You will search in vain for a path that carries the formal title of “The Canterbury Trail”. Most of your efforts will bring you to descriptions of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tails”, stories told by a band of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury, which he began writing in 1386 and had yet to complete when he died in 1400. But this is not the Canterbury Trail of which I write, nor the Canterbury Tail, which I hope to tell.
My Canterbury Trail came about largely by accident. Having completed the Appalachian Trail in 2006, I discovered that I have become infected with the need to walk, and to think while walking, and to write about what I think. Every year since then I have attempted to placate this thirst and the results are the “draughts” of my travels that are contained here on this site.
Last year I returned to my native Ireland and walked from the modern capital city of Dublin across the country to the southwest rural and ancient tip of that land on the little island of Valencia. During this walk I retraced the old pilgrim ways in west Cork and Kerry, gaining more insight into the old Celtic beliefs and traditions of pilgrimage.
The next land east is England, and the center of pilgrimage in that land is at Canterbury. This is the ecclesiastical capital of England, but was inhabited many centuries before the birth of Christ. Could I find a path from the Atlantic Coast to Canterbury to continue my walk east? Was there a “Canterbury Trail” that I could find?
The southwest peninsula of England – that long toe that sticks out into the Atlantic – is made up of Cornwall and Devon. These are historical Celtic settlements with their own Celtic language and traditions. It took me little effort to find the “South West Coast Path” that runs along their coast and should afford me passage from Land’s end – the extreme south west point of England – across the south coat to Poole. This path is well described and has maps, guides and a web site. I also found the “North Downs Way” – similarly well described and documented – that runs from Farnham to Canterbury, on its way to Dover
It took me some searching to bridge the gap between Poole and Farnham. I have cobbled together a possible route. My intent is to follow the Avon River Valley Path from the south coast to Salisbury – another major medieval pilgrim site. I can then follow the old pilgrim path to Winchester – called the Clarendon Way – and Saint Swithens Way on from Winchester, as the pilgrim path continues on to Canterbury.
So this year I will be walking from the rural west to the developed east – a reversal of last years walk. I will be walking out of the old Celtic Lands into the new Christian ones. A transition from the old into the new. These transitional states are familiar to all long distance walkers. You leave your home, with its familiar surroundings and friends and walk into another world with different values, behaviors and people. Shirley Du Boulay in her book “The Road to Canterbury” refers to this change as a “Liminal State” from the Latin word meaning “a threshold”
All of us who undertake these long distance walks know what she is talking about. As we begin our journey there is a period of time when we are in a transitional mode, a place between places, between home and away, between known limits and new boundaries. Our old ideas and thoughts are challenged by new and different ones. Indeed our very self-understanding changes, as we see new sights and experience new surroundings and people. All of this can result in a new self-perspective and understanding of our world.
It is this new and different view of self and others, of home and away, that is the real reason that we undertake these journeys.
I am now in this strange anticipatory state. The preparations are pretty much complete, but it is still more than a month before my departure. The packing list is finalized, the schedule fixed, the research completed. The boots are newly waterproofed, the backpack has had its yearly washing, the maps purchased, the guides read and reread. All is ready for the start, but the start signal is still too far away to see. I am tensed in the blocks for the starter’s gun, but the starter has not even arrived in the stadium. I have peaked too soon. How can I maintain this level of coiled anticipation without irrevocably damaging the spring?
I have arranged the Bed and Breakfast accommodations for the journey – not without much mental deliberations. Having a fixed iterinary goes against my hiking philosophy, but much of this walk – especially the last part along the North Downs Way – is a very popular hike. All of the sources that I have consulted have advised to make arrangements for accommodation well in advance – especially for the high summer season. This is doubly so for one night stays, which are understandably unpopular with the B+B owners.
Many “true” hikers will sneer at the luxury of a B+B, with hot showers, clean sheets, and a hearty breakfast every day. Personally I feel that there is no merit in being deliberately masochistic. There will be enough of the inevitable rain, wind, fog and associated pain, aches, worry and uncertainties during the hike to more than satisfy the most ardent self-flagellant. There is no need to deliberately compound the discomfort.
One of my own personal maxims for hiking is to reduce the misery as much as possible. If things are not going well, the first thing to do is to see if you can improve your lot. This applies equally to major problems and to minor discomforts. If the pack doesn’t sit properly on a particular day – stop and fix it. If you are getting a hot spot – stop and fix it. If you are too hot or too cold – stop and fix it, if you can. Why suffer if you can fix it?
But I cannot fix this urgent need to start. To start right now, to wait no more. I now understand why Trail Journals has a “Pre Hike” category for our journals. It partially fulfills this need to start the story before the hike. In my mind I am already off and hiking. I am taking my first steps west from Land’s end. I can see the trail along the high cliffs, dipping down and then up again into the small coves, the smell of the sea, the cry of the gulls, the solid feel of the path under my boots, the satisfaction of the comfortable weight of the pack on my back – but also knowing that the reality will be so much different.
Thought for Today:
”The journey begins and ends in the mind”
To continue his journey AND other go to but be prepared to spend some time reading EXCELLENT Trip Reports!!!