The Pilgrims Way - a piece by Leonard James

Narrow LaneFrom 1941 I spent many weekends in Westerham.

The picture on the left reminds me of the narrow lane with high shrubby hedges that wandered through this picturesque area of Kent.

Part of the old pilgrims' way to Canterbury ran through the back of Westerham; now a winding lane, but what stories might be told of the travellers making their pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a'Becket, as they did in Chaucer's time.

In those days the countryside there was always quiet with lots of beautiful woods to wander through. Winston Churchill had a house called Chartwell; not that you could see much of the grounds they were surrounded by a high brick wall. The names of places like Limpsfield Chart, Brasted, Toys Hill, Squerryes Court, Westerham Hill still conjure up happy memories of leafy glades and warm sunlit paths through beech woods.

My first wife, Alice, was born in Westerham, the eldest of several sisters and one brother. Her father was a retired postman and had spent most of his working life in the Westerham area. They lived in a prefabricated wooden bungalow dating from the First World War.

Alice's brother Ted, was in the National Fire Service, and he had a motor bike and side car. When he wasn't on duty, Sunday mornings were special. Ted would take us out on the old machine, myself on the pillion and Alice's father in the sidecar. And we would chug around the nearby village taverns where there was still beer to be had. How we got back to Westerham was often a mystery to me. No one thought about breathalysers but we never had any trouble with the law.

Pilgrims' Way towards Wrotham

I vividly recall one day walking for miles through the wood until we got to Toys Hill, there you could see for miles across Kent, to the south. We were so thirsty but right there was a little pub where they had local draught cider. After a couple of glasses our eyes were glazed and all sense of direction was lost. No road signs in those days but after about another three miles we staggered into Brasted and from there we could catch a bus.

There was a pub in Brasted used by the R.A.F from Biggin Hill, that had the bar ceiling covered with names of the war time pilots. The war seemed far away in those early years, but in 1944 when the "doodle bugs" (flying bombs) were aimed at London there were barrage balloons moored in fields and anti-aircraft guns tried to shoot the flying bombs down. If the guns were successful the bombs crashed or exploded in unpopulated .areas. If not the unforgettable stuttering roar as the wretched things flew overhead, was followed, by a sudden silence as the engine cut out, and then a huge explosion.

Some hundreds of years before the lanes of this same countryside of the North Downs echoed to the sound of footsteps or the clatter of horses' hooves. These were the pilgrims making their way towards Canterbury. To do penance at the tomb of Thomas a Becket

The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer's masterpiece was the story of such a band of pilgrims making their way from London to Canterbury.

Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every
veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus
eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre
croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,

Referring to the map on Page one it shows the route of the travellers in Canterbury Tales starting from the Tabard Inn in London. This is north of the line of the Kentish Pilgrims way. But one can imagine other pilgrims making their way from the theoretical start in Winchester tracing what was probably a prehistoric trackway across the ridges of southern England.

The English tradition of seeking a pure and simple Christian way of life developed over the centuries. These values were initially extolled by English reformer William Langland in his fourteenth-century classic, The Vision Concerning Pier's The Ploughman. Inspired by this and other teachings dedicated believers sought religious purification by travelling to Canterbury Cathedral and this pilgrimage was immortalised in Chaucer's fourteenth-century poem Canterbury Tales.

The progress of these religious zealots from earthly sin to celestial purity was also described in John Bunyan's seventeenth-century classic, Pilgrim's Progress, which itself was celebrated in his seventeenth-century hymn, To be a Pilgrim.

'He who would valiant be
Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.
There's no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.'
John Bunyan
Pilgrims' Way near Lumpsfield

In this piece about the Pilgrims' Way making its way through the quiet and almost forgotten paths, which had become overgrown because of the new roads constructed after World War II. Some of the timeless history of England still shows through.

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