Section 1: 11 miles (17.7 kilometers). June 2022. Full sweaty sun, around 85° heat. Solo
TL;DR Hot & sweaty, cold churches & lemonade. Recommended.
I even bought a hat, it was so hot. Not a particularly nice hat but what I would call a hat to stay alive in, a wide brimmed foldable thing which makes you look like a rambler. I’m not a rambler, I was for about a month when roused to join by the anniversary of the Kinder Scout mass trespass, but the only thing it brought me was a sense of unease that I should perhaps be walking in a herd and was walking all wrong. I’d left before the hat which was ill timed as I could have got a discount.
The Pilgrims’ Way is an ancient path from Swithun’s shrine at Winchester Cathedral to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury but in fact, like most fine things, predates the religion. Although we have archaeological finds from 600BCE it’s probably much older. MUCH older, it would have extended to the English Channel as far as the stone circle at Avebury.
There’s a side quest you may be familiar with from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, from Southwark to Canterbury with its fun tales of pokers up arses and queyntes. Fun fact for the etymological fans, Chaucer had a lot of fun with quaint and c*nt, having the same linguistic basis and, in his day at least, the same pronunciation. For more prudish fact fans, the Pilgrims’ Way is around 133 miles, 215 kilometers and passes through 3 counties: Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, and visits a lot of churches where you can have your ‘passport’ stamped. It’s also a breeze to do by public transport. Someone decided to put a train station every 10 or 12 miles along the route (with a couple of exceptions, about which later). Thanks old train people.
I started the walk as any good pilgrim should: at the Winchester Bakery where I bought pie and cake for my picnic. Then I went to buy a passport from the Cathedral. If you email in advance you can request a formal send off from the shrine. If you stop by the Porter’s Lodge at St. Cross Hospital i’m told you can claim wayfarer’s dole, a glass of beer and a piece of bread. I don’t drink beer and I prefer a pasty but I wholeheartedly support the concept.
The passport will cost you a few quid and I have to say the biggest disappointment was here. Winchester Cathedral don’t give you a stamp. They give you a bloody sticker. Poor form Winchester. If little churches can manage a proper stamp I see no reason why you can’t.
Anyway, the walk was beautiful, I left Winchester following the River Itchen where Roger Deakin dared to swim in the college’s private water in his beautiful wild swimming book Waterlogged. I could have swum if I had had more time, but I stuck my feet in along with some 4 legged friends. It was 80 degrees already.
Bucolic, that’s the word people use. English churches with mass dials, wildflower meadows, field after field of not-quite-ready wheat swaying in the breeze. Someone should write a poem about it, finding the time for standing and staring. I had my pasty in the gorgeous cold of the church at Itchen Abbas, sweat running from me, so pleased I hadn’t brought the dog. Firstly he would have boiled in his fur coat, plus I would have had to share. I only met one other person, quite distressed, in one of the churchyards. It was a personal grief but she needed to tell someone and i’m glad I was there.
Two pilgrim stamps bagged it was time to head on, past the immense wrought iron keep out gates of Avington park and over the hill. Who puts a hill near the end of a walk? By now it is easily 85° and i’m going to pass out when, as with all the best stories, salvation appears in the shape of a pub with beer garden. The Bush Inn at Ovingdon in fact, and despite the sweat and dust they let me in. Cold church or pub with air conditioning, take your pick. I’ve never been happier to have an ice cold drink. Two ice cold drinks with proper sugar in them. And crisps. On the walls of the Bush are boastful displays of fish, Thanks Bush Inn, I love you hun.
Then through the watercress beds to Alresford, and home. Not before the bus failed to arrive of course leaving me waiting 45 minutes, oh no. As I mentioned there are stations conveniently positioned along the Pilgrims Way, but not here. You’ll need to take the 64 bus back to Winchester, when (or if) it finally turns up. And back to reality.
More walks on the Pilgrims’ Way
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I use The Pilgrims Way by Leigh Hatts as a guidebook, it’s pretty much essential for this walk. You can buy it here or from good independent bookshops.
I also use a GPX file imported from British Pilgrimage Trust into the Ordnance Survey app. Whilst it is usually very accurate, the route differs from the book in places.
Next Stage: Alresford to Alton
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