I was out running the other day and decided to follow an overgrown footpath in the woods, just to see where it led. It took me through thick woodland, down an avenue of blackthorns and out into the army barracks in the hills behind my house.
Believe it or not, I had already discovered some hidden history by this point. The footpath I had followed, after some research turned out to be part of the ancient St Augustine’s path which runs from the Isle of Thanet (no longer an island for readers from outside of a 20 mile radius of my house) to St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.
The path is named after St Augustine of Hippo, said by some to be the father of the Catholic church who travelled through the area in the 6th century as a missionary, bringing Christianity to England. It is said to follow his route into Kent.
The avenue of blackthorns which I mentioned also have a part to play in the story as when planted in this way it was thought by the druids to offer protection to travellers, suggesting that the path is in fact older than St Augustine as druids were known to inhabit Britain between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd Century AD. There is very little archaeological evidence to shed light on the druids but a great deal of circumstantial evidence left behind by the ancient Romans and Greeks who left many accounts of the druids and their practices in their writings.
I continued on my run, hopping over a stile in the barracks and jogging down a narrow footpath which opened out on a housing estate. In the middle of this estate was a deep pit with water in the bottom, lined with ancient flint walls with a wide archway built into them at the bottom. This, it turned out was the conduit house for St Augustine’s Abbey.
The conduit house was the termination point of a network of tunnels built into the hills which channel water into the pool at the bottom of the conduit house. This was used to brew beer by the monks in the abbey who at the time would have been allowed 9 pints per day. (It’s a wonder they ever got anything done!) In those days, everybody drank large quantities of beer as unless you lived next to a spring, you could not be sure that any water was safe to drink. That is unless it has been brewed into beer, the alcohol content killing off any nasties in the water and making it much more fun to drink to boot.
The conduit house remained in use by local brewers until the mid 18th century. Now derelict, it still remains a fascinating nugget of local history for those who can find it.
The path passes by St Martin’s Church, the oldest church in Britain still to be in use and terminates opposite St Augustine’s Abbey which was founded by St Augustine himself in 598.
St Martin’s pre-dates even the abbey. At the time St Augustine passed through the area it was the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent. Originally built by the Romans in the 3rd Century, Bertha, wife of King Ethelbert, had the church restored for her own use. Ethelbert was a Pagan, Bertha a Christian and she is said to have been responsible for the arrival and adoption of Christianity in Kent and South Eastern England. She was later canonised by the church and is now known as Saint Bertha or Saint Alderberge (not sure why that is!).
So that is the story of how I uncovered the legend of Christianity’s earliest foray into England whilst going for a jog in the hills and woods behind my house. It’s amazing what you find when you leave the house, even if you don’t go very far!