August 6th 2019
The day has finally arrived. With all the preparations done, new hiking shoes brought, food prepared, it was time to head down to Canterbury Cathedral by train from Stevenage to start the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route from the cathedral to the Vatican City. Back in April and May I have already done my ‘own’ pilgrimage from my house in Chells, Stevenage (Hertfordshire, about thirty-nine miles north of Central London) to the cathedral, walking along the Lea Valley Canal, Thames Path, taking in Rochester cathedral and castle, the pubs of Faversham until I got to the quaint cobbled streets of Kent’s only city (Rochester is not a ‘city’ anymore due to some stupid person forgetting to fill the paperwork at the council’s offices many moons ago but the locals are trying to make it a city again).
Arriving in Canterbury around 08:00 I had some time to kill so I had a nice fast-food breakfast to put some extra calories in me, a little bit of shopping and before I knew it, it was 09:00 and the gates to the cathedral’s ground were opened. The Via Francigena stones have been moved a few meters away due to construction work going on in the grounds and the office to get the stamp for my passport (credenziale) is next to the gates outside on the street.
Then the feeling and emotions took over me for few minutes. After doing the photos, social media (of course) and a couple of videos, I sat next to the stones thinking that every step I now take on this journey, it is one step nearer to Rome. Planning this month but I still wasn’t sure why I am doing this, what am I doing this for? Is it because it is a famous hiking route and I just wanted to complete it. I never walked a hike at this distance before (even though I am doing it in stages as I couldn’t get four months off by my company whom I work for). I am not a religious person but I am not an atheist. My folks were not religious people but we all had Church of England on our birth certificates.
During my school years and the summer holiday club where I was brought up in a village called Little Wymondley, I was taught the teachings of Christianity but never followed the religion. I didn’t go to church every Sunday. Then at high school in nearby Hitchin, religion didn’t even get a look in but when I joined sixth form, I did go to Hitchin Christian Centre on the one way system for a while. Maybe I was there following friends who also attended. I wasn’t quite sure. The novelty wore off and the only time I stepped into a church was during my travels as I explored important sights, like the churches in Central London, the Notre-Dame in Paris, Jerusalem to name a few.
Am I still finding myself? I am not quite sure, I thought I had found myself a few years ago whilst on the road. I had plenty of time to think whilst I do hiking through mountains or training for a marathon. Eventually my life turned around, I didn’t need things at home to keep me entertained like game consoles, televisions, I wanted to explore and take everything in. To study, to educate, to be at peace. Then my daughter Amelie was born a few years ago and now I got a second one on the way, being a father changes you. Am I doing all this so I can pass it on to my children in hopes they will be like me, to respect, to be outgoing, to learn, to take it to the next generations. God knows.
I think there are questions to be answered along the walk. It’s going to take time. But if I arrive at the Vatican and I still haven’t got the answers, then all I can say it was a bloody good walk across Europe.
The route officially starts at Canterbury Cathedral in the county of Kent, UK and heads to Dover before going across the English Channel (La Manche) to Calais before heading south-east to Arras, Laon, Reims and Besancon in France, before heading into Switzerland and passing the beautiful Lac Lemon (Lake Geneva) and climbing up the Saint Bernard Pass before descending into Italy, passing Aosta, Tuscany region, Roma before arriving at the Pope’s front door at the Vatican City. In the olden days, to get to Canterbury Cathedral, pilgrims would have to walk there (unless they found a donkey or a horse to ride on, no trains in those days).
Via Francigena Stage One: Canterbury to Dover
The first part of the Via Francigena through Canterbury took about twenty minutes. Leaving the cathedral and saying to the girls who were at the entrance booths at the gate, I raised one arm towards the south and shouted “Off to the Vatican I go’, I could hear them chuckling as I walked off in the distance. The thing I love about hiking is that you get to see things you wouldn’t do on the way, get ideas of places you want to come back to. Canterbury is one of those cities. Back in May when I finished my walk from Stevenage to the cathedral, I had a meal with my wife in a tudor building overlooking the river which has stood here for more than six centuries. Now as I walk through the city, there are bars and restaurants I want to check out as well as the abbey (which is in ruins near the cathedral but the gates were closed as walked passed). There was one pub (bar) open but I thought it was a little bit too early for a morning beer. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t drink much but I do like a good beer during a hike so I save that for one of the villages en route today.
There were signs for Rome (with the Via Francigena symbol next to the writing) as I walked out of the city, 1800km! Is that right? If it was kilometers, surely it would be more. I got thinking. I did a bit of research and working out the distance and it can be anything from 1650km to 1900km (around 1000 miles). I thought bugger it, as long as I follow the official trail, I work out the distance at the end. The trail is based on Archbishop Sigeric who did the journey around 990AD as he walked from Canterbury to Rome and back again (but he only documented his return journey). He did it in eighty stages and averaged about 20km a day (12 miles). I am to do this route like all the other pilgrims. Just gotta follow the signs with the yellow man on them all the way.
Into a housing estate and I am following the road called ‘Pilgrim’s Way’. How ironic, and it is in the direction of Dover. The excitement was brewing as I really wanted to get out into the countryside and do some hiking and get away from the towns. I am also now following the circular path of the North Downs Way at the eastern end of the route which is quite handy, so when there wasn’t a ‘yellow man’ on the posts, I had to follow the little acorn sign with North Downs Way written on it. The signage from Canterbury was pretty good and my written set of instructions I came with barely got a look. However, I found a few miles away from Dover, the signage could be a little bit better but was still easy to follow. I walked passed a few walkers (not on the pilgrimage) and dog walkers, the people in this part of Kent are so polite. Saying ‘Good Morning’ as walked on by was giving me a very good feeling inside and the sense I am doing the right thing by taking on this hike.
The first 5km (3.1 miles) of the Via Francigena were pretty easy walking along a road/path through fields and a bit of woodland until I reached the the village of Patrixbourne (yes, the ‘x’ is pronounced but to me when speaking to a local, it sounded like ‘Patrickbourne’). I stopped in the middle of the road not to far away from the church when a little elderly lady came walking very fast towards me from her garden. ‘Hi there, are you lost?’. I responded by saying, not really, just double checking the route, just to refresh the mind and to put me at ease. She got talking to me and she opened up the church door. She looks after the upkeep of the place and gave me a brief-but detailed history of the church. Built after the Normans invaded, the church is one of fifty in the county which is built in the Norman style. I love the architecture above the doorway and inside the church was well kept and brighter than others I have seen. Towards the end she asked if I wanted a stamp? There was a stamp for my Via Francigena credenziale here, in this little village. She replied yes, there is one at Canterbury, Patrixbourne, Shepherdswell but wasn’t sure on Dover or the other two churches en route before the coastal port town. Stamping my credenziale, signing the guestbook, I was off and left the pretty village of Patrixbourne.
The path out of the village took me across a field full of hay, then through woodland alongside the A2 (the main road between Dover – Canterbury) and then it was field after field after field I was walking across. Nothing really to see apart from fields and kissing gates at the end of each field.
Passing through the villages of Woolage and Womanswold, I eventually I walked into the village of Shepherdswell and this would be my lunch spot. I did the church first, managed to get a stamp and took in the surroundings as well before making my way across the village green to The Bell Inn. I couldn’t wait for my lunchtime pint but the place was closed until mid-afternoon. I had over an hour to wait. Ugh, so I decided to have my home made lunch on a bench in the middle of the green and some water before deciding to make tracks.
I noticed my feet were a bit sore and got this sense that the new shoes I bought may have been a bit tight and should have gone a size higher. I was alright walking up hill and along flat land but going downhill, I noticed the pain at the end of my big toes rubbing against the shoe. I cracked on and tried to put the slight pain in the back of my mind and enjoyed the surroundings a bit more.
Through more fields until I landed up at Waldershare, passing a country hall and a farm before walking through some woodland and coming out at Waldershare church. I looked inside for a stamp but there wasn’t any but I was glad to take a seat for a few minutes and let my feet rest. It was also cooler in here as the heat of the summer sun was hoting up during the afternoon.
The beautiful village of Ashley was passed and across my fields where eventually I took a wrong turn and was lead off the path (but only by a few meters). Instead of turning left to walk through a field of bulls and then onto the country lane at the top of the hill, I carried on straight (thinking that’s were the signage was taking me). At the top of the hill and talking to the bulls (as one does), there was a barbed wire fence in front of me with no holes in the hedge to go through to get me to the lane. Lucky the wooden fence posts wasn’t connected to the ground so I was able to lift the fence put a few inches and rolled underneath, not getting caught by the wire. A few moments later I was back on the trail heading south towards Dover.
The path took me alongside the A2 once again but in woodland. So I couldn’t see the road but I could hear it. The ground was soft going and was picking up speed again. Eventually I came to a road where I turned right, over the A2 and backtracked slightly alongside the main road before heading back south again through a field. The path lead me onto a Roman Road before I hit trouble! I saw a ‘FOOTPATH CLOSED’ sign and I thought, ‘What the f@@@!’ Why couldn’t that sign have been at the road, nearly 2km away. There was no way I was going to backtracked. With my feet now hurting, the determination to get to the sea even greater and the lack of water I had now on me (as there wasn’t any shops on the way on this part of the route), there was no way I was backtracking.
Temporary fencing was put all around this massive hole in the ground where water works were taking place. There were diggers to the right. I couldn’t go round the left hand side of the fence as there was no way of getting around that side. In the end I managed to go through the edge on the right hand side, climbed over the digger (thankfully the workforce have already gone home as it was late afternoon), slid land on a steep section of ground and managed to climb around the fences on the other side and taa-dah, I passed this hole! I was so happy and thankfully continued with the walk.
Now, if you know the area, Dover is surrounded by hills. Coming off the boats and driving towards London on either of the two main roads means a long drag up the hill. Well, walking from Canterbury in any direction means a long downhill stretch and I knew this wasn’t the bit I was looking forward too because of my feet. Thankfully the Roman Road has been recently relaid, no stones or other debris on the road, so I took my shoes off and walked all the way to the roundabout at the bottom. It was good thinking at the time but when I put my shoes back on to walk through Dover itself, my pace was getting slower and slower.
Dover, how historic are you? Very, the castle overlooking the sea which has probably been involved in a few battles as well as being the host to the operations rooms for World War Two as well as a lot of armies from Europe making their way across the English Channel (La Manche) to take on the natives of my home isles (as it is the closest point to mainland Europe). There is sure a lot of history here but Dover is also one of the main gateways on the British Isles with its massive ferry port. The White Cliffs of Dover is the main landmark and the Doverian restaurant is one of my favourites in these parts. I come through Dover quite often and know the town well so there wasn’t no need to stop here. I walked down the main street through town, crossing the River Dour in places before walking through a subway and finally landing up at the small pebble stoned beach to end the UK leg of the Via Francigena.
A sense of achievement was felt as I sat on the wall overlooking the beach, letting my feet rest up for a while. Looking out to sea, I saw a ferry came in and I knew in the far distance is the white cliffs of Calais (as I call them) and I knew that the next stage of the Via Franigena will take me along those cliffs before finally leaving the sea and into the heart of Europe. I had thoughts going through my mind like crazy right now, like how did Archbishop Sigeric get across the sea. I mean, did he get in a small boat all by himself and rowed across or did he have a gang to help him, so he could sit back and relax whilst others did the hard work. It’s seventeen miles by the closest points between England and France. Also the thoughts of my journey so far, I have actually walked from Stevenage to Dover (in stages) and saw quite a few things on the way, met interesting people and had a few good beers. All I know is now, from the next stage (hopefully very shortly), the journey on the Via Francigena is going to get more interesting, leaving the land of the Angles behind and taking on the rolling hills and woodland of Hauts-de-France as I make my way towards Rome.