Secret Garden of England: Saltwood Castle to Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury, England | 14th – 16th October, 2016

Secret Garden of England Pilgrimage: The Way To Canterbury

This was the second of our wonderful Pilgrimages in collaboration with the British Pilgrimage Trust. 

Over two days and two nights we walked 25 miles on foot from Saltwood Castle to Kent and England's great, established sacred centre, Anglia Mater, Canterbury Cathedral. After taking trains from London to Sandling, a hamlet one mile from England’s south coast, we walked in the dead of night via a forest path and the village church to the foot of Saltwood Castle, where the four knights who killed Thomas Beckett in 1170 stayed on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. On the first night we slept under the stars in bell tents or in the open between the roots of a majestic yew tree and the castle walls. Dreaming of mythic tales and stories we kept warm by a campfire before awaking with the birds to set off on our first day of walking. 

As well as human-made holy places of all shapes and sizes, our pilgrimage visited neolithic burial mounds, hilltops, great trees, ancient woodlands, river sources and holy wells. The path included Britain's oldest church and her most ambitiously beautiful cathedral, and featured meditation afore majestic views, yoga in beautiful gardens, woodland foraging and earthly encounters along the way.

On Saturday we awoke with a morning meditation and yoga, and a feast of fresh berries and cereals for breakfast before journeying on foot from the "first and last hill" of South East England, up onto the North Downs, bumpy with the burial mounds of Bronze Age heroes. Through the ancient domain of Beachborough Manor and along Saxon hollow pathways in the chalk, we walked to the flowing source of the river Nailbourne, and the site of England's only basilica (long gone) in Lyminge.

Then, walking along the river Nailbourne we followed the Elham Valley to Elham, with her vast Church and picture-perfect pubs. Via ancient hilltop holy springs, we walked through secret valleys and ancient woodlands, green places littered with rare wildflowers. 

Then we headed for supper in a village pub, before rolling out our mats and feasting on our dreams in the beautiful Medieval Barham Church. 'Dream incubation' in churches was a big part of the Medieval British pilgrimage tradition, with special significance being placed on such unconscious experiences encountered in such places.

On the final day, after a wonderful breakfast, we set off early from Barham church to slowly climb 'Hearts Delight', then under and along the Victorian railway line to Kingston Church, a tiny silent holy place. Then through the estate land of Charlton Park, an ancient family estate full of ancient trees.

In the village of Bishopsbourne, another tiny but perfectly preserved living village, we found a vast church full of blazing colour before heading into another parkland, the 'wilderness' of Bourne Park, and its hilltop Bronze Age burial complex with mysterious hedgerow stones. Walking on to Patrixbourne, where an avenue of Yew trees reveals a carved portal of mythical beasts, we forded the Nailbourne - twice - to reach the lost Church of Bekesbourne, passing by the house where Thomas Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer en route.

Then we reached Britain's oldest Church, St Martins, where Augustine stayed when he first arrived in Britain, and Canterbury's last holy spring, still flowing freely into the city, and almost entirely un-noticed.

In the early evening our destination loomed ahead of us. Canterbury Cathedral is one of Europe's most incredible pilgrimage destinations, a justifiably famous place of beauty and wonder, and we followed the path of the four knights, to the martyrdom and the deep centre of the crypt.

After being taken deep beneath the cathedral by the Dean, we congregated in the local pub and feasted on mussels.

 The walk was guided by Will and Guy, co-founders of the British Pilgrimage Trust. Visit to learn more about the movement of British pilgrimage.

PilgrimagesWill Chapman