St Swithun’s Way runs between Winchester, the capital of Saxon England, and historic Farnham. Whilst not tracing the original route of the Pilgrim’s Way, as much of this is now the busy A31, St Swithun’s Way follows some of the county’s best countryside paths. Starting at Winchester Cathedral, the route weaves its way east through the picturesque Itchen Valley, taking in several pretty and unspoilt Hampshire villages, enabling the walker to visit numerous churches with pilgrimage connections and take a well-earned rest in welcoming country pubs.
Continuing northeast, it passes the attractive market towns of Alresford and Alton, as well as Chawton, the home of Jane Austen. Opportunities also abound for the walker to combine a trip with a ride on the Watercress Line, Hampshire’s steam railway which runs through this section of countryside. Following the path of the River Wey, the route reaches Farnham in Surrey, a town with strong links with Winchester. Here, the route continues to Canterbury as the North Downs Way National Trail.
Winchester was an important city throughout the mediaeval period, a centre of royal and ecclesiastical power. With the shrine to St Swithun and the tomb of Alfred the Great, Winchester was also the principal place of pilgrimage in England, with pilgrimage routes from all over the country converging on the city. However, following the death of Thomas a Beckett in 1170, his shrine at Canterbury became more important, attracting pilgrims from across Europe; those who travelled from the south coast would have wanted to visit both of these shrines if possible.
The 112 miles between Winchester and Canterbury consequently became probably the most important pilgrimage route in the country. There is no direct evidence to tell us this route, but, by following the ancient route to Farnham and linking places associated with pilgrims and travellers, we can trace the course which most pilgrims must have followed. It is possible to see the landscape through which they travelled, the settlements they passed and the churches which they may have visited.
We know of the economic prosperity which they could bring to those communities which provided provisions and shelter. We can suppose the dangers and discomforts which they suffered, particularly when we learn of the robbers who lay in wait in some places. We can also imagine the colour of the scene, the number of pilgrims, the wide range of languages spoken, the joy of their spiritual journey and the companionship which would have arisen among those sharing a journey.
St Swithun was born in Winchester, the capital of Wessex, in about 800. He had entered this country’s history at an extremely turbulent time as it endured repeated attacks from continental invaders. After ordination, Swithun served in the royal household and became an important advisor to the king. In recognition of his great abilities, he was made the seventeenth Bishop of Winchester, in 852, and subsequently became renowned for rebuilding Winchester’s East Gate bridge over the River Itchen. It was while visiting the workmen on the bridge that Swithun came upon a poor woman who had dropped and broken a basket of eggs. Legend states that he restored the broken eggs to whole – a miracle for which he became famed. Tradition has also associated Swithun with a young Alfred – he may have taken the boy on pilgrimages to Rome.
Swithun died in 862 and was buried in a simple grave outside the west door of the Saxon cathedral – located north of the present Norman cathedral. Popularity ensured that Swithun became a saint, although there was no decree from Rome. More and more miracles began to be associated with him, and the cult of St Swithun grew rapidly. However, it was following the translation (removal) of his bones on 15 July 971 to a new location in the cathedral that the real escalation in his popularity took place. Legend has it that the humble Swithun generated a violent storm on this day to show his disapproval at being moved to a more elaborate shrine. 15 July has become St Swithun’s Day and provided us with the well-known poem:
St Swithun’s Day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain:
St Swithun’s Day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.
Pilgrims began to pay homage to the saint in increasing numbers, a tradition which remained undisturbed, even though St Swithun’s remains, along with those of other kings, queens and bishops, were transferred from the Saxon to the Norman cathedral in 1093.
St Swithun’s Way waymarks are based on the shell, a common symbol of pilgrimage, and two croziers, representing St Swithun and St Thomas à Beckett.
You can obtain a walker's pack detailing all of the route, local features and history, tourist information and watering holes to ease the journey, price £2.99. Send a cheque payable to Hampshire County Council to the Countryside Service, Castle Avenue, Winchester SO23 8UL.
North Downs Way National Trail
St Swithun’s Way can be extended to Canterbury, the birthplace of English Christianity, by using the North Downs Way National Trail which starts at Farnham railway station. This trail allows the walker to take a fully waymarked route, offering an option for completing sections of the Pilgrim’s Way, through attractive Surrey and Kent downland and the towns of Dorking, Redhill, Sevenoaks and Maidstone, plus the cities of Guildford and Rochester.
Hampshire Millennium Pilgrims’ Trail
Launched in 1999, the Hampshire Millennium Pilgrims’ Trail runs between Winchester and Portsmouth, through Bishop’s Waltham. It forms part of a long-distance route – St Michael’s Way – between Winchester and Mont St Michel in Normandy. The Trail takes you on a journey, letting you discover the mediaeval pilgrim's experience and the relics of the landscape which they and their society left behind.