Getting to know the North Downs Way…

Getting to know the North Downs Way…

With large sections of the North Downs Way now accessible online (via Google Maps HERE), exploring some of the most beautiful scenery in the United Kingdom is easier than it’s ever been! Of course, while nothing compares to lacing up your boots and heading outside, we do appreciate that sometimes getting the lay of the land before you visit can help to dramatically improve your adventure. That’s why we’ve compiled this brief history of the North Downs Way and its surrounding areas – so that you can explore the storied background of this beautiful and ancient pathway while clicking through the route in comfort...

Some simple information…

The North Downs Way is a long-distance National Trail located in the south-east corner of mainland Britain. Running from Farnham to Canterbury – and the White Cliffs of Dover – the trail skirts along two areas of outstanding natural beauty. These, the Surrey Hills AONB and the Kent Downs AONB — and the small towns, villages, and farmhouses around them — all combine to create truly breath-taking vistas unlike anywhere else in the world. 

Opened to the public in 1978, after 29 years of planning and discussion, the route and its surrounding area boasts some eight castles, three cathedrals (Canterbury, Rochester, and Guilford), and countless stately homes and ruins. There are fairy-tale forests and woodlands to admire, vast 18th Century parkland to appreciate, and links to classic art and literature!

With the pathway so steeped in history, heritage, and a profound natural beauty, it’s no wonder that the trail has been in use for thousands of years…


The Trail throughout history…

The land around the North Downs Way has been used as a major pedestrian throughway since prehistoric times. This could be due to the fact that one of the route’s starting points lies at Dover – positioned at the narrowest point of the English Channel. Anybody journeying in to the inner parts of Britain from the coast, or even from the continent, would find that the shortest route inland — perhaps to the religious complexes at Stonehenge and Avebury — lay along the edge of the North Downs.

Before the construction of these Neolithic (or later stone age) monuments, however, there is evidence of human activity around the North Downs dating back over 400,000 years. More recently than that – though still firmly in the pre-Neolithic period – there is considerable evidence of Mesolithic (middle stone age) activity within the area too. This includes pit-dwellings, a large number of discarded tools, and other evidence attributed to the hunter-gatherers of the time.

As the lifestyles of the Mesolithic people became more settled, humans began transitioning away from their nomadic lifestyles and towards the more continental practices of keeping livestock and growing crops. During this time, both the North Downs and the Surrey Downs saw increasingly larger concentrations of human settlers – and a larger number of buildings and monuments in turn. Several long barrows, or burial mounds, which were constructed during this time can actually still be observed and visited today – most notably the Barrow of Kit’s Coty which can be found at Aylesford, near Rochester.

With later influences found on and around the North Downs Way too – including Celtic burial mounds, and a Roman road and villa, it’s fair to say that the area has plenty of history to pique anybody’s interest!


The Pilgrims’ Way…

Moving away from the stone age and into more recent times, the ancient pathway cutting along the edge of the North Downs became popular once again with religious travellers during the Middle Ages. While druidic pilgrims travelled along the pathway seeking both Stonehenge and Avebury in the past, during the 12th century a number of Christian pilgrims began using the route to travel from the city of Winchester to the shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury.

From Beckett’s canonization in 1173 (just 2 years after his rather grizzly death), until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538, his shrine at Canterbury was considered one of the most important religious sites in the United Kingdom. In fact, such was its importance, it was said that Beckett’s shrine was the second most important shrine in all of Christendom – second only to the Papal shrine in Rome. As a result of this, the ancient route along the edge of the Downs once again began experiencing heavy traffic. Soon, it became known as the ‘Pilgrims’ Way’.

Rather than being one distinct route, however, historical documents suggest that the Pilgrims’ Way was made up of a large number of interconnecting routes from Winchester to Canterbury, many of which deviated from the original ancient pathway. Today, much of this nebulous trail is paved over, though parts of it still remain within the North Downs Way National Trail. For over 3,000 years then, the route has been a major pathway for all manner of people!


The North Downs Way today…

These days, the North Downs Way affords visitors some of the most remarkable views in the country, and is a world away from the hustle and bustle of urban living. Offering both shorter scenic routes and a full 153-mile trek, travellers can explore as much or as little as they want – rather than being forced to make the full pilgrimage to Canterbury!

Located along the trail are a wealth of buildings and monuments hinting at the area’s ancient history, while a number of country pubs, restaurants, and hotels provide an opportunity to relax in a landscape that inspired the likes of J. M. W. Turner, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens...

And, of course, if you’re still not sold, remember that you can visit the pathway on Google before you set off!