Last Tuesday, a group of us set out on a five-day ramble from Rochester to Canterbury. Walking in the steps of the medieval pilgrims through sunshine, heavy rain and wild winds - all in the same day - our journey took us down country lanes and muddy footpaths, through orchards, fields and forests, past prehistoric sites, ancient churches, castles, inns and pubs.
We began our pilgrimage at Rochester Cathedral where we met Andrew Kelly, who runs the Augustine Camino. He told us the story of St Augustine, who brought Christianity to England in 597, baptising King Ethelbert of Kent, (who had married a Frankish Christian Queen Bertha) and establishing the See of Canterbury. Andrew showed us the worn stone steps leading up to the chapel where pilgrims still light candles for the journey ahead.
Our first destination was Aylesford Friary where we stayed the night. Built by the Carmelites in 1242, St Simon Stock is said to have had a vision of Our Lady there, in which she promised a special grace to those who wear the Brown Scapular. The Friars were forced to leave Aylesford during the Reformation, but in 1948, a small group led by Prior Malachy Lynch returned and re-established the community there, restoring many of the medieval buildings. The Friars is now a thriving pilgrimage and retreat centre with one of the best collections of modern religious art in the country. There was one sad note there, though as that we learnt that Fr Wilfrid McGreal, writer and broadcaster and one of the past priors, had died just the day before.
Next day we walked about nine miles to the village of Turnham - mostly via muddy footpaths through fields with very large friendly horses that crowded around us as we clambered over wobbly fences and stiles. On the way we visited the Tyland Barn Visitors centre, the ruins of Boxley Abbey and village of Detling. That night we stayed in the picture postcard Black Horse Inn in Turnham.
A highlight of our third day was a visit to the ancient church of St John the Baptist in Doddington. We were shown round by the very knowledgable local guide , Chris. The church has a stunning 12th century wall painting of St Francis. Chris told us that its possible that the painter actually met St Francis, because there are stories that the saint visited Kent. In the churchyard there is a 1,500 year-old yew tree - with a hole inside "big enough to have a party' Chris said. We stopped off for lunch at the wonderful Hook and Hatchet Inn - which has special facilities to water and feed horses. In the next village, Bredgar, we said a prayer at the grave of young WWI Canadian solder. That night we stayed in the very comfortable Palace Farm Hostel run by farmers Graham & Liz Cuthbert.
The nice thing about 'changeable' weather - is that aside from getting drenched from time to time - three times in a row there were rainbows over our walk to Faversham - home to the Shrine of St Jude. As we approached the village we past a very old lath & plaster pilgrim inn - straight out of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Most of the Carmelites who live there were away in Rome this week, but Brother Anthony showed us around the Shrine and we had Mass in the chapel. That night we had dinner in the Italian restaurant Posillipo - by the Creek. We were a bit tired of walking so some of us got a lift back to our hotel with very helpful taxi driver called Vickie.
On our final day we were blessed with beautiful weather and enjoyed a very scenic walk through the Blean - ancient woodland - where a friendly young deer came and ate the windfall apples we'd collect in an orchard. We climbed to the top of Bigbury Camp - site of an Iron Age fort and settlement where Julius Caesar defeated a Kentish tribe when he invaded Britain. From here we walked on to the village of Harpledown where we passed a holy well and visited the church of St Nicholas - part of an ancient leper hospital. Finally the spires of Canterbury Cathedral began to appear on the horizon and we all felt that sense of anticipation pilgrims must have felt in medieval times. Ancient walls original built by the Romans encircle its medieval centre with cobbled streets and timber houses. We explored the Cathedral and prayed at the site where St Thomas Becket was killed in 1170. This was the place where Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie knelt in prayer in 1982. That evening we had Mass at St Dunstan's - where St Thomas More's head is kept. Two of us had to go back to London straight afterward but the rest of the group stayed on for a performance of the Messiah in the Cathedral.
Altogether we walked about 45 miles in the four days. The Augustine Camino leads all the way to the Shrine of St Augustine in Ramsgate - so we're planning to make a day trip there next. And next autumn - we're doing another stretch of the Ignatian Camino in the Basque Country from Alda on the Rioja border to Loyola, birthplace of St Ignatius.
See more pictures on ICN's Facebook page and Jo Siedlecka's Instagram.
If you'd like more information - contact: Fr Dominic Robinson [email protected] for further details.
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