A Pilgrimage

Starting the 'Via Francigena', a pilgrimage route to Rome, at Canterbury Cathedral!

Day two was long and eventful, with a short stretch down to the Thames and the Tilbury ferry, followed by a very long one through Rochester and Canterbury to Dover.

Packed up to go on day two. Packing, repacking and fixing everything to the bike takes an outrageous amount of time

Arriving at what Google maps marked as the ferry port in Tilbury, I found not a soul there. It was also starting to rain. I was concerned I had come to the wrong place, or that the ferry wasn't running as advertised... surely there should be someone waiting at the last crossing point on the Thames!?

After some confused wandering around, a car pulled round the corner and parked up, and a gruff occupant assured me that there definitely was a boat to catch. A few minutes later, other passengers showed up, mostly workmen returning from a lunchbreak; and soon enough, a little boat cast off from the south bank and chugged slowly but surely over the grey waters to meet me. 

 A welcome sight. 

It's a modest little craft, but at the port you can read that the Tilbury crossing has some real history. Some ferry boat or other has been taking passengers here for hundreds of years, and it was the first place that the famous HMS Windrush, carrying a thousand immigrants from the West Indies, stopped in Britain. 

Crossing over.

On the other side it was time to put on rain gear and get moving again! 

If I'm not cold or worried about vulnerable electronics, I usually love rain: it's nature slapping you in the face to remind you that it's there, that you're alive, and that a starkly beautiful world exists beyond your normal centrally-heated box. But on a wobbly bike packed up with everything you need to survive in foreign countries for three months, it does make things more complicated!

Reaching Rochester, I was wet and bedraggled, but greeted by views of a stonking medieval castle and lovely old streets lined by bunting and Tudor buildings. I also had a chance meeting with Paul, a postman, who saw my laden bike and stopped to regale me with tales of his own cycling career, in which he once rode, over 36 sleepless hours, from Rochester to Land's End, about 300 miles. What a man! 75 to Dover was more than enough for me. 

Paul also demonstrated impressive rain resistance

Exiting Rochester, however, was the worst cycling yet: it featured scary roads, drivers clearly both unused to and displeased by the presence of a cyclist, and steep hills through dense traffic, all in continuous drizzle. Kent as a whole was really difficult work, with no real route alternatives to busy main roads. With rain in my face and lorries passing by a little too close, it was unpleasant and at times even frightening. 

20 miles before Dover, I came upon the most important stop of the day: Canterbury Cathedral. 

The Via Francigena ('Road from France') pilgrimage route has existed for well over a thousand years and starts right here. It was walked by pilgrims wanting to visit Rome, but also those going on yet further to the Holy Land: beyond Rome, you would follow the Appian Way to ports in south Italy, where ships would depart for the Levant. 

I couldn't find anything much about traditions for starting the route. I was half-expecting to be required kiss a statue of an old bloke's feet or mutter some latin while standing on my head under the cathedral gates; you know, something ancient, traditional and bizarre. Was actually a little dissappointed! But I touched the stone of the Cathedral, at least; that's got to count, right? 

I was there, anyway, and I started my own pilgrimage on the Via Francigena. 

Also took the opportunity to visit Geoffrey Chaucer, of the Canterbury Tales, while I was there. He was rather impressed by my plans and even gave me a copy of his Tales to read in the dull moments. Thanks, Geoff.

With night falling, the last part of the day down to the Dover was the most challenging of all. 

At one point, with no alternative but a suicidal motorway, my route took me down a bridle path just level enough to ride, my bike lights piercing only a few metres into the dark field. I met stinging nettles, thick bushes growing over the path, delighted to share the day's collected rain with me, and the final insult of a locked gate barring the end. Surely a marked public bridleway should not be obstructed? Or perhaps I took a wrong turning in the dark; either way, I was not going back, and there was nothing for it but to lift my 40kg bike up, and over. After struggle and strain, anger and mud, I brought my poor long-suffering machine down as gently as I could on the other side, and covered the last few miles to the sea.

What I describe is a small thing, and might have been avoided with better planning - but I think that part of the value of a journey like this is for things not to go smoothly, and to find ways to overcome the problems you face. Life is at times so full of difficulty, frustration and sadness, but in this moment, in this small way, there was no stopping me. 

My beautifully-named hostel by the ferry port, with white cliffs just visible behind.


Riding 5,000km across Europe alone and unsupported will be a wonderful experience, but also at times very tough, and very lonely. I really believe in the causes I have chosen; if you'd like to support me by making a donation, it will help to spur me on my way! Visit my website at from-england-to-istanbul.co.uk


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