There are four long-distance National Trails for walkers within an hour or so of London. One trail, the Thames Path, cuts right through the capital. I chose the North Downs Way because it follows the historic Pilgrims' Way for much of its course to Canterbury.
Trekked by thousands of medieval pilgrims to the shrine of murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket, the route became inspiration for Canterbury Tales poet Geoffrey Chaucer. His entertaining poem about a band of travelers who embark on a story-telling contest, to pass the time as they ride, was the first major book printed in English (1476).
Stretching from the Surrey Hills to the White Cliffs of Dover, the North Downs Way is 240 km (157 miles) long and would take 10 to 12 days to walk in one go. But it's easy to sample the trail in day-trip chunks using the train or bus to get to a starting point then returning from a different town at the end of the walk.
I started at London's Charing Cross train station about 8am. In 90 minutes I got off the train in the heart of Kent among rolling green hills and picture-book villages.
The springtime apple orchards were full of blossom and the woods carpeted with wild bluebells. Other distinctive Kentish features were straggly hop poles reaching skyward from the hop-fields (used to flavor beer), and the conical “oast houses,” which were once used for drying hops but have now almost exclusively been converted into comfortable homes.
The path climbed up chalky hills, offering sunlit vistas across the countryside to distant villages, then down into the shade of another wood. Whenever I was about to hesitate about the path's direction another reassuring sign bearing the National Trail “acorn” symbol would appear.
Seeing English villages on foot you notice all the little details, the differing architectural styles and flower gardens, and everyone has time for a cheerful “hello.” The village of Chilham is one such picturesque gem. Its focal point is a square lined with half-timbered houses, a pub and a church (even a castle), and I suspect it has changed little since the days when weary pilgrims passed through on the last stage of their journey.
Overall, I found the path relatively easy walking, and there were plenty of diversions. If I had walked the entire route, I could have visited 56 attractions, from castles and stately homes to vineyards. And, I could have called at 288 pubs! Among the highlights were Leeds Castle, a fortress and palace to kings and queens; and Rochester, a compact, historic city linked with author Charles Dickens.
At Chartham Hatch, the trail went through a private cottage garden where I talked with the gardener. Most walkers he meets are surprised, as I was, to be allowed to cross private property – thanks to the ancient right of way.
Pausing at a nearby pub, the Royal Oak, I found that the landlord was another chatty local. His passion is a pub game called “bat and trap,” a game unique to Kent.
Back on the path, the trail crossed more spectacular bluebell woodland. Two ladies walking four energetic sausage dogs (or was it the other way round?) were hauled past me as I neared journey's end: Canterbury. I imagined the emotions felt by generations of pilgrims as they gazed up at the towers of the majestic Canterbury Cathedral. A dramatic entrance is made through the castellated towers of West Gate. Medieval pilgrims who arrived here late in the day were locked out of the city all night, no matter how weary.
In the cathedral a candle burns night and day at the place where the shrine of the martyred St Thomas of Canterbury stood from 1220 to 1538 when it was destroyed by order of King Henry VIII. Other sites from Chaucer's time include the Poor Priests' Hospital, now a museum, the pilgrims' hospital, and St Augustine's Abbey.
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales– including the bawdy Miller's Tale – are humorously brought to life in a visitor center where you experience the sights and smells while traveling along with the medieval pilgrims.
Having sampled this slice of British history on foot (with help from the train, by which I returned to London), I am tempted to walk parts of other National Trails. With country pubs and tea-shops for sustenance, and a choice of good-value accommodation such as bed and breakfasts, farmhouses and Youth Hostels, it's a fine way to see the country.