Recent research carried out by Diarmaid Walshe of the University of Sussex shows that the trackway know as the Pilgrims Way and believed to date to the medieval era has been misnamed and is in fact of an Iron Age origin.
The Pilgrims Way, is an ancient track that runs across southern England from Winchester in the west, to Canterbury in the east and has become popularly known as the ‘Pilgrims’ Way’.
The track way is 120 miles (192 km) in length and two thirds of the old track way can still be identifiable today. The name Pilgrims Way comes from the tradition that it was the main route taken by pilgrims to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas a Becket. However research carried out by Diarmaid Walshe of the University of Sussex using the study of pre 1900 maps, shows that this name did not come into use until after 1860. Additionaly archaeological excavations and information from the portable antiquity scheme (PAS) shows that the majorty of finds and sites along ther toute can be dated to the Iron Age . While the name “Pilgrimas Way” might have modern foundations the track way itself has its origins in the mist of the past.
The track way is both a ridge walk and a terrace-way as it followed the North Downs escarpment at approximately 100 meters above sea level. For the most part the route keeps to the lower southern slopes, away from the exposed ridge of the Downs and just above the woods of the Weald and the damp, heavy clay found on the lower ground.
Previous theories suggested that the earliest track way was used by man to hunt wild animals and used the height to find their prey”. However Walshe believes this is a simplistic approach and says “When we look at the development of the Pilgrims way we need to consider the economic reasons why this east-west route developed”
His research considers that a key element of this was the development of the hinterland around Dover into a key main entry point for trade into Southern England a fact supported by recent excavations on a Roman Villa site in Folkestone. These excavations have identified an important Iron Age trading site that would have been linked to this route way. Additionally the route would have acted as a link between this site, the continent and the mineral rich areas of western Britain.
Walshe states “A driving force in the development of the Pilgrims way was as a major trading artery. The principal supplies of minerals such as tin, lead and iron were to be found in the west of the country in places like Devon, Cornwall and parts of Wales. While at the opposite end in southern England the best-cultivated land was to be found. This resulted in natural trade routes developed between the west and east of southern England using the chalk slopes of the North Downs as natural route ways. These high trackways would have provided the best passable route especially in the winter months when the lower paths would have become impassable”.
It’s safe to say that by the Iron Age, between 500 and 450 BC, there is ample evidence to suggest that the Pilgrims Way had become a vital trade route. An indication of the main trade routes is given by the finds of coins belonging to this period in recent years by metal detectors. The large amounts of coins that have been found as recorded by the PAS were either on the line of the Pilgrims Way, near the Thanet coast, or along the banks of the Thames. Walshe believes the one of the reason for the development and expansion of the trackways was due to its geography. The North Downs escarpment on which the Pilgrims way follows was an obvious line for a track way and took advantage of the contours and avoided the sticky, heavy Gault clay especially in winter months.
Walshe also believes that the age of the Pilgrims Way has been overestimated and based on the evidence which he has uncovered dates the trackway to either the Late or Early Iron Age. He points out that evidence for the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, is very lacking and the majority of the finds and archaeological sites along the route are dated to the Iron Age era. This belief is supported by interrogation of the HERs, PAS and excavation reports in the vicinity of the track way that shows very little activity before the early Iron Age.
The site of a Late Iron Age fort reinforces this belief and provides strong evidence as to the age of the track way, or at least narrow down the time frame for its use. Bigbury Camp outside Canterbury has a stretch of the Pilgrims Way running through it. The arrangement of the defenses around the two entrances strongly suggests that the fort was constructed after the road was built. Walshe points out that if the road had been constructed through an existing fort it would not have defended entrances; in addition it is rare for a contemporary road to be run through an existing hill fort for military and defensive reason.
Recent excavations by Walshe at the Roman settlement of Frog Farm, near Otford in Kent, which lies directly on the Pilgrims way, uncovered a pottery assemblage that shows an active trade route was running from Gaul down to the major Roman pottery production region of the New Forest and Poole Harbor in the Roman. Additional these excavations have also uncovered Pottery Kilns which combined with the tracking of there output shows that the trackway was been used to move the finished pottery including the local Patch Grove wares to markets along its length.
Walshe states ”My investigations show overwhelming evidence for heavy use of the Pilgrim Way in the Iron Age and the Roman period. Recent work on one small part of the route has identified four new Roman Villas, confirmed the existence of a large rural settlement, identified a pottery production area, one large Roman cemetery and a possible Temple site. The position of these new sites along with the other known Roman remains along other parts of its path and the new evidence from the PAS, shows that it was a significant track way during the Roman era.
He adds “The tradition that it was a medieval pilgrim’s road only forms a tiny part of the long and varied history of a route that was one of the major trade highways of Iron Age and Roman Britain”.
Header Image Credit : Ethan Doyle White