Peter’s Trail Tale
For centuries pilgrims have made their way to Canterbury and weaved their Canterbury Tales along well-trodden paths. With every new traveller new stories have been told, and the trails around Canterbury are as integral to these stories as the city itself.
For Peter Morris, Canterbury’s trails represent the focus of his working life. It's his job to manage the 153 miles of The North Downs Way, a National Trail which runs over the historic pilgrimage routes around Canterbury and through beautiful landscapes rich in heritage and natural beauty.
Over the years, Peter has built an intimate knowledge of The North Downs Way (despite still getting lost occasionally!) and collected wonderful memories of the people, animals, and history which make up the Canterbury countryside. In the fascinating interview below, he was kind enough to share his Canterbury Tale with us, and offer some tips to anyone considering a visit.
What inspired you to become manager of the North Downs?
My background is in sport & leisure management and I’ve always enjoyed being in the countryside. I was looking for a career change when this role came up and I was able to use my transferable skills from the Leisure sector and use them in a countryside context. I think in my interview I said the
North Downs Way was a wild and beautiful 153-mile public leisure facility that was open 24/ 7 and 365 days a year with no membership fees!
What are your favourite things to do on the trail?
The trail is so diverse it’s hard to pick a single thing I enjoy, and I guess that’s the beauty of the North Downs Way. I really enjoy the practical element - spending a day walking the trail doing surveys with a tool belt on just knocking in a few waymarkers and clearing any low branches or fallen trees. Easily I could spend the next day at Canterbury Cathedral talking to The Diocese about a pilgrimage project and marvelling at the Cathedral or working with the Travel Trade and Tourism Operators on an International Tourism project.
But I guess my favourite thing is a long walk, a country pub, some locally brewed ale and a chat with someone I’ve never met before. The trail connects people and places and is different for everyone who uses it.
What is your favourite story to share?
Unsurprisingly my favourite story is beer and pub-related. I was at a conference in Canterbury and had an hour to kill before the formal evening meal. I wandered to the Foundry Brew Pub and plonked myself down for a pint and to catch up on emails. I took a picture of my pint and posted it on Twitter and tagged the pub.
Immediately the pub responded; as I got up from my seat I noticed a guy behind me on his phone reading my tweet. It was Jon Mills, the owner and Head Brewer at Foundry doing the same - having a pint and checking his social media. We struck up a conversation and since then have worked closely with Jon and the Foundry on a number of projects including the Ale of The Trail Passport.
What might people be surprised to know about walking (Canterbury section of) the trail?
The Canterbury sections of the Trail are very different. Coming in on the Pilgrims Way from the Wye & Chilham sections you have quintessential Kentish villages, oast houses and orchards.
The section between Canterbury and Dover is the start of the Road to Rome on the Via Francigena - the UK’s equivalent of the Camino de Santiago. Once out of Canterbury it’s pretty flat farmland and rural churches and the final descent in Dover with the Castle in sight.
Have you seen any unusual sights while out and about on the trail?
I’ve seen deer in the woodland sections, and peregrine falcons on the cliffs around Folkestone and Dover. The orchids and butterflies in the summer on the chalk meadows are a bit of a USP for the North Downs.
I guess one of the strangest sights on the trail was actually me carrying a Google Streetview 'Trekker' camera on my back to capture the trail in my first few months on the job. We got a lot of funny looks and were stopped by curious walkers as we made our way along the route.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you on the trail?
Nothing massively hilarious springs to mind - I’ve got lost a few times not paying attention or waffling on about something and missing a turn when leading a group. Getting lost on the trail you manage is never a good look!
A few years ago we arranged to meet a young film crew to do some filming for a project in Aycliffe (Dover). When we arrived they were nowhere to be seen. We called them. And they said- “It’s OK, we’ve found a cliff- they were somewhere near Folkestone” - they thought I had said “A Cliff” and were miles away from where we were.
What are your practical tips for walking the North Downs National Trail?
The trail is packed with interesting wildlife, cultural heritage, and landscapes. It’s not just a long-distance walk. Just a decent pair of walking boots, some common sense, and determination. You don’t need to be an experienced hiker or have tonnes of kit. The trail is so well connected by the rail network you can break it down into manageable sections.
What do you love most about Canterbury?
I love that the trail runs through it and gives me loads of excuses to visit whenever I can. It’s a small city and you can be in and out very quickly if you prefer the countryside, or you can linger and explore the shops, pubs, museums, and restaurants. Best of both worlds for my money.
Where can you find out more about the trail and the work you do?
All the trail info and planning advice is on the National Trails website.
All of the projects and info more locally can be found on the Kent Downs AONB site.
What might people be surprised to find out about the trail?
I think people are generally surprised at how easy it is to get to the trail and to navigate your way around, and that you’re never far from civilisation. Also, people who think the South East is flat are in for a surprise too!
What's new for you this year?
We’re involved in a couple of really exciting sustainable tourism projects. Even before Covid people were looking for different experiences in the countryside. The pandemic has just accelerated and accentuated that. We are planning an art trail along and are working to develop better access for other users like cyclists and horse riders. We’re also working with rural businesses to create new experiences so you can come to Canterbury and learn or experience something new and unique. Watch this space...
Watch exploring the North Downs with Rob Bell here.