Cathedral to Coast: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage in The Garden of England

The eastern end of the North Downs Way sees an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty collide with one of England’s most magnificent manmade sites. The trail – which merges with the venerable Pilgrim’s Way in this region – runs right through the heart of Canterbury, where Britain’s oldest cathedral soars heavenward from the downs. Countless pilgrims have walked here over the centuries in order to visit Thomas Becket’s holy shrine. You are in good company.

But Canterbury isn’t only an ending. It’s a beginning: the epic Via Francigena, which runs all the way to Rome, starts here. This makes the city a great base for exploring in all directions, and in all ways. You can roam the rolling, rural countryside on foot, follow pilgrim footsteps towards the coast, cycle quiet lanes and byways, take boat trips along leafy rivers and refuel on excellent dishes created from the abundant produce of this glorious ‘Garden of England’.

Tour Overview

The icons below highlight the distance, difficulty and theme of this itinerary.

Days

1-4

Distance

Walks from 11km to 17km

Difficulty

Moderate

Landascape

Rolling Countryside / Connecting Villages & Towns / City Exploring / By Water

Theme

History / Food & Drink / Pilgrimage / Coastal

Activities & Experiences

Walking / Cycling / Water Fun / Heritage / Hands On

Cathedral to Coast: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage in The Garden of England

Here’s everything you need to help you plan your very own walking, cycling and exploring break in Kent. Click on the blue arrow tabs below for more information. To save this itinerary to view later, use the Save to My Rucksack button at the top of the page.

Itinerary

This four-day break delves into the ancient city of Canterbury (just an hour by train from London) and its surrounding countryside and coast. Explore on foot and by bike, learn how the Pilgrim’s Way was created and sample delicious local food and drinks.

Day 1 To Canterbury

With a backstory covering 2,000 years – from Roman settlement to Saxon glory, Norman invasion to medieval pilgrimage – Canterbury deserves a day. Its compact centre, part-embraced by ancient walls, is a maze of medieval streets, dominated by the Cathedral, Mother Church of the Church of England. Take a guided tour to better appreciate its crypt and stained glass, and to hear the macabre tale recounted as you stand on the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, kickstarting the craze for pilgrimage.

There’s more to the city, though, no matter what your preferences. Why not wander the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, hop in a punt for a river-level view or take a guided walking tour on an eclectic theme – maybe Tudors, wartime or plague? You could learn how to bake sourdough and take the perfect photo. Or you could simply hole up in a proper old pub – like the Thomas Tallis Alehouse, with its selection of 30 beers – and sink into the city that way.

Overnight in Canterbury. There are many options – see Accommodation, left.

Day 2 Chilham: Into England’s Garden

It’s only ten minutes by train from Canterbury to Chilham. This is picture-book Kent: sitting high above the valley of the River Stour, nestled in the North Downs, this winsome village has a square flanked by timber-framed houses, a 16th-century church, even a Norman castle. Many period dramas have been filmed here.

Stroll around, maybe stopping for cake at Shelley’s Tea Rooms or a hearty pub lunch – both the White Horse and the Woolpack have been serving hungry travellers for over 500 years.

This should fuel you for the afternoon, following the North Downs Way back to Canterbury, in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims. The trail is a marvellous mix, passing woods, orchards, hop gardens and oasthouses as well as an Iron Age hill fort where Caesar defeated the British and a village referred to in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Back in Canterbury, there might be time for afternoon tea at quintessentially British Tiny Tim’s Tearoom. Or, if all those hops made you thirsty, opt for the Foundry Brew Pub, where you can learn about the beers and spirits made on site before tasting a few.

Overnight in Canterbury or Chilham. There are many options – see Accommodation, left.

 

Day 3 Whitstable: To The Coast

Today, make a bid for the sea. And the best way to do that is by bike, via the Crab & Winkle Way. This almost traffic-free route is named for the old rail line that once connected Canterbury and the pretty port of Whitstable – opened in 1830, it became the first regular steam passenger railway in the world. Now, a fraction of its old trackbed has been used to create this lovely cycle path, which cuts through the ancient woodland of Blean.

Once in Whitstable, stroll the seafront to the working harbour to pick up some of its famed fresh seafood – oysters have been farmed here since Roman times, and are still celebrated at the annual Oyster Festival (last two weeks of July). Wheelers Oyster Bar was founded in 1856 and remains one of the best places to slurp a mollusc or two. Having eaten your fill, amble Whitstable’s boho-chic streets, then return to Canterbury, either by bike or by train.

Overnight in Canterbury or Whitstable. There are many options – see Accommodation, left.

Day 4 Along the Via Francigena

End your North Downs adventure by embarking on the first steps of an epic journey. The Via Francigena, the historic pilgrimage to Rome, begins at Canterbury Cathedral and heads south-east to Dover’s White Cliffs, where devotees would have sailed for France.

Today, walk the section from Canterbury to Shepherdswell. Strike out across classic Kent fields, past orchards and oasthouses, and via the gates of Higham Park (worth a detour for its Italianate gardens and collection of classic cars). After a while, little Shepherdswell hoves into view. Here, raise a real ale in the Tipsy Gardener micropub. Then take a short ride on the East Kent Railway heritage line, which rumbles scenically to Eythorne and back, before returning to Canterbury by more modern train.

Alternatively, if you’re feeling especially fit, or if you trace the Via Francigena by bike, you could follow the route all the way to Dover, a distance of around 30km. This is the grand finale of the North Downs Way, where the trail seeps into the waves. Trains run back to Canterbury from here.

Overnight in Canterbury or Shepherdswell. There are many options – see Accommodation, left.

 

Accommodation

Canterbury and the Kent coast have a variety of options, from hotels and hostels to family-run B&Bs. Some serve food too.

Canterbury
  • 7 Longport – Self-catering and B&B, next to St Augustine’s Abbey on the Via Francigena.
  • Abbots Barton – Well-appointed Best Western hotel.
  • Abode Canterbury – Smart hotel within the old city walls.
  • Cathedral Lodge – Within the Cathedral precinct; views of the Cathedral from the windows.
  • Falstaff Hotel – Providing hospitality to travellers for more than 600 years; located on the Pilgrim’s Way, near the Cathedral.
  • House of Agnes – Characterful rooms in a 15th-century house; central location.
  • Kipps Hostel – Independent hostel in an old townhouse.
  • Broome Park, near Canterbury – High-end resort hotel with golf and leisure facilities.
  • Howfield Manor, near Canterbury – Fifteen-room hotel; some suites have four-posters.
  • Great Field Farm B&B, near Canterbury – B&B and self-catering accommodation in the Kent Downs.
Beyond
  • The Dog, Wingham – Individually styled rooms at an award-winning gastropub.
  • Marine Hotel, Whitstable – Fresh-feeling rooms, many with sea views; good restaurant.
  • The Oast B&B, Shepherdswell – Well-equipped rooms; on-site micropub.
  • Woolpack Inn, Chilham – Lovely rooms in a historic pub; home-cooked food served.

 

Food & Drink

Many of the pubs and hotels listed under the Accommodation section also offer food, from classics to fine dining. Additionally, seek out some of the region’s characterful cafes.

Canterbury
  • The Foundry Brew Pub – Home of the Canterbury Brewers and Distillers; on-site tasting tours.
  • The Goods Shed – Hosts a farmers’ market, food hall and restaurant showcasing the best Kent produce.
  • Thomas Tallis Alehouse – Fabulously quirky spot on Northgate, a five-minute stroll from the Cathedral.
Beyond

Activities

There’s plenty of adventure potential in Kent, as well as historic paths to follow.

Walks
  • North Downs Way, Chilham to Canterbury, 11.5km – Pilgrims’ route to the Cathedral, via woods and orchards.
  • Via Francigena, Canterbury to Shepherdswell, 17km. First stage of the pilgrimage to Rome; Shepherdswell to Dover is an additional 14km.
Other
  • Kent Cycle Hire – Bike hire; pick up and drop off available between its three cycle hubs (Canterbury, Whitstable, Herne Bay).
  • Crab & Winkle Way, Canterbury to Whitstable, 13km – Cycle path along parts of the old railway line.
  • Via Francigena Cycle, Canterbury to Dover, 31km – First stage of the pilgrimage to Rome.
  • Canterbury Baking School – Range of courses, including artisan bread-making, sourdough, pasta and vegetarian cooking; suitable for all levels.

For further walking inspiration visit The Outdoor Guide.

Experiences

From baking classes and beer tastings to ‘Spooky Canterbury’ boat tours, there are many different ways to experience Kent and the North Downs.

Canterbury
Beyond
  • East Kent Railway, Shepherdswell – Volunteer-run heritage line preserving the last remaining part of the Kent Coalfields trains; runs from Shepherdswell to Eythorne.
  • The Blean – Wildlife safaris at Kent Wildlife Trust, which is reintroducing bison to Kent.

 

Cycling

Kent and the North Downs is wonderful cycling country. Kent Cycle Hire offers bike hire; pick up and drop off available between its three cycle hubs (Canterbury, Whitstable, Herne Bay).

Coastal England

Whitstable and the Kent Coast will be part of the England Coast Path.

For further coastal walks visit England’s Coast.

Travel

Canterbury is well served by public transport; Southeastern trains from London St Pancras takes under an hour. Trains also connect other towns on this itinerary.

Advice

Check out Visit Canterbury’s excellent website, which contains a range of recommendations, reviews and news about places to visit in the area #OurCanterburyTales.

We advise that you check opening times and booking restrictions before travelling.

Please check out these links for latest advice when in the countryside

Countryside Code

COVID-19 Guidance

Interactive Map

Click here to access the interactive map

Maps, Guidebooks & Merchandise

The official guidebook and map for the Trail are available from the National Trails Shop along with a wide range of gifts and other merchandise.