The Pilgrims’ Way Revisited: The use of the North Downs main trackway and the Medway crossings by medieval travellers
By Derek Bright
Published Online (2010)
Introduction: Popular notions that the trackway that skirts the southern edge of the North Downs once served as the principal thoroughfare for pilgrims travelling to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury are commonplace. However, by the latter half of the last century, the predominant view amongst those with more than a passing interest in the North Downs trackways, was that whilst there was evidence to suggest that much of the Pilgrims’ Way follows the course of an ancient prehistoric trackway, it was far less evident that it had been used as a route of medieval pilgrimage.
A reassessment of how we view the usage of the North Downs trackways and in particular a reexamination of the possibility of their use by medieval travellers enroute to Canterbury or the Channel coast, may help us reappraise the Victorian and Edwardian antiquarians. In doing so, it may allow us to place the work of pilgrimist writers such as Albert Way, Julia Cartwright and Hilaire Belloc in a more realistic context.
Part I deals with options facing medieval travellers in relation to crossing the River Medway. The river valley known as the Medway gap is significant because it serves as a focus for revisiting a number of arguments regarding the convergence of routes from London and the west of the country; the options such routes presented for medieval travellers and their likely responses to these options.
In reassessing the use of the North Downs trackways by medieval travellers, reference is made to more recent research undertaken by Patrick Thornhill regarding the Medway’s geological features in relation to the changing characteristics of the Medway crossings over time. In addition the article also takes a number of additional factors into consideration. These include a re-examination of the arguments purporting difficulties of travel using the North Downs trackways east of the Medway and takes into consideration (i) the risk of highway crime and (ii) the difficulties associated with the right to travel and (iii) suspicion of those that travelled in feudal society. Finally the article provides a re-examination of the actual distances involved. The combination of these factors is shown to be a key determinant as to why medieval travellers may have favoured one route rather than another. It is this decision as to which route medieval travellers would choose that the author has termed ‘the Paddlesworth choice’.
Part II of this article argues that an assessment needs to be made of the actual numbers of the population eligible to undertake an extended pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. By working backwards from Ben Nilson’s and Frank Elliston-Erwood’s work regarding offerings at Beckett’s shrine combined with working forward from Domesday statistics, taking account of geographic location and social class, a much more realistic estimate of the numbers of medieval travellers that may have chosen to use the North Downs trackways can be arrived at.