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NORTH DOWNS WAY
Planning for the new National Trail began in 1950, but it wasn't until 1978 that all the footpaths and minor roads were linked with the appropriate rights of way. Spanning 153 miles, the trail has two alternative routes, both starting at Farnham and ending at Dover. One of the two routes is of more interesting to us - the Northern route includes Canterbury, whereas the Southern Route deviates from Wye in the Kent Downs to Folkestone. Both routes include Rochester, which has its own following as a pilgrimage site (to William of Perth) and offers a route to Southwark and London.
The Northern route starting at Farnham and stopping at Canterbury stretches for 113 miles across the Surrey and Kent Downs. The route is spectacular with many highlights. Most convenient stopping points are serviced by public transport, making the route an ideal candidate for people who want to walk it in sections. Naturally, we concentrate on the start of the route, Farnham, but the entire length is well served by transport links, accommodation and other facilities.
Known variously as Thomas Becket, Thomas à Becket, Thomas of London or indeed Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Becket was born c 1120 and was murdered on 12 December 1170. He was consecrated on 3 June 1162 by Henry of Blois, who coincidentally was Bishop of Winchester and possibly the wealthiest and most powerful man in England, after the King.
A rift grew between Henry and Becket as the new archbishop resigned his chancellorship and sought to recover and extend the rights of the archbishopric. This led to a series of conflicts with the King, including that over the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen. Attempts by Henry to influence the other bishops against Becket began in Westminster in October 1163, where the King sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government in regard to the church. This led to the Constitutions of Clarendon, where Becket was officially asked to agree to the King's rights or face political repercussions.
The disputes continued and deepened with Becket fleeing to France. However, in 1170, a 'solution' was found that allowed him to return to England. He continued to cause trouble and started excommunicating many people who opposed his wishes. This resulted in the phrase attributed to the King, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Four knights took the words at face value and on 29 December 1170, they burst into the cathedral choir at Canterbury clad in armour and carrying swords determined to capture or kill Becket. The four attacked him with their swords, inside the Cathedral, until Becket lay dead. Christendom was outraged while the king publicly expressed remorse and engaged in public confession and penance.
The four knights initially escaped to Scotland and thence to Morville's Knaresborough Castle where they stayed for a year. All four were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III on Easter Day and ordered to make a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land, staying for 14 years. It is believed that none returned.
Becket, on the other hand, almost immediately began to be venerated as a martyr. King Henry humbled himself with public penance at Becket's tomb. Many pilgrims visited the shrine, first when it was a buried under a stone slab in the floor of Canterbury Cathedral, with a hole where the pilgrims could touch the stone slab covering it, then later when it was a gold-plated and bejewelled affair behind the high altar. It, like that of St Swithun, was destroyed in the Reformation.
Unlike the Pilgrims' Way, the North Downs Way seeks out the high places and the footpaths. We've already given a little of the history above. The route starts in Farnham and immediately heads into the hills above on its way to Guildford. After a small rest by the River Wey, it sets off again over St Martha's Hill to Dorking. From there, Box Hill and Reigate Hill take you to Merstham.
The next stretch crosses the border between Surrey and Kent - moving from the Surrey Hills to the Kent Downs: Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and coming down at Otford. Now heading north, the route visits Rochester (unlike the Pilgrims' Way) before heading south and east again. A string of picturesque villages and glorious Downs views finally bring you into Canterbury. If you wish, from there the Way takes you to Dover, with the possibility of going over to France. The Via Francigena takes you to Rome or you can journey to the tomb of St James in the city of Santiago de Compostela. The world's your oyster. But for most mere mortals, the route will stop in Canterbury, venerating Thomas Becket.
And for us? We'll help you in Farnham, as you pass through our West Surrey jewel of a town.
The route as laid out is 113 miles. The map above will display the journey;
style depends on your level of subscription with the Ordnance Survey.
There are many excellent websites about the North Downs Way. However, one of the definitive sites, published by the National Trails is https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/north-downs-way. Check this out for a great deal of information from the full route (to Dover), the alternative route (which takes in Folkestone) and interesting curiosities like the Ale Trail.