top of page
  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

The road to the Via Francigena

2019: One morning I woke up from my bed, in my home in Stevenage which lies 50km north of London, I decided to head down to the local corner shop to buy a newspaper. A few minutes later as I approached the shop I decided that I will walk past the shop and walk to the Vatican city instead, around 2000 km away.

Don’t worry guys, that is how this hike did not start. I love a good hike but haven’t done anything major before. I learnt a little bit about the Pilgrim’s way when I was a child in school but never gave it any thought. Then recently I was reading up on the route and the name ‘Via Francigena’ cropped up. After researching the route, the basic understandings and the story behind the Via Francigena, I knew I would love to do this hike. I have to admit, I am not a religious person but not a full blown atheist either. Doing the route would probably give me a better understanding on why people do this. At the same time I hope to learn about the history of the route but also learn about the places I will go through and see new sights. I am pretty sure 95% of the route I never touched before. There are also plenty of local beers, wines and champagne on the way.

Via Francigena, Stevenage
At the start – outside my house in Stevenage, UK – April 2019

The route officially starts at Canterbury Cathedral in the county of Kent, UK and heads to Dover before going across the English Channel (La Manche) to Calais before heading south-east to Arras, Laon, Reims and Besancon in France, before heading into Switzerland and passing the beautiful Lac Lemon (Lake Geneva) and climbing up the Saint Bernard Pass before descending into Italy, passing Aosta, Tuscany region, Roma before arriving at the Pope’s front door at the Vatican City. In the olden days, to get to Canterbury Cathedral, pilgrims would have to walk there (unless they found a donkey or a horse to ride on, no trains in those days). On this note I have decided to walk to Canterbury Cathedral then pick up the trail from there. I will be doing this in stages as to be honest, I can’t afford to take three to four months off to complete the route. There is no time scale to do this in but I am eager to complete this sooner than later. I left my home in Stevenage, Hertfordshire on 19th April 2019 to complete the first leg of the journey to Canterbury. How many stages will it take me? Who knows? All I can say is I am very excited to do this journey, take it all in, to learn, to meet new people and just embrace it. As I write my personal diary I will hope to learn and share something new with you about the Via Francigena.   

Via Francigena, Stevenage
Heading out of Stevenage

April 18th 2019 – Stevenage to Hertford - the start of my preVia Francigena hike

It was a low key start, no one came out to see me go off on another crazy adventure. Just my wife Olga as she took a photo of me outside our house. My daughter, Amelie (Kiddo) was relaxing inside as she recovers from the chickenpox. Walking away from the house, every step I take will be a step closer to the Vatican City. Going through the housing estates of Chells and Popular in the United Kingdom’s first ‘new town’ which was built after the Second World War, there was nothing really special to note. No religious sites, really nothing to note. I only saw one lady out with her dog and a man washing his car on the street. Before I knew it, I was out of Stevenage and heading into the East Hertfordshire countryside.

It was a low key start, no one came out to see me go off on another crazy adventure. Just my wife Olga as she took a photo of me outside our house. My daughter, Amelie (Kiddo) was relaxing inside as she recovers from the chickenpox. Walking away from the house, every step I take will be a step closer to the Vatican City. Going through the housing estates of Chells and Popular in the United Kingdom’s first ‘new town’ which was built after the Second World War, there was nothing really special to note. No religious sites, really nothing to note. I only saw one lady out with her dog and a man washing his car on the street. Before I knew it, I was out of Stevenage and heading into the East Hertfordshire countryside.

As it was the day before the Easter weekend break and as I left at breakfast time, I expected the country lanes to be a little bit busier as villagers would drive into the town for their jobs. There was nothing. The lanes were clear. I walked through the village of Aston which is located on a ridge between Stevenage and the Beane Valley (to which the River Beane flows at the bottom of the valley and I have happy memories here of running up and down the hills when I did marathon training). I was quite lucky with the weather this Spring morning, the sun was out and the temperature rose quite quickly. Not even an hour into the walk I already took off my jumper.

The otherside of the valley I took the road towards Watton-at-Stone, the halfway point of today's leg. A village with 2,000 people living here. Beautiful houses lie on the banks of the River Beane and there is a nice pretty church at the southern end of the High Street with a war memorial to add. Famous people living here or used to live here are boxing promoter Frank Warren and Rupert Grint who was the ginger hair kid in the Harry Potter film series.

I took the main road away from the area towards Hertford (the A119) and passed through the village of Stapleford. Nothing much goes on here in this sleepy village which also lies on the River Beane. As you can probably gather by now I am following the River Beane from Aston to where it joins up with the River Lea in Hertford. Learning about the history of the area there were many watermills along this river, mainly in Hertford and Walkern area which are nearby to which I didn’t see any. Some of you might also know I also work in the railway industry and sometimes I travel along this branch line which goes through Stapleford (the line from Stevenage to Alexandra Palace in North London via Hertford and Enfield) and it was surprising to know that there was a train station located here in Stapleford in the 1920’s and 1930’s but closed due to the many accidents and incidents occurring here. Not quite sure what was going on but the station never reopened.

Via Francigena, Hertfordshire
Bullsmill Lane, Stapleford

Heading off the main road, I did a circular walk around the Waterford Heath Nature Park which has great views over the Beane Valley to the west and great walking trails. It wasn’t too long before I was walking through the village of Bengeo. I wasn’t here too long but apart from being the village ‘connected’ to Hertford, the village is known for George Ezra who is a pop singer who had a number one song here in the UK with ‘Shotgun’. He was brought up in the village and attended school here. Also the author for the Biggles series, Captain James W. E. Jones was born here.

Down the hill into the centre of Hertford was a quick venture and I finished my walk outside the Old Library on St Andrew Street and Mill Bridge. This will be the point where I start the next leg. From here I walked along the River Beane westwards to Hertford North train station where I took the train to London for the railway job. I thought the first day of walking was great, it was swift, not too testing and was surprised to do the distance in three hours.   

Miles : 10.5. KM: 16.9. Time: 03-01-14. Average pace (im mph): 3.5, kcal burnt: 1343.

Via Francigena, Day One.

April 20th 2019 – Hertford to Waltham Cross

It's Easter Saturday, the weather was already warming up as I woke up early at my home in Stevenage so thoughts, bugger it, I will do stage two of my walk to Canterbury Cathedral. A short train journey to Hertford and I started the walk, ninety minutes after waking up. Within twenty seconds after starting, a had a great view of the River Lea and came across a statue of Samuel Stone was born in the Hertfordshire county town in 1603. Educated at Cambridge, ordained in Peterborough and became a curate in Essex, he eventually sailed across the Atlantic on a ship called the Griffin with another passenger called Thomas Hooker. They arrived in Boston, USA in September 1633 and a few weeks afterwards Stone became a teacher of the Cambridge Church under Hooker who was the preacher. Eventually Stone and Hooker led their congregation from the town of New Towne (which is now called Cambridge, located in Massachusetts) and established a new colony at a Dutch Fort and trading post, making peace with the local Indians and renaming the Dutch town Saujiog to Hartford, named after Stone’s birthplace Hertford. Stone and Hooker became the town’s founding fathers which is located in the state of Connecticut.

Leaving the town in which British rock band Deep Purple were formed it was uphill along the main road (A414) before heading down the old London Road going through the village of Hertford Heath. I have to admit I found this part of the walk boring, just walking on a pavement along a country lane for a couple of miles. It was quick but very boring. Eventually at the bottom of the hill (going underneath the A10, the main A road between London and Cambridge), it was time to hit the town of Hoddesdon.

I am also not a great fan of all these small towns that emerged into one along the A10 stretch, Hoddesdon, Broxbourne and Cheshunt. Whenever I come through here by car or bike, it’s always traffic. However, today I got to see some of the different sides of these towns and went through some of the housing estates for a couple of miles and wowza, some of these houses must be nearly in the million pound mark when it comes to selling them! I also walked past Barclay Park (next to Hoddesdon FC, a non-league football club) where a Parkrun took place. I did the course a couple of times a few years ago but I didn’t plan to walk past the start line when the Parkrun started. If only I had my barcode (which records the times etc), I would have done the 5km run during the walk also. Damn it!

Cutting across town I eventually landed up on the Lea Valley Canal. I have done this path from Hertford all the way down to the River Thames area many times, cycling it and doing some marathon training in the summer months over the years. I also used this path from Waltham Cross to Stratford as part of my cycle ride from Stevenage to Amsterdam back in 2015. I love this path, it’s great, there’s nature, there’s no main roads nearby (but occasionally the sound of trains rolling pass nearby can be heard), there’s the sound of birds, the sight of barge’s going up and down the water and of course, it’s flat and easy to walk, run and cycle on.

I did about four miles along the river from Broxbourne to Waltham Cross passing Cheshunt and I have to admit, despite it being pleasant and plenty of ducks to look at, it was pretty uneventful. I arrived at the junction with the A121 and headed off the canal path towards Waltham Cross train station and got the train to central London from there. Nearly ten miles covered today, feeling good and can’t wait for stage three of my prequel walk to Canterbury Cathedral. Every step closer takes me to the start of the Via Francigena.

Miles : 9.72. KM: 15.64. Time: 02-48-24. Average pace (im mph): 3.5, kcal burnt: 1501.

Via Francigena - day 2

Day Three – Waltham Cross to Stratford

This part of the walk to Canterbury Cathedral from Stevenage is probably the quickest and straightforward. Starting off at Waltham Cross, the route took me south along the Lea Valley canal. The first noticeable marker completed was walking underneath the M25 which also meant I have now left the county of Hertfordshire and into Greater London.

Following the canal I saw horses, ducks (plenty of them), fishermen taking it easy while they waited for their day’s catch, barges going up and down but the further I walked, there were more people walking, running and cycling along the towpath. The weather was warm and sunny and as it was Easter Monday, everyone took advantage of the fantastic conditions for a morning on the canal. Even the few bars and cafes I saw along the route were already packed.

Another marker was walking underneath the A406, otherwise known as the North Circular as I pass places like Enfield, Ponders End and Edmonton. The view didn’t change for the first several miles, the most straight path along a straight canal. However the miles were going quickly and there was no need for a map or a set of instructions today.

Into Tottenham and there was a problem. The path was closed to EVERYONE due to work. I was not impressed as I knew I would have to find a diversion which meant going into the housing estate, but alas, there were diversion signs for pedestrians. I was impressed. This added an extra ten minutes onto my walk but at least I bypassed the affected area with ease and got back onto the paths quicker than first thought. The path then heads out into the Walthamstow marshes, into the open, not much cover from the sun here.

The path then goes into the Hackney area and passes Hackney Marshes, famous for having millions of football pitches. There is also a Parkrun here and I remember getting a fast time here a couple of years ago. The path was now really getting busy with people and to be honest, I wasn’t really enjoying the walk. The closer I got to my destination, it got busier and busier. In fact, when I got to the Olympic Stadium I was just so glad to finish and head off to the nearby underground station. Really hoping for a quieter time on the towpath when I commence the fourth stage of the walk.

Via Francigena - Day Three

April 23rd 2019 – Stratford to Greenwich Peninsula

Today is Saint George’s day in England and still it isn’t a bank holiday. Still I had the whole morning to plough away at getting a few miles done. Starting off from where I left off besides the Lea Valley Canal in Stratford, the first few miles were completed very quickly, passing the Three Mills in Bow before leaving the Lea Valley Canal behind. I headed in a south-westerly direction along the Limehouse Cut, which is a canal which links the Lea Valley Canal and the Limehouse Basin near the River Thames. Here it was rather boring, a straight path walking alongside apartment blocks and the canal. Eventually I left the canals fully behind as I walked through Ropemakers Field to connect with the River Thames.

I finally made it, no, not Canterbury Cathedral but to the River Thames. I have walked from my house to Britain’s well-known river. There was a sense of achievement but the walk today was far from over. The River Thames, how I love you. Well known for two-thirds of drinking water in London’s households comes from this river, the boat chase scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed at Tilbury Docks (on the Essex stretch of the river) but one to know which makes a good pub quiz answer to a question, is that the River Thames has over 200 bridges crossing it, the longest being the Queen Elizabeth bridge connecting Kent and Essex to the east of London. However, for me to get to the ‘south of the river’ to continue my journey to Canterbury, I didn’t need a bridge or a boat. From the Isle of Dogs I used the Greenwich foot tunnel (built in 1902) to get to Greenwich.

Greenwich, lots of history here and now one of the major ‘tourist’ areas of London. Famous for the old navy college, the Cutty Sark ship (which is in a dry boat) and its fancy cobble streets lined with boutique shops, top notch restaurants and bars with its massive park, Greenwich pulls in people from all over. Nearby is the world famous Greenwich Royal Observatory which is where ‘time began’. Eventually the way time was invented (I like that phrase), eventually when it came to time zones being formed etc, it all came from here and GMT (Greenwich Meridian Time) was widely used across the world. On this walk I didn’t visit the observatory, I visited that place years ago but……

…… after heading out of Greenwich to the east and onto the Thames Path, I eventually was walking around the Greenwich Peninsula and came across a monument which marks where the GMT goes through. So there are two places with the GMT markers shown, one at the observatory (which you have to pay to get into the grounds) and this free one next to the river.

The Peninsula wasn’t a great bit of the Thames Path to walk along, through an industrial estate, underneath a digger (see the photo) and when I got to the eastern side of the O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome – you know, that building which looks like a hedgehog), there was more construction to avoid. It was like a dusty wasteland in this heat. Finished off at the southern terminal of the cable car station (which runs over the river to near the Excel Arena on the northern banks).

Miles : 9.2. KM: 14.8. Time: 02-47-49. Average pace (in mph): 3.3, kcal burnt: 1294 – In total since Stevenage: miles: 41.42, KM: 66.65, time: 12-03-42, kcal burnt: 6121.

April 25th 2019: Greenwich Peninsula to Dartford

The longest walk so far as I march onto Canterbury Cathedral and probably one of the quickest but most boring parts of the journey. Starting off early from the cable car station next to the O2 Arena, I stuck to the Thames Path all the way through exotic places like Charlton, Woolwich and Thamesmead. I have to admit I didn’t really enjoy it as the path went through most industrial estates and at the times there were funny smells or a lot of dust in the air.

The few things I noticed on the way where that there are now new ferries operating the Woolwich ferries (I am pretty sure they were old tug boats when I last came to the area), the Thames Barrier (which prevents high waters flooding central London) and the heavy rain when I was walking past the sewage works. It was horrible.

Erith came and that’s the end of the Thames Path for me. Now that I was off the path, the next part of the route was even more horrible as I had to work along a dual carriageway for a few miles, before passing the delightful place of Slade Green before crossing the county border into Kent, which will be my last on this walk. Dartford, well, nothing much happened but when I went for lunch, I found a Wimpy restaurant which I haven’t been to since I was a child and had to have one of their awesome milkshakes.

Miles : 14. KM: 22.53. Time: 04-14-44. Average pace (im mph): 3.3, kcal burnt: 2118. In total since Stevenage: miles: 55.42, KM: 89.08, time: 16-18-26, kcal burnt: 8239.

Via Francigena - Greenwich to Dartford

April 26th 2019: Dartford to Gillingham

After arriving back in Dartford and taking time out quickly to get a haircut, some food for the road followed by a splash and dash, it was time to hit the road. It didn’t take me long to get out of the town and before I knew it, I was walking over the M25. I was just so glad to finally get through the London section of the walk. I have done this area so many times, cycling, walking, running down the Lea Valley Canal and the Thames Path, taking in the pollution from the nearby factories, I can now finally say London is behind me and all its boroughs and it’s time to tackle the Kent countryside.

Within the hour I was walking along a lane called ‘The Roman Villa Road’ which runs from Darenth to South Darenth. At first it was bliss, not a sound of anything apart from the birds chirping in the trees. But halfway down the road the amount of rubbish on the side of the road was appalling. There were washing machines, sofas and even porn magazines littered everywhere. I am really hoping this was not going to be the scene I was going to see all the way to Dover. The Thames Path is kept better than this lane. Shame for an historic road like this.

At South Darenth I headed eastwards and the lanes were much cleaner. This was the first time since Hertfordshire I was starting to enjoy the walk. I like my peace, nature around me and no sod around to break my chain of thought. Through the village of Longfield (non-eventful), then I was at another village called Longfield Hill where it was lunchtime and thought I had a quick pint of lager. It was a much needed break and I really enjoyed my time just sitting on a leather sofa just looking out at the street where there was no sign of life.

After lunch I walked the short distance to Cobham (via Sole Street, taking in the Hop fields). I came across a pub called ‘The Leather Bottle’ in this picturesque village. This pub is known to many as Charles Dickens (a famous British writer) favourite ale house in the village. He used to stay at the inn here quite often and also featured the place in the novel, The Pickwick Papers. A quick half-lager here and it was time to move on.

Not far away was Cobham Wood and I really enjoyed walking along the trails surrounded by nature and roaming cows and bulls. A Mausoleum was passed in an opening. After a while I left the wood, over the High Speed railway line and under the M2 and I entered the Medway Towns.

The Medway Towns, I lived here around fifteen years ago for a short time, in Strood and Chatham. By god I was so glad to leave this area and return to Hertfordshire. During my time here I found my time rough, as I was unemployed and my ex-girlfriend’s family were just total assholes. So my memories of the area weren't pleasant. This was the first time since then I have actually gone through the Medway Towns, I would rather drive on the M2 or get on a high speed train and bypass this area completely.

Strood is the first Medway town coming in from the west. It was a long walk down the Darnley Road which is the main road through a housing estate. There were people hanging out the pub at the top of the hill who just looked at me, I just walked faster. Then there were young mothers shouting across the road to another mother with her child. At first I thought it was an argument but it turned out to be a normal conversation. It felt like forever to get through this housing estate and I was kinda glad to reach the ring road in the town centre as I knew where I was (as my old apartment was near the train station in this part of Strood).

Across the River Medway and into Rochester, a ‘former’ city and now just a town. Yes, some burke in the council offices did an administrative error some time ago and lost Rochester its city statues. It was only noted a few years after the error and now councillors are trying to get it back. The town is known for Charles Dickens and according to the folk around here, he really liked it here. That’s not what I heard, my view and probably the rest of Kent's view is that the author preferred Broadstairs on the eastern coastline of the county. Oh well.

Rochester was a very quick part of the Medway to walk through, checking out the castle which overlooks the Medway before checking out the cathedral which lies next door. The high street is a pretty one at the castle end but the further east I walked, the more depressing it got. After walking away from the touristy end of Rochester, I just wanted to put my foot down and get out there. I really can’t describe what I was feeling but I was glad to reach Chatham at the end of the street.

Well, I was glad to reach this navy town of Chatham, however this was the other place I used to live, on the Luton Road to which I won’t describe but I am sure the locals reading this are thinking poor soul. Walking through the train and that shopping mall which killed off a lot of the smaller shops in the surrounding area brought back not good memories so it wasn’t before-long I was walking up the hill to Great Lines Park (where the Chatham navy memorial is).

What a view from up here. I have never been here before but the walk up the trail path to the top of the hill was worth it. OK, it's a view of Chatham and the rest of the Medway to the west but this is probably the scenic spot of the area. I was now in Gillingham, to which I haven’t really spent much time here but after going through the park, I got the impression it’s just like Strood and Chatham. The buildings are not nice, there were some strange people giving me looks and graffiti everywhere. I finished this day’s walk at the train station at the eastern end of the high street, where I saw many newsagents but not many actual department stores. I am now very sure the high street shops are dying in my country. However at least all the retail units here were full unlike my home town of Stevenage, where most units remain empty. Even McDonalds buggered off recently, that’s how bad it’s getting.

Miles : 19.35, KM: 31.12. Time: 06-08-21. Average pace (im mph): 3.2, kcal burnt: 2970. In total since Stevenage: miles: 74.77, KM: 120.20, time: 22-26-47, kcal burnt: 11,209.

May 3rd: Gillingham to Sittingbourne

A bit of a chilly day was in store for me as I arrived outside the train station in Gillingham. My main focus for the walk today was to get out of the Medway towns and enjoy more of the Kentish countryside. It wasn’t long after I started my walk that I was passing Priestfield Stadium, home to Kent’s biggest football club who play in the English Football League, Gillingham. The route I took was through housing estates as I headed eastwards. Eventually I left the town which is famous for David Frost (television presenter), Rik Waller (made an appearance on Pop Idol back in the early noughties) and Gary Rhodes (television chef).

After managing to grab a sneaky breakfast at a McDonald’s I was in Rainham, the last Medway town. Again, I just walked through a council estate and managed to get onto the A2 Watling Street (which is the main road which goes through the Medway and follows a former Roman road) and before I knew it I was out of the place. However there is some history connected to this area and the county of Kent.

The county in the old days was divided into West Kent and East Kent by the River Medway which flows nearby. Because of the division, the men born west of the river were known as Kentish Men (and for women, Kentish Maid) and those born east are known as Men of Kent (or Maid of Kent for woman). Ok, so people have asked me about the Medway Towns and which side of the river the people are from? Well, the towns of Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham and Maidstone lie on the east and south banks of the river making the folk Men/Maid of Kent. However Strood is on the west bank making them the other. However after some bloke looked into the history, the division is NOT the River Medway but lies east in Rainham. There used to be a small hamlet which is now sucked into the town known as Rainham Mark. Here there used to be an ancient boundary stone just off the London Road (near the Hops and Vine public house), to which the stone marks the division of Kent, separating the west and the east. So apart from Rainham, all the Medway towns and Maidstone are Kentish Men or Kentish Maids. A lot of research into church books and other records claim that the stone in Rainham Mark was the boundary to separate the county.

Now there is also a lot of pride at stake here when it comes to the Kentish Man and A Man of Kent expression. Some say that a Man of Kent is a term of high honour while a Kentish Man is basically an ordinary person. Then there are ethnic differences which comes into play (possibly affecting this term), where the Jutes were one of the groups of people who were powerful during the Nordic Iron Age and they settled in the east of the county arriving after the Romans buggered off after their conquest of the island, whilst the other powerful Nordic groups, the Angles and the Saxons settled in the west later on. Despite being similar to these settlers, the Kentish Jutes regarded themselves as a separate kingdom and called themselves Kentings. Their mentality was that they were the real Men of Kent and they retained many of their customs well into the Middle Ages. A few centuries later when William the Conqueror turned up on the island for a battle, the Men of Kent resisted his army better than the Kentish Men who surrendered and ran for the hills.

Well, looking at this, my parents are both from Kent (I was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire so I am not involved in this Kentish Man – Man of Kent stuff), but for argument's sake, both of my parents are Kentish Man / Kentish Maid. My folks are definitely not cowards like those facing William the bloody Conqueror all those years ago.

Heading eastwards I landed up in the village of Newington. I left the main road to check out the church of Saint Mary’s at the bottom of the hill to the north of the village but it wasn’t the church I was interested in. It was a stone in the church's car park. Ok, another history lesson paragraph coming up, there were originally two stones like this and stood on Church Lane. In the early 1930s, the bank was lowered and one of the stones was broken up and shoved into a wall which was built on the opposite side of the road. The other stone (the one I found) was placed on the edge of a pathway but a few years later was put where it stands today. After research, the stones were part of a burial chamber (which also explains why there was a bank of earth surrounding them). The stone is known for a strange footmark and the origin comes from a strange legend. The guy in question is the Devil, who was very pissed off with the sound of the church bells, climbed the steeple with a bag over his shoulder and rustled the bells away. As he jumped from the tower, he slipped, his foot hit the stone and the bells rolled out of the bag into a nearby stream.after this, the well was said to continuously bubble and the stone is said to sparkle when hit as a result. I looked at the stone, didn’t see a footprint, didn’t feel a footprint so I walked on. Eventually I arrived in Sittingbourne to finish the morning walk.