The North Downs Way follows an ancient pilgrim trail through rolling countryside and wild woodlands, over breathtaking escarpments and past 3,000-year-old ruins to finish on the iconic White Cliffs of Dover, gazing over the twinkling English Channel.
The inspirational 153-mile (245-kilometer) journey begins in Farnham and passes through the Surrey Hills and the Kent Downs Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the coast at Dover. The Way explores an enchanting landscape that is rich in beauty, heritage, wildlife, and folklore.
As you hike along this spectacular route, you are following in the footsteps of pilgrims dating back almost 1,000 years. However, many of these trails have been used for more than 3,000 years and the evidence of past civilizations is everywhere.
Along the way, you can see Bronze Age burial sites, Roman fortresses, churches dating back to the 11th century and beyond, Second World War bunkers, plus more. You also pass through internationally-important nature reserves and woodlands, all filled with rare wildlife and plantlife.
At Boughton Lees, the North Downs Way splits in two. The most direct route goes through Wye, over the Downs to Folkestone and along the cliffs to Dover. The alternative follows the hills to the historic city of Canterbury, along the Barham Downs, through Shepherdswell and Waldershare Park to Dover. Both options are shown in this itinerary and the Canterbury Loop is marked as such.
Every stage finishes close to accommodation, even if there are only a few options nearby. However, places to stay are not always abundant so it is worth planning in advance and scheduling any rest days accordingly.
In this itinerary we break the North Downs Way into 10 stages (11 stages for the Canterbury Loop). Of course, you can split up each stage into as many days as you are comfortable with. You can also walk any single stage, or a couple of stages, in isolation. Almost all of the trail is within easy access of London and has good transport links.
On some of the lengthier stages, there is a suggestion on the best way to split the route into a more manageable distance.
If you are planning to arrive by public transport, you can catch a train to Farnham Railway Station, which is served by direct trains from London and has connecting services around the country. To get home, Dover Priory railway station has direct trains to London and connections around the UK.
As with all long distance hikes, arriving by car is not the most sensible option. However, if you do decide to, your best bet is to negotiate with a hotel or B&B a rate to stay for a night either side of your hike in Farnham and leave your car for the duration. You can then catch a train from Dover back to Farnham, via London. Alternatively, there are long stay car parks in Dover that you could park at and catch the aforementioned train to start the hike.
For more information about the North Downs Way, visit: nationaltrail.co.uk/north-downs-way.
For train timetables and tickets, visit: thetrainline.com.
The first stage of the North Downs Way makes for a leisurely introduction to the trail.
A sculpture marks the spot where the 153-mile (245-kilometer) trail begins its journey from Farnham to Dover.
Before you set off, it is worth making a brief detour to explore the ruins of Farnham Castle.
The castle, which is free to enter, was founded in 1138 and is an interesting way to start your hike.
From Farnham, the trail follows the River Wey (south branch), crosses at Compton, and then heads into Runfold Wood Nature Reserve.
The trail then heads east through fields and small woodlands, passing the pretty, castle-like St John the Baptist Church.
You continue along the flat and scenic landscape through Loseley Estate Nature Reserve until you reach the town of Guildford, where this stage finishes.
Guildford has a good range of accommodation and places to eat and drink, as well as shops and other attractions.
This stage starts by following the Pilgrims Way, a historical route from Winchester to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury.
From Guildford, you cross the River Wey (north branch) and ascend through Chantry Wood and up St Martha’s Hill, where you find a beautiful church perched on the top of the hill.
Only accessible by foot, the Grade II-listed St Martha’s Church affords breathtaking views over the landscape, as well as a real sense of tranquility.
The trail then winds through woodlands and fields and over Blatchford Down, where you can experience lovely views and spot some Second World War pillboxes.
From there, the trail descends gradually along the Pilgrims Way to Westhumble, where this stage finishes.
The village of Westhumble has some options for accommodation and food and drink.
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This challenging stage will test your fitness and endurance.
With 17 miles (27 kilometers) of distance and nearly 2,000 feet (610 meters) of ascent and descent, it certainly is a tough hike. However, the views will take your breath away. (For details on how to split the hike see the end).
From Westhumble, you cross the River Mole stepping stones and make a sharp ascent up Box Hill to Salomon's Memorial, where you are afforded magnificent views over the South Downs.
You then descend to the Pilgrims Way before making another sharp climb up Colley Hill, where you are afforded more spellbinding views.
The trail passes through Merstham and ascends again; eventually leveling-out and undulating all the way to the small town Oxted, where this stage finishes. Oxted has a good range of accommodation and places to eat and drink.
The easiest way to split this stage is to spend a night in the village of Merstham, which has some accommodation options. From Westhumble to Merstham is 10 miles (16 kilometers).
The next stage, from Merstham to Oxted would then be eight miles (13 kilometers).
This stage takes you across county lines from Surrey into Kent.
From Oxted, the trail descends to Oxted Quarry and then climbs through the Titsey Plantation.
Once you emerge from the woodland, you soon pass St Mary's church. Built in the 11th century, the tranquil church still retains its original Norman windows.
From the churchyard, you are afforded terrific views across the Kent and Sussex Weald to the South Downs, too.
The trail retains its height as you wind through fields and small woodlands before descending gradually and crossing over the M25, the motorway around London.
You continue northeast until you reach Otford, where this stage finishes. The village has a rich history stretching back more than 3,000 years and is a lovely place to amble around.
Otford does not have much accommodation but there are plenty of options nearby.
With a sizeable distance and a tough terrain, this stage will really test your mettle.
The enchanting beauty, rich history, and abundant wildlife should serve as a reward for your effort, though.
From Otford, it is a steep climb over Otford Mount before the trail dips into Kemsing Down Nature Reserve.
With ancient woodlands, glades, chalk grassland, and scrub areas, Kemsing Down is home to lots of varied plant life. You can see myriad species of butterflies in the reserve, too.
The trail undulates through farmland to Wrotham before climbing up to Trosley Country Park, a Site of Special Scientific Interest comprising 170 acres of beautiful woodland and chalk downland.
As you hike through Trosley, it is worth making a short detour to see Coldrum Longbarrow, the best-preserved megalithic longbarrow in Kent.
Owned by the National Trust, this 3,000 year-old burial chamber affords mystical views and has a wonderfully-serene atmosphere.
The trail then winds through a series of woodlands all the way to the town of Cuxton, where this stage finishes.
Cuxton does not have much accommodation but there are plenty of options nearby.
You hike deeper into Kent along this stage on a journey filled with history and nature.
After skirting along the southern edge of Ranscombe Farm Nature Reserve, you soon cross the River Medway.
The impressive sights of Rochester Castle and Cathedral can be seen from the trail. You might even be able to glimpse the Kent salt marshes, as iconized in Charles Dickens’ legendary novel Great Expectations.
After climbing over Bluebell Hill, you soon arrive at Kit’s Coty, a megalithic burial chamber that comprises three upright stones and a massive capstone.
From Kit’s Coty, you descend briefly before making a sharp ascent to Westfield Wood, a serene nature reserve that is part of an internationally-important yew woodland.
The trail retains its height for the nearly three miles (five kilometers) before making a short descent into the village of Detling, where this stage finishes.
Detling has some accommodation and options for food and drink.
You see some very historical buildings on this stage, including a castle that has been described as ‘the loveliest in England’.
Before you leave Detling, it is worth having a look around St Martin of Tours church, a stunning Grade I-listed church that was built in the 12th century.
A mile-or-so later, you arrive at the ruins of Thurnham Castle, which has been used as a fortification and watchtower since Roman times.
The trail then winds through fields and small woodlands to Hollingbourne. At this point, you may want to make a small detour to see Leeds Castle, dubbed the loveliest in England.
Built in 1119, Leeds Castle is a grandiose fortress nestled in picturesque countryside and surrounded by water. If you decide not to make the detour, this stage would be just under 10 miles (17 kilometers).
From the castle, you rejoin the Way and follow it southeast to the market village of Lenham, where this stage finishes.
Lenham has some accommodation and places for food and drink and there are plenty of options nearby.
With a flat terrain and a more-than-manageable distance, you will find this to be a very leisurely stage.
From Lenham, you soon arrive at Lenham Cross, a chalk cross set into the landscape as a memorial to the casualties of the two world wars. From above the cross, you have a fine view over the landscape, too.
The trail descends gradually through the patchwork landscape for the rest of the hike, albeit with a few minor undulations, giving you ample opportunity to soak up the surroundings.
As you reach the shores of Eastwell Lake, keep a look-out for kingfishers and migrating birds. Badgers, stoats, and roe deer are also found here.
At Broughton Lees, the North Downs Way splits in two and you have a choice as to whether you follow the Canterbury Loop, which is six miles (10 kilometers) longer and visits the famous cathedral city, or continue southeast on a more direct route to the port town of Dover.
Both options are covered in this itinerary. If you want to follow the Canterbury Loop, jump to stages nine, 10, and 11, which say ‘Canterbury Loop’ in brackets. If not, just follow the next stages nine and 10.
Whatever your choice, your best bet is to continue along to Wye for the night, where this stage finishes. Wye has a few places to stay and options for food and drink.
As you begin your journey along the Canterbury Loop, you will be joining a rich history of ancient pilgrimage.
Travelers have walked this trail for hundreds of years to pay their respects to the grave of Thomas Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170.
Becket is venerated as a saint and martyr by both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
From Wye, you walk northeast to Broughton Aluph and then enter the vast expanse of KIngs Wood. Originally used as a royal hunting wood, pilgrims faced great danger walking here in times gone by as robbers lay in wait, hidden by the trees.
You leave the woodland, pass through the villages of Chilham and Old Wives Lees, and continue over the gently-undulating landscape to Canterbury, where this stage finishes.
There is a lot to see in Canterbury and if you have the energy—go for it. The next stage is intentionally shorter, however, meaning you have plenty of time to explore the city.
Canterbury has a good range of accommodation and places to eat and drink, as well as shops and other attractions.
Canterbury is one of the most popular tourist destinations in England and is a wonderful place to explore at any time of year.
With a rich history, beautiful architecture, a strong religious presence, and year-round festivities, the streets are always bustling with life and activity.
This relatively short, and almost entirely flat stage, is intentionally leisurely to allow time for you to explore Canterbury.
Key things to visit include Canterbury Cathedral, the most famous Christian structure in England; St Augustine's Abbey, founded shortly after AD 597 by St Augustine; Westgate Towers, the largest and the finest medieval gateway in England; Westgate Gardens; and Canterbury Castle.
Once you have had your fill of Canterbury, the trail heads southwest along the Elham Valley Way through a tranquil farmed landscape.
Along the way, you pass some quaint little villages, all rich in heritage and beauty, until you reach Shepherdswell, where this stage finishes.
There is not much in Shepherdswell. However, there are options for accommodation and food and drink nearby.
The final stage of the North Downs Way on the Canterbury Loop is another leisurely hike, allowing plenty of time to explore Dover.
Whilst it is just under nine miles (14 kilometers) to the official end point, this route takes you beyond this finish line to explore Dover Castle, the iconic White Cliffs of Dover, and much more.
Along this gentle stroll through the rolling countryside, you will catch tantalizing glimpses of the ocean ahead of you.
So, take you time, soak up the scenery, breathe the fresh sea air, explore the infamous harbor, and enjoy the final leg of this epic hike to the gateway to England.
Dover has a good range of accommodation and places to eat and drink, as well as shops and other attractions.