards the picnic area. Had word of my pilgrimage spread to Pitton? Had an impromptu welcome party been prepared for us? Sadly not – inquiries suggested that it was the Pitton Carnival Picnic, replete with jazz band , cocktail bar and bouncy castle.
Tempting though it was to gate crash the Carnival Picnic for a well earned pint, we had made the elementary schoolboy error of not bringing any cash with us! Needless to say, the bar and the ice cream van were ‘cash only’. So we stoically walked back past the merry village revellers to reach our final destination – the White Hill Farm Caravan Site. Ah well, I am sure there will be other opportunities to savour local hospitality over the next 7 weeks and foster “l’entente cordiale”. But for this evening I am forsaking the delights of the Pitton Carnival Picnic in favour of a less sybaritic night under canvas and a hearty MRE ( meal ready to eat) consisting of a chicken burrito and sticky toffee pudding – (a far cry from the stodgy compo rations I dimly remember from floundering around Salisbury Plain in freezing weather on CCF exercises in the late 70s!)
As Napoleon once famously said – “c’est la soupe qui fait la soldat”. – which roughly translates as “An army (or in my case a pilgrim soldier) marches on its stomach!
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
John Keats – To Autumn
One of the many treats of going on a 1,500 mile charity walk, is that it takes you out of your normal routine. It’s not every day that I can sit outside a tent cradling a mess tin brimming with korean spicy noodles, contemplating the day ahead!
The morning didn’t get off to the best of starts when I emerged bleary eyed (a combine harvester had been active half the night in the adjoining field!) from my tent and headed over to the shower facilities which consisted of a couple of cubicles with a menacing looking nozzle jutting out from the wall above a rusty silver button. I optimistically pressed the latter and was met with a torrent of freezing water in my face! It was a rude wake up call I definitely didn’t need. I decided that a freezing shower at 6am in the morning wasn’t worth the risk of contracting double pneumonia and beat a hasty retreat back to my tent!
Spicy cheese ramyon noodles probably aren’t everybody’s idea of the perfect breakfast! I’ve been eating them on a regular basis for the last 30 years, from the time I was a research analyst based in South Korea, responsible for writing research reports on the company (Nongshim) that makes Shin Ramyon noodles. From eating them on freezing winter nights in Seoul with a bottle of the local hooch (soju) to serving them with Taimen to Mongolian nomads near the Russian border in Hovsgol province, I am a self confessed Shin Ramyon noodle addict. The good news is that you don’t have to buy them from South Korea by mail order anymore – even my local Tesco store in Amesbury stocks them nowadays!
There was a definite feeling that autumn was in the air as I headed out of Pitton under leaden skies. Olivia and I ate our first blackberries of the year on Sunday, harvested from a bush on a south facing wall in Laverstock.
I always like a quirky signs and there were a couple in West Winterslow that raised a smile!
Sadly the doors of neither the Church of All Saints at West Winterslow nor St Mary’s Church Broughton weren’t open for private worship this morning.
I contented myself with admiring the dovecote in the churchyard of St Mary’s, the original of which was reputed to have been given to the church in the 14th century by King Richard III.
In the Middle Ages dovecotes were a sign of social status as pigeons were a valuable source of meat, particularly in winter.
It’s not every village that can boast a monumental dovecote in their churchyard, hence the fact that the dovecote occupies pride of place on Broughton village green!
I met a lovely lady just outside Broughton walking her 3 dogs. She asked if I was walking far, and seemed quite taken aback when I replied that I was embarking on a 1,600 mile charity walk to Rome! “I wish I had some money on me”, she said, “because I’d really like to donate something to help”. The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me.
The Clarendon Way crosses the River Test at Houghton. Most walkers probably don’t attach much significance to this stretch of chalk stream. But if you are a dry fly fishing aficionado (as I am) then the words ” River Test” and ” Houghton” go together like champagne and caviar. The River Test is the country’s preeminent chalk stream and Houghton is the country’s pre-eminent fishing club.
Founded in 1823, the Houghton Fishing Club (HFC) is the oldest private fishing club in the world. The club has exclusive fishing rights to 13 miles of the River Test near Stockbridge. Money can’t buy you membership of the HFC. The current elected membership is restricted to 25, and includes the likes of Lord Tanlaw, Lord Tryon and the Duke of Northumberland. And the President of the club? Well that is none other than HRH Prince Charles for whom there is a changing area especially reserved. The 13 miles of fishing are valued at £600 a foot! It probably means that the trout that are caught on the Houghton beat of the Test are worth more than their weight in gold!
Farley Mount is the highest point in Hampshire but the major point of interest is not a trig point but a monument which is dedicated to a horse called ‘ Beware Chalk Pit’.
The impressive pagoda-like monument commemorates a horse owned by Paulet St John, the 3rd Earl of Bolingbroke which plunged into a chalk pit while its owner was out hunting in 1733. The horse and rider were survived their misadventure, and the following year the horse was entered in a race and given the name ‘ Beware Chalk Pit”. Needless to say Beware Chalk Pit carried his owner to victory and a memorial was erected in its honour by its grateful owner when the trusty steed died.
At around 4pm the sun finally came out from behind the clouds as I descended from Oliver’s Battery into Winchester. I dropped off at the Abbey of St Cross and was given a pilgrim’s dole – a mug of beer and a crust of bread. The Hospital of St Cross has maintained this tradition for helping wayfarers since their foundation in 1136. It’s also the origin of the term, ‘to be on the dole’.
From St Cross I walked along the banks of the River Itchen, (where as a boy at WinColl I spent far too much time trout fishing rather than studying!) towards Winchester College. Over 200 years ago, the poet John Keats had trodden the same path when he spent time in Winchester in 1819. It was his most productive year as a poet as he worked on ‘Lamia’, ‘Otho the Great’ and ‘Hyperion’. “The air is worth sixpence a pint” he told a friend. He took regular walks in the water meadows beside the Itchen and wrote his beautiful ode ‘To Autumn’ after walking through the meadows to St Cross. 2 years later he died of fever in Rome, almost 200 years ago to the day.
My final port of call for the day was the cloisters at Winchester College where I wanted to pay my respects to a school contemporary of mine called Christopher Gray, a brilliant student who became a priest after a distinguished academic career at Oxford. He had an annoying habit at school of winning pretty much every school prize that was on offer. After leaving Oxford he had become a priest and spent a year looking after handicapped people at the L’Arche community in France, where he discovered his flair for learning living languages – in addition to Latin, Greek and Hebrew, French and German he was fluent in at least 5 Slavic languages including Czech and Rumanian.
In 1992, after training for the priesthood at Mirfield in Yorkshire, he became a curate at St Jude’s Church, Cantril Farm, in Liverpool. Cantril Farm is a 1960s housing estate with one of the highest unemployment rates in England; the community there was under siege, with high levels of drug use, crime and violence.
Christopher knew the limits of a priest, but within those limits he exercised a sacrificial ministry, especially working with young people who had no connection with the Church. He did not see himself as doing the work of a social worker but felt strongly that the Church is responsible for giving meaning to the lives of those that present them to her.
His life was tragically cut short aged 32 in 1996 when he was savagely stabbed to death 5 times with ax5 inch knife outside his vicarage in Anfield, Liverpool by Peter Storey, a vagrant he had befriended and lent money to. Destined for great things, his life is commemorated with a simple Latin inscription in the college cloisters.
As a theologian, Christopher had written a number of pieces on the role of a priest one of which included the following strangely prophetic passage:
The supreme act of the shepherd is to lay down his life for the sheep . . . [Priests are called to be] people who grow to be like Christ in their faithful service of their flocks; even to the point of sacrificing their own lives.’
As I returned from the cloisters, I passed the school chapel and Chamber and Flint Courts, where both my father and myself had spent so much of our youth at WinColl. Ghosts from the past came flooding back, memories of attending daily morning chapel before heading round the corner for lessons in Flint Court.
With thoughts of Chris Gray and my father fresh in my mind, after checking in to the Wessex Mercure Hotel, I headed over to the Cathedral to attend Choral Evensong. Listening to the choir sing the final anthem ‘ The Lord is my Shepherd’ I couldn’t help but dwell on the life of Christopher Gray and the ultimate sacrifice he made for his religious beliefs.
From spicy noodles to choral evensong in Winchester Cathedral. It really was a case of ‘ from the ridiculous to the sublime’ I thought to myself as I immersed my throbbing feet into the bath and dimly wondered what surprises tomorrow’s journey would bring.
As I embark on the first stage of the Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Alton, here are a few more thoughts about that ‘mysterious’ incident that occurred a few weeks ago that I referred to in a previous blog and whose significance initially eluded me.
It was a Saturday morning and as I was doing some weeding in our garden near the church yard, I heard a bit of a commotion. A chap ,staying at the campsite, had found a wounded bird in the church yard and was debating with his young son as to what was to be done.
It turned out that the bird was a young peregrine falcon which had been wounded and was bleeding from the mouth. As Olivia examined it, she noticed that it had a ring on one of its feet which said ‘If found, please notify the British Museum’.
Bizarre. We did eventually manage to get the falcon to the Hawk Conservancy Trust at Andover but for some reason the bird remained on my mind. A few weeks later I got an alert on my Facebook page that there was a special exhibition at the British Museum commemorating the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, whose shrine at Canterbury I would shortly be walking to along the Pilgrims’ Way. Peregrine (as in peregrine falcon) means pilgrim in Latin. Strange coincidence? Divine Providence? Who knows, but it sometimes makes you think that there are signs in nature that are worth observing and that the chances of a ‘pilgrim’ falcon from the British Museum landing by chance in the churchyard at Winterbourne Stoke are pretty darned slim!
I had a fantastic view of the Cathedral as I sat eating breakfast this morning in the Mercure Wessex, which was a definite upgrade on the White Hill Campsite at Pitton. Although there were no spicy korean noodles on the breakfast menu, the ‘Full English’ was a more than adequate substitute!
I think the last time I was in the Wessex was when my parents brought me here nearly 40 years for Sunday lunch from WinColl to celebrate my 18th birthday!
Having collected my pilgrim passport from the Cathedral I couldn’t resist quickly dropping in to the church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, a place I must have passed on countless occasions over the years but, until today, have never visited. The church forms part of the original city walls and is dedicated to St Swithun, whose tomb is in the Cathedral.
Swithun was a 9th century bishop of Winchester who legend has it, requested his body be buried outside. However, roughly a hundred years after his death, the decision was taken to move his remains into the Cathedral on the 15th July 971. On that day there was a torrential downpour, signifying the Saint’s displeasure at his remains being moved. Thus the legend was born that if it rains on July 15 (St Swithun’s Day) forty days of rain will follow.
St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair
Heading out of Winchester my second stop of the day was the church of St Swithun at Headbourne Worthy, where some scholars believe St Swithun was born.
No sooner had I entered the church, than a sonorous voice welcomed me from within. Intrigued, I ventured up the aisle and made the acquaintance of the Revd Paul Bradish ( the Rector) and the Revd Jemima Lewis, his curate. It almost seemed as if they had been expecting my arrival. I explained my pilgrimage to Rome and they kindly formed a huddle and prayed for my safe passage to Rome. It was a very unexpected and touching moment.
Following St Swithun’s Way, which at times morphed into the Watercress Way, the Itchen Way and the Pilgrims Way, was at times confusing, not helped by the plethora of signs which didn’t always correspond with the route shown in my guidebook! The end result was that I went ‘off piste’ on several occasions during the morning. Thankfully none of the diversions proved too costly.
I did have one slightly hairy moment during the late afternoon when my map reading skills went pear shaped. I’d used up my monthly data allowance and couldn’t access any GPS data on my phone. As a result I ended up on the side of the busy A31 dual carriageway, wondering whether it was worth taking the risk of walking along its narrow grass verge to my final destination for the day at Alton. Thankfully I was dissuaded from executing this rather reckless plan by a lady I met who was out walking her dog. She was mildly horrified when I outlined my plan to walk along the A31 and suggested that I take a 4 mile detour through Chawton Park woods that would keep me out of harm’s way. It proved to be eminently sensible advice which I followed to the T, and helped take me safely into Alton. Sadly, my unplanned detour through Chawton Park woods meant that I wasn’t able to visit Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, just outside Alton.
I was able to plot my course for much of the morning with the help of a compass and a sight of line to the River Itchen, whose gin clear waters I followed towards Alresford.
Walking along its banks and watching the reeds gently swaying in the current, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Pre-Raphaelite image of Ophelia lying drowned in the river – a strangely uplifting image of death. In the painting, Ophelia is surrounded by colorful flowers and plants, symbols of life and continuity, and her body seems to be one with the water, perhaps signifying the concept of returning to the earth when one dies. Earth to earth, dust to dust.
After a brief lunch stop in Alresford, I decided to drop in to the pilgrim church at Bishop’s Sutton, which my guidebook suggested might have a pilgrim stamp for my passport. Sure enough there was indeed a Pilgrim stamp and what is more there was a tin beside it on the table, marked ‘For Pilgrims’. Intrigued, I gently praised it open. And what was inside. Miracle of miracles, the answer to my prayers – Club chocolate biscuits. It was a day of Divine Providence!
On the surface, the small village of Ropley which I passed through, has all the attributes of rural perfection. Rose bedecked thatched cottages line the main street, road noise is inaudible and there is an all pervasive atmosphere of bucolic tranquillity.
But all is not as it seems, and in the last few years the village has been the scene of a double tragedy. In 2002 Ropley hit the tabloid headlines following the brutal murder of a wealthy widow and her daughter, who were discovered brutally bludgeoned to death in their million pound mansion in the village. A 25 year old man subsequently turned himself in to the police and confessed to the horrific murder. As one local resident succinctly put it ” You might expect this in Birmingham or Manchester, but in a sedate residential place like Ropley, with its up-market appeal, you don’t expect this to happen.”
The murderer, who was the grandson of the deceased, was an Old Etonian professional golfer who was being treated on anti-depressants. During his subsequent trial the court heard that Christopher Francis, had seemed “quite normal” when making dinner at his parents’ home only minutes earlier.
After saying he was popping out to buy a bag of rice, Francis drove the short distance to his grandmother’s £1.5 million Victorian home, Wykeham House in Ropley, Hampshire.
There he launched a ferocious attack on the two women, Elizabeth Francis, 84, and her 54-year-old daughter, Teresa, using a house brick and one of his grandmother’s kitchen knives. Then he returned to his car and drove 20 miles to a police station in Southampton where, covered in blood, he announced to officers: “I have just killed two people.”
In 2014 tragedy struck Ropley once again this time in the guise of a massive blaze which gutted the Norman church of St Peter’s , destroying it’s roof and bell tower
The good news is that, thanks to a major fundraising effort, the Friends of St Peter’s Ropley have raised £500,000 and the church is being completely restored. It gives me hope that we’ll be ultimately successful in our attempts to raise £20,000 and repair the church roof at St Peter’s, Winterbourne.
I did have one slightly hairy moment during the late afternoon when my map reading skills went pear shaped. I’d foolishly used up my monthly data allowance and couldn’t access any GPS data on my phone. As a result I ended up on the side of the busy A31 dual carriageway, wondering whether it was worth taking the risk of walking along its narrow grass verge to my final destination for the day at Alton. Thankfully I was dissuaded from executing this rather reckless plan by a lady I met who was out walking her dog. She was mildly horrified when I outlined my plan to walk along the A31 and suggested that I take a 4 mile detour through Chawton Park woods that would keep me out of harm’s way. It proved to be eminently sensible advice which I followed to the T, and helped take me safely into Alton. Sadly, my unplanned detour through Chawton Park woods meant that I wasn’t able to visit Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, just outside Alton.
I eventually made it to Alton and, after some confusion on arrival (I wasn’t booked in to stay the night at the Alton House Hotel!), checked in to my room for the night. With its peeling wallpaper and decrepit bathroom fittings, my room looked as though it could benefit from a serious amount of money being spent on it! But at least it was quiet, clean, conveniently located and, most importantly, there was hot water in the bath at the end of a long day’s walk.
As I hit the sack for the night I reflected on my day’s walk; the unexpected prayers for my safe passage at Headbourne Worthy, manna from heaven in the shape of Club biscuits in a tin at the church at Bishop’s Sutton. Perhaps they were linked to the mysterious Peregrine Falcon which appeared in the churchyard of St Peter’s, Winterbourne Stoke. A care of Divine Providence? Maybe The Age of Miracles is still with us after all!
The hop that swings so lightly The hop that shines so brightly Shall still be cherished rightly By all good men and true.
Hop picking poem – anonymous
The day got off to a slightly disappointing start when I awoke to find that my washing had failed to dry overnight! Thankfully I have brought a sufficient quantity of safety pins to attach them to my rucksack. I must just that I remember to hide them away before I meet the Revd Julian Hubbard at Compton this afternoon. It is what I believe is called, airing one’s dirty laundry in public!
Today there are just 56 farms in England which produce hops, but 150 years ago the countryside between Alton and Compton was festooned with hop fields.
As a university undergraduate I used to spend the last month of the long vac working on a hop farm in Kent near Cranbrook. It was back breaking work for the month of September from dawn to dusk with a group of fellow students and a family from Croydon who came hopping every year with their grandfather – originally from the East End of London he could remember the time when a Messerschmitt 109 fighter had strafed the hop pickers in the fields during the Battle Of Britain in 1940 before the German fighter plane had been shot down by a Spitfire. Talking to him about his experiences ‘hopping’ was like reliving history. So hops and hop farming hold a special place in my heart and I was on the look out for vestiges of hop farming on my route from Alton to Compton.
In 1867 Alton was the scene of a gruesome crime ( yes another one!) which involved a murder on a local hop farm and provides the origin of the expression ‘ Sweet Fanny Adams’.
Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old English girl who was murdered by solicitor’s clerk Frederick Baker on 24 August 1867 in Alton. The murder itself was extraordinarily brutal and caused a national outcry in the United Kingdom. Fanny was abducted by Baker and taken into a hop garden near her home. She was then brutally murdered and her body cut into several pieces; some parts were never found.
I searched high and low for vestiges of the regions hop farming heritage and did eventually manage to identify a converted hop kiln near Farnham.
However, for most of the day’s walk there were precious little evidence that hops were currently being grown in the area. In fact I saw more solar farms than hop fields on my walk today!
Finally, however, as I reached the village of Puttenham outside Guidford, I found some hops being grown, reintroduced to the area in 2018 in response to demand for the ‘Fuggle’ variety of hop from the UK craft brewing industry.
Highlights of the day included seeing an isolated oak tree on a ridge near Bentley. As I stood transfixed by its beauty, a lissom blonde jogger in an orange top and leotards appeared from nowhere and exclaimed “Beautiful isn’t it. I love that tree” as she sped past.
At the village of Froyle I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of opulent houses in the village. There was a definite whiff of stockbroker belt money emanating from the village.
At the church in Bentley I came across a 350 year old yew tree propped up in the church yard that must have alive when Jane Austen’s brother Henry became the church’s curate in 1824.
So far the flora en route has been a tad disappointing. The odd toadflax, wild mallow and field scabious in field margins. The lime trees shedding their leaves in front of Winchester Cathedral reminded me that Autumn is on the way! Maybe that is the reason.
I managed to acquire a pilgrim stamp at Puttenham church. It was humbling to think that the 12th century Norman archway above the entrance would have been standing when Becket was murdered in 1170.
Passing Farnham Castle brought back memories of attending an induction course there with HSBC before going out to work in Dubai in 1986. It seems like a lifetime ago! I believe it is a wedding venue nowadays.
The best bit of the day was saved for last. Prior to embarking on my walk, I had contacted several churches on my route to see whether they would be willing to accommodate me on my walk. One of the first to reply and offer me a bed for the night was the Revd Julian Hubbard, the rector of Compton near Guildford. So, late in the afternoon, we met outside his magnificent Grade 1 star Church of St Nicholas and he proudly gave me a tour of the stunning church which is undoubtedly one of the finest Norman churches in the south of England.
Its Saxon tower alone would make the church special, but what makes it both unique and mysterious is its two storey sanctuary, possibly unique in the UK.
The nave is adorned with early medieval wall paintings in the shape of lozenges. The carvings on the arches in the nave are intricate and incredibly well preserved. Carved from clunch limestone they almost look as though they were made yesterday. Another beautiful feature Julian pointed out is a stained glass window commemorating the death of a parishioner aged 26 in Italy during WW2. Golden Orioles ( nowadays hardly seen in the UK), a hare and a fox are all beautifully depicted. All in all the church is in immaculate condition and its almost impossible to believe that it dates back nearly 900 years.
It was a huge treat being welcomed in to Julian’s home and to meet his family. Upon arrival I took my boots off, slumped into a sofa and spent an enjoyable hour watching the cricket on Sky TV as well as chatting about Julian’s time as Rector of Jesus College Oxford and Canon of Christ Church Oxford, his time in Israel and his experiences of walking the Sentier de Saint Jacques from Le Puy as well as the Spanish Camino. Julian rounded off the evening by cooking up a delicious curry for supper.
I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome and a better end to the day.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Sonnet 30 – William Shakespeare
It was a short day but a full one in every sense – full of sights and sounds and poignant memories.
We were joined for breakfast at Julian’s by an old beagling friend, Richard Hemingway, who lives in the same road as Julian and knows him well. It’s a small world!
Richard is a font of knowledge on flora and fauna, local history and religion. During the hour of the walk that he joined me for, we discussed everything from hunting to the mistranslation of the Greek phrase ‘metanoia’ as ‘Repentance’ rather than ‘Adopting a new mindset’ in the authorised King James translation of the Bible as well as the defeat of the Cornish rebellion in 1497 on the ridge above Guildford. Sadly Richard had to leave me as we entered Guildford.
I suspect that Richard’s departure was cunningly designed to avoid gut busting hill climbs, the first of which involved the ascent of Saint Martha’s Hill, also known as Martyr’s Hill after Thomas Becket. The hill rises 570 feet and gives a wonderful panoramic view over 7 counties.
John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, who lived in Guildford, is said to have derived the idea of “The Hill of Difficulty” from the path leading from nearby Chilworth Manor to Saint Martha’s Church. Having slogged up it, I can see how he got his inspiration!
One of the features of this section of the Pilgrims’ Way is the extremely sandy soil – at times it almost felt as though I was walking through sand dunes and around the next corner the sea would appear!
I made good progress along the greensand ridge outside Guildford and descended into the picture postcard village of Shere, long thought of as one of the prettiest villages in England.
Sadly I couldn’t linger long in the village as I had a midday lunch appointment with old friends James and Sarah Hutton at Netley House, an imposing National Trust house visible from miles away.
It was great to catch up with James and his wife Sarah and reminisce about our time together at Oxford and chart the progress of our lives over the last 40 years. James has run a successful business from Netley House and specialises in the conservation and restoration of historic buildings.
I have always been intrigued by the ‘rot hounds’ that James uses to detect rot in historic buildings and was interested to read an article about them in the national press which appeared a few years ago, the content of which is appended below.
Two ‘useless’ dogs who were abandoned by their owners are now saving some of Britain’s most historic homes after being hired by the National Trust to sniff out dry rot.
Labradors Sam and Wilson have been specially trained to alert surveyors to damage which is invisible to the human eye in stately homes.
The so-called ‘rot hounds’ have already saved conservationists hundreds of thousands of pounds by leading them to the early signs of dry rot at National Trust properties.
The labradors are the only two professional dry rot sniffers in Britain and happily carry out their work in return for chocolate rewards
James’s wife Sarah is a priest who is active in the Surrey Hills district and regaled us over lunch with a number of interesting anecdotes including be8ng lead down the labyrinthine coridoors of the Vatican by Swiss Guards for a private an audience with the Pope! If I make it to Rome, I’ll hopefully be picking up my Pilgrim’s certificate from the Vatican!
After a delicious lunch, James bade me farewell and showed me a short cut from the back of his house up a path to rejoin the Pilgrims’ Way.
I was back on familiar territory, having spent much of my childhood living not far away near the small village of Headley, nestled on the North Downs near Box Hill.
I passed the pilgrim church on Ranmore Common (sadly closed to visitors) and descended through Denbies vineyard towards West Humble. Denbies is one of the largest vineyards in England and is situated on a spot where grapes have been grown since Roman times.
‘Surrey Gold’is one of their most popular wines made with a blend of Muller-Thurgau and Reichensteiner grapes and particularly good with cheese and spicy Asian dishes!
Denbies benefits from a geography that is very similar to the Champagne district of France. And as such, much of their production is a sparkling wine produced using the same method as champagne (which curiously enough was a technique invented in the UK).
From a good harvest, Denbies can produce up to 400,000 bottles of wine, about 10% of all the wine produced in the UK and they have around 20 grape varieties, including the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes necessary for producing a champagne type sparkling wine.
Mark Eastwood had kindly offered to put me up for the night at his home in Dorking. He also kindly gave me a lift to Headley which gave me the opportunity to visit my parent’s memorial headstones in Headley churchyard. It was the first time since their memorial service that I had visited the graveyard. 10 years have passed and yet not a day goes by when I don’t remember them.
Mark Easton and his partner gave me a lovely stay at their house in Dorking. We stayed up chatting until well past 10pm! Mark sent me on moy way with another ‘Full English’ – my fourth of the week!
The day started by crossing the iconic Stepping Stones across the River Mole in the lee of Box Hill. As a child I can remember being brought to Box Hill on frequent occasions and the thrill of walking across the stepping stones. I imagined the stones had been there since time immemorial. It was slightly sobering to have these childhood images subsequently destroyef by the discovery that they were laid out in 1946 by the then Home Secretary who lived in nearby Dorking!
The path up Box Hill passes the Burford Bridge Hotel, the place where Keats stayed in 1817 while he completed the final 500 lines of his epic poem ‘Endymion’. At that time it was called the Fox and Hounds. Keats had been bored and distracted by London life and ( according to his biographer Andrew Motion) had been invigorated by the beautiful surroundings at Box Hill.
The hotel has fond memories for me growing up 5 miles away at Headley. On baking hot summer days my mother used to take me to the hotel to use their swimming pool, which was open to the public. Happy days.
Walking up Box Hill first thing in the morning isn’t for the faint hearted even if you’ve benefitted from ‘the full English’! However, the views are spectacular. It’s not entirely surprising that Box Hill has been a magnet for stir crazy visitors from London during lockdown. Local resident Mark, with whom I stayed the previous night, suggested that so many people had congregated at Box Hill during the last 18 months that it had effectively become off limits to local residents.
The most interesting feature of the morning’s walk were the hearthstone mines at Colley Hill just north of Reigate. Colley Hill lies on the Greensand beds which stretch across the North Downs east of Farnham to the Kent Weald. The chalky soil from this area was used as a cleaning product in the ninetenth and twentieth centuries, hence why it was called hearthstone.
From 1890 hearthstone was mined from Colley Hill in 13-25 kg blocks and then transported by horses to mills where it was crushed and then transported to London by train. The mine also produced stone powder in popular brands such as ‘Panda’, ‘Osowhite’ and ‘Snowdrift’. The heyday of the mines was in the 1920s when a carriage a day would transport hearthstone to London. The mine suffered damage from a doodle bug bomb in 1944 and was eventually closed down in 1961.
I never cease to be amazed by people’s generosity. At Merstham Cricket Club I stopped to chat with the Club Vice President – an Irishman called Mike Griffins. No sooner had heard about my walk to Rome than he fished out £10 from his pocket and thrust it into my hand before beckoning a father and his two children to also come and join him. The father also offered to sponsor me £10!
The church at Merstham was sadly closed ( a common occurrence on the PW this week) which meant that when I reached Chaldon I didn’t bother to make a one mile diversion to view the church and the 13th century purgatorial wall painting of a drunk pilgrim in case the church was also closed.
By mid afternoon I was getting slightly bored of following the official route (which was quite desultory and comprised long stretches of woodland with restricted views) so decided to go ‘off piste’ in order to reach my final destination for the day at Tatsfield in good time.
Some of my friends have long held the view that these ‘off piste’ moments are possibly linked to Aspergers! I’m not convinced, having recently done an online test for Aspergers which suggested I was in the median quartile (v low risk) for this condition. I think I am just easily distracted and that my ‘off piste’ moments may owe more to my Briggs Myers personality type (‘Adventurer’) rather than a congenital inability to focus on the here and now!
Anyways some heavy tarmac slogging meant that I was able to get to Tatsfield church shortly after 5pm where I was met by my host for the night, the Rev’d Vince Short.
I must confess that, prior to embarking on my walk, I had never heard of Tatsfield. However, as the Rev’d Vince Short explained, the church and village have an interesting history. At 244 metres above sea level, St Mary’s Tatsfield is one of the highest and smallest churches in Surrey. Until recently the church and village used to regularly get snowed in during the winter. And the first recorded rector of Tatsfield? None other than one William de Dutton, possibly a distant relative!
After a short tour of Tatsfield village ( pop 1,800) which includes a charming village pond, bistro pub, tea room and post office, it was back to the Rectory for a hot bath and a delicious supper of lasagne ( 2 helpings) and crumble prepared by Vince’s wife Veronica.
Vince is very much a rock and roll vicar – he regularly plays his guitar in the local pub as well as in church. The congregation at the weekly Sunday service, regularly exceeds 35 which isn’t bad for a church with seating capacity for 60 or so.
Over supper Vince and Veronica entertained me with stories from the parish including one related to Tatsfield’s most infamous resident – the British diplomat-turned-traitor Donald Maclean who fled Tatsfield on May 25, 1951 after he had been tipped off that MI5 knew he was a Russian spy.
Maclean caught a ferry to the continent with fellow spy Guy Burgess – their disappearance sparking a massive manhunt and furore.
Their deception wasn’t confirmed until five years later when the former senior Foreign Office diplomat and Burgess surfaced in Moscow at a press conference.
According to local newspaper reports, 30 bullets as well as coded documents found in the attic of Donald Maclean’s house in Tatsfield when it was sold in 2017! Mrs Rhule ventured up into the loft she noticed a cut in the wooden flooring. She pulled away a piece of wood and found the bullets in the space below. Analysis suggests that the bullets are 70 years old!
Local gossip also suggests that the BBC knew that there was a radio transmitter in Donald Maclean’s house in Tatsfield which he used to transmit information to his Soviet handlers in Moscow!
The BBC set up a radio transmitting station in Tatsfield in 1929 which played an important role in World War 2 ( Biggin Hill Airfield, which played such a crucial role during the Battle if Britain in 1940 is nearby) .
Tatsfield’s work continued during the Cold War. Signals from Sputnik 1were received at Tatsfield in October 1957, and the station also monitored transmissions from subsequent Soviet space missions. In July 1958 it picked up signals from the US Explorer 4 satellite. The station was finally closed in 1974.
So the sleepy village of Tatsfield played a critical role during the Cold War, something I would never have discovered had the Rev’d Vince Short and his wife Veronica not kindly offered to put me up for the night on my walk!
Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God
The Baptist Herald and Friend of Africa –William Carey
I was sad to say good bye to Vince and Veronica Short. They were incredibly kind, highly entertaining and were also a mine of information about the history of Tatsfield.
As I left Tatsfield Church I noticed the inscription ‘Attempt Great Things for God’ carved into a wooden arch above the church lychgate which had been donated by a parishioner.
There were some fantastic views south from the Downs over Chevening House, which is used as a weekend retreat by the Foreign Secretary.
I must have been paying too much attention to the views and not enough to my location, when mid morning I got slightly lost and ended up on the perimeter fence of an MOD property!
The last time I remember crawling under perimeter fencing was when, as an Oxford undergraduate whipper-in with the Christ Church and Farley Hill Beagles in the mid 1980s, our pack of hounds had pursued a hare onto the US Airbase at Upper Heyford. With the hounds threatening to run amok on the airfield, we had had little choice but to pursue them. Rather surprisingly there was a gap in the perimeter fencing through which we were able to gain access to the airfield.
As we were rounding up hounds, a number of startled US airforce personnel appeared and a rather frosty stand off occurred as we attempted to explain our presence, clad in green hunting jackets, white breeches, with hunting crops and 20 couple of beagles! Eventually tempers were calmed and we were escorted off the base in high dudgeon.
We subsequently learnt that the US Airforce guys were rather jumpy due to the imminent arrival of President Gorbachev for a top level summit with Margaret Thatcher!
Having decided that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to try and get over the barbed wire MOD perimeter fence, I eventually came across an elderly local couple who directed me back on to the PW (Pikgrims’ Way) and I descended to the hamlet of Dunton Green. As I passed the Donnington Manor Hotel ( formerly a 15th century half timbered manor house), it was almost as though I had stepped back in time and been transported to Asia!
I reached Otford at lunch time, a small village with a lot of history! In 1016 it was the scene of a bloody battle between the Viking army of King Canute ( the chap who tried to turn back the sea) and the Saxon King Edmund Ironsides. The Viking army were roundly defeated and the Otford ran red with Viking blood.
The High Street was dominated by an Elizabethan house called ‘Pickmoss’ with a jet tied frontage, close studding and oriel windows that are typical of the period.
Otford also boasted a large tannery which operated for 200 years from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Dog poo, pigeon droppings, urine, oak bark and animal brains were all used to remove hair from the pig hides according to the informative notice board in the High St!
Leaving Otford I came across an old stone mile post which indicated that it was 65 miles to Dover as the crow flies. A quick calculation suggested that by the end of the day I would have walked 129 miles from Winterbourne Stoke!
As I headed towards the small village of Kemsing, I had one of those strange serendipitous encounters that sometimes make me think are down to more than pure “chance”. For some unknown reason I’d impulsively stopped for lunch in a charity shop cafe at Otford. Had I not done so and earlier lost my bearings by the MOD perimeter fence, then the encounter on the hillside outside Kemsing would never have taken place.
As I descended the steep slope towards Kemsing, I sighted from afar an elderly couple slowly crossing a ploughed field far below me. As they neared me, for some unknown reason I decided to approach them and strike up conversation. I asked them if they were local. It transpired that they were. When I divulged that I was walking to Rome on a pilgrimage, their interest was clearly piqued.
The couple were called Michael and Jessica. Michael revealed that he was originally from Northumberland where his grandfather had been a vicar near Morpeth. Michael enquired whether I would be staying at the Friars ( aka the Carmelite Priory at Aylesford) The ecclesiastical connection had been established!
We fell into conversation – I mentioned that I used to visit Northumberland with my father to fish for sea trout on the River Coquet at Rothbury, had been beagling in Northumberland on many occasions and once walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall in a long Bank holiday weekend.
As the conversation evolved it emerged that by an incredible coincidence I had been at school with one of their cousins!
I reached Kemsing during mid afternoon. According to local legend, the knights who murdered Becket rode through the village on their way to Canterbury. The church is reputed to be haunted by a devout knight on armour who appears on 29 December ( the day Becket was murdered), and kneels to pray at the altar before vanishing for another year.
True or not, what is less debatable is the fact that the village was visited by pilgrims whose staves made indentations in the 13th century church door.
My destination for the evening was the picturesque village of Wrotham.
I took the liberty of looking around the 10th century church dedicated to St George, which was not only open but also had a pilgrim stamp available for use. Without any doubt, the interior of the church, the organ, pulpit, monumental grasses and vaulted ceiling were the most impressive I had encountered on the walk so far.
And so finally I made it to my accomodation for the night – the Bull Hotel, where an inn has been on the site since 1280 when the Old Palace next door was still used by Archbishops travelling to and from Canterbury. Indeed Becket us supposed to have stayed a night in the palace at Wrotham on his final return from London, less than a fortnight before his murder.