The long-forgotten 150-mile trail from Southampton was found on a map dating from circa 1360.
Will Parsons, a co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, noticed a fine red line linking the two cities on the Gough Map, said to be the first accurate representation of the British Isles.
Dubbed ‘The Old Way’ by the Trust, it meanders through Havant, Chichester, Arundel, Bramber, Lewes, Boreham Street, Winchelsea, Rye and Appledore before arriving at Canterbury, with its cathedral the focus of pilgrims.
The charity plans to relaunch the pilgrimage route by 2020, which will be the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in the cathedral.
“It is the oldest direct evidence of an ancient pilgrimage route that, I think, we have in the UK,” Mr Parsons tole The Church Times. “With increased leisure time, people are seeking new ways to enjoy themselves, and walking is a healthy and interesting way of doing this.
“The story of Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral, with its murder, miracles, and pilgrimages, was a major event in British history. Re-establishing the Old Way as an open pilgrimage route will help people reconnect with this heritage.”
The Gough Map, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, dates from the middle of the 14th century. It is named after the 18th-century antiquarian Richard Gough, who donated it to the library. Often described as Britain’s first road atlas, it shows other ancient cross-country routes.
Mr Parsons said: “If we bear in mind that Canterbury was the most popular pilgrimage destination in Britain, with especial importance for European pilgrims, then the fact that the Gough route terminates at Canterbury, without continuing to Dover, implies that this was not a route for trade or military purposes, but a route for pilgrimage, because Canterbury’s significance has always been predominantly spiritual.
“As for Southampton, for many thousands of years this town was a main port of entry to England. King Henry II made his famous ‘Sorry about killing Thomas Becket’ pilgrimage to Canterbury from Southampton, and the ancient pilgrim hostel in Southampton Old Town was founded to shelter pilgrims to St Thomas of Canterbury.”
The Trust is now working to create a series of ‘sleep-over points’ along the Old Way’s meandering course through the South Downs and the Weald of Kent.
Pilgrimage was outlawed by King Henry VIII in 1538 during The Reformation. Once a route ceased to be walked, and when the infrastructure of monastic houses along the way to accommodate pilgrims was dismantled, the old pathways simply faded, became overgrown and were forgotten.