Becket Way 2022

Patrons - Saints Thomas Becket, Thomas More, Augustine of Canterbury

    From September 2-18, 2022, I was in England on pilgrimage. From Sept. 4-9, I walked from London to the Cathedral in Canterbury, site of St. Thomas Becket's martyrdom (+1170) and former shrine. This route is the same one referred to in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (~1390), and arrived at one of the three most popular pilgrim destinations in the Middle Ages (along with Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain). Like those other two pilgrim destinations, there are several routes you can take, but this one had the benefits of being easily completed in less than a week while traversing fascinating scenes of city and country. I had been planning the trip for nearly a year, and was surprised that, with all the turmoil with travel restrictions and the lingering threat of getting sick with Covid, I was actually able to complete it.

    However, this pilgrimage had very little in common with my much longer walk to Santiago de Compostela in 2019. Though this route was much shorter, it was far more challenging. I don't mean challenging in the physical sense, though there were some muddy slogs, torrential rain, and barbed wire fences to climb (more on that later). It was challenging because it is a route that is not really marked and not well traveled, making its completion a real test of the will and, indeed, faith.

    When you walk to Santiago de Compostela, for example, you look for yellow arrows that guide you on your route, and, especially as you cross into Spain from Portugal, you are rarely out of sight of other pilgrims who are walking the same direction that you are, sharing the same goal. In England, I didn't see a single other pilgrim on the entire route. In addition, there aren't any easy arrows to follow - in fact, there are rarely any indications at all that you are walking on a pilgrim route. Much of the path in the country follows various public access walking routes, but there are times where all you have is a faint mark of a path through a farmer's field or a horse pasture, with no sign to indicate where you should turn or where you should go. Parts of the route actually go along busy roads that require much vigilance, as your only space of safety when traffic approaches is to push yourself into the overgrowth and brambles that line the road (it's a longstanding complaint - a pilgrim writing in the 1930s said he was exasperated with throwing himself into the thorns to avoid the traffic).

    It was one of these especially busy roads that made me think, "This is ridiculous - there is no possibility that this road is the correct route. Even though my GPS route shows this road is the way, I'm pushing my luck with how much traffic there is." I came upon a stile (more on these later) at a break in the hedge that led down a slope to a vineyard with a dirt path that went in the same direction as the road. "Yes," I said in relief, "this dirt path is the route." I followed it for a mile or so and came to a copse of woods and a low fence strung with barbed wire. It turns out I was supposed to stay on the road, but I had now trespassed onto some bloke's vineyard. I opted to carefully climb over the fence, and made my escape from any legal trouble.

    So, this route was a real test of faith in the goal, and faith in one's ability to find a path and keep going, even when you got lost in the rain, even when you didn't see a single other soul who was sharing the same experience. I say "faith in the goal" because, when you arrive in Canterbury, St. Thomas Becket isn't even there. Henry VIII destroyed his shrine and his remains, and the church is no longer Catholic, so you are visiting a place that is a shell of its former glory, its martyred saint no longer in residence. Of course, his spirit permeates the air, but that, again, requires faith to believe that he lives forever with God.

    After all this writing of the challenge of the pilgrimage, it was one of the most incredible and beautiful experiences of my life, and I am honored that I was granted the opportunity. Below I hope to share some of the sights and experiences with you, especially if you sent me prayer intentions to carry with me. You'll be able to see all the places those intentions traveled.


P.S. - there are many names given to the routes over the years, such as The Old Road, Canterbury Way, or Pilgrims' Way. The route I took is sometimes called "Becket Way", so that's what I named my pilgrimage.

Before the Walk - London

(click photos to enlarge)


    My first stop after checking into my hotel was a walk to the James J. Fox cigar store to buy a cigar for when I finished the route. It has long been the shop frequented by royalty and government officials, and was Sir Winston Churchill's cigar shop of choice for about 60 years. In the basement they have a small museum, including the leather chair Winston sat in while placing his orders.


    Doing my best "jet-lagged Winston Churchill" impression in his chair with my end-of-route cigar.


    I offered the pilgrimage to the first chapel of Our Lady that I encountered - Church of the Immaculate Conception, Mayfair (neighborhood in London)


    One of the famed Horse Guards. They had no idea at this time that, in less than a week, they would be called upon after Her Majesty's death to serve their nation in noble, sombre ways.


    At Trafalgar Square, I was spending time taking photographs of the famed statue of Admiral Nelson atop his column. In the distance, I heard the shouts and drums of an approaching march. It turns out the main March for Life in London was coming into the Square, so I was able to attend a providentially arranged pro-life march.


    Of course, a shot of Big Ben. Near this shot, which was outside a tube station, I heard a little girl scream, "There's Big Ben!! We're in London!!"


 St. Pancras Old Church. It is perhaps the oldest church in England.


The interior of St. Pancras Old Church (with your intentions).

Day 1 - London to Belvedere (East London) - 17.6 miles

(click photos to enlarge)

    The Becket Way traditionally starts from Southwark (pronounced "suh-thurk") Cathedral on the southern side of the Thames, just across London Bridge. The Shard skyscraper is in the background, and you can see Tower Bridge off in the distance.

    The middle of London Bridge. Until 1729, it was the only bridge in the London area across the Thames. Traffic was unorganized and so jammed up that, in the 1600s, a decision was made that traffic must stay to the left - a traffic rule that still holds on British and British-influenced lands to this day.

    The bridge figures prominently as the location where the heads of traitors were displayed, including the head of St. Thomas More.

Southwark Cathedral

Interior of Southwark Cathedral, facing the sanctuary/altar.

    Southwark Cathedral, beginning of the pilgrimage proper. Inside the bag with the heart and cross are holy cards of St. Thomas Becket. I'm carrying a rosary for a friend, and the black chotki belongs to me.

What's a pilgrimage walk without a Starting Selfie?

    Point Hill in Greenwich. In the far distance, hidden in the branches on the righthand side of the bush, you can barely make out The Shard skyscraper near my starting point. The memorial on the left is one of many I will see on the route, as Kent was the major location of the Battle of Britain. I even heard some Spitfires fly overhead one day, as a local airport has several available for tourist flights.

    The coat that Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson was wearing when he died on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (Maritime Museum, Greenwich). The white spot on the shoulder is where the bullet struck him. I have long found Nelson to be a fascinating man; his last words were, "Thank God I have done my duty," which he repeated until he could no longer speak. The Battle of Trafalgar effectively ended the threat of an invasion of England by Napoleon.

    The first stile on my route. Stiles are a way for people to gain access to a field or restricted pathway without allowing access to animals. I think these kinds of stiles on pathways are more for preventing easy access to bikes and horses.

    Lesnes Abbey (pronounced "less-ness"). This ancient abbey in East London was founded by Richard de Luci, Chief Justiciar of England, in 1178, possibly in penance for his role in the murder of St. Thomas Becket. The abbey was also well-known to St. Thomas More.

The path onwards from the ruins of Lesnes Abbey.

If you're going to paint your pub, really go for it.

Click For Day 2