HISTORIC author Geoffrey Chaucer is being given a 21st century make-over – as his ‘Canterbury Tales’ route is turned into a competitive race for the very first time.
Chaucer’s medieval misadventures – a collection of 24 stories penned between 1387 and 1400 – followed a group of pilgrims making their way from London to Canterbury Cathedral, and to the shrine of St Thomas Becket.
In Chaucer’s age, that ancient 60-mile route was undertaken on horseback in three to five days.
But now hardy ‘ultra-marathon’ runners will cover the distance on foot in just 48 hours.
And, in keeping with medieval tradition, the final three miles of the journey will be completed bare-foot – just as Chaucer’s pilgrims would have done.
The event, called the ‘Canterbury Trails’, is the brainchild of UK firm Rat Race Adventure Sports.
Rat Race founder Jim Mee explained: “In Chaucer’s time, St Thomas Becket’s shrine was one of the most important in Christendom.
“It attracted pilgrims from far and wide, with some estimates suggesting around 100,000 each year made the journey from London to Canterbury and back.
“We wanted to breathe new life into this famous route, giving it a modern twist and making it accessible to those from all walks of life, whether religious or not.
“For anyone who’s read the Canterbury Tales, the thing that stands out the most is that despite the pilgrims all coming from very different backgrounds, there’s a real shared camaraderie among the group.
“It’s this ethos we want to recreate.
“Covering 30 miles a day, for two days, whether you choose to walk or run it, is no small task.
“But when you’ve got the support of your peers we think it’s achievable for even the average plodder.”
The route itself heads off from the site of the long-demolished Tabard Inn, Southwark, along the old Roman road of Watling Street and emerges in Canterbury.
It takes in tarmac road, quiet country lanes and off-road trails, with the route opening up into picturesque countryside as you enter Kent.
There’s an overnight stop at the 30-mile mark in Rochester.
And Jim adds: “Some will choose to run all of it, some will walk all of it, some will do a mixture of both. And that’s absolutely fine – we’ll cater for all.
“And while it’s optional, as a node to the old pilgrim’s route, we’ll encourage participants to cover final three miles barefoot as a form of ‘penance’.
“Although, having said that, you might feel like you’ve already suffered enough!”
The Canterbury Trails, part of Rat Race’s new ‘Project: Explore’ series, has been welcomed by the British Pilgrimage Trust, a charity dedicated to exploring ancient pilgrim routes.
William Parsons, its co-founder, congratulated Rat Race for an ‘extraordinary’ event and added, ‘Slowness is normally our strong recommendation when it comes to pilgrimage, but inclusion is key and non-prescription remains one of our most important guidelines.
“The British Pilgrimage Trust believes this race could represent a very positive new use for an ancient pilgrimage route.
“It may seem like a novel format, but it is also deeply traditional – a journey of pilgrims who are literally desperate to reach their destination, yet who remain on foot, causing minimum ecological impact to the landscape.
“By running in the footsteps of the ancestors, they are trailblazing an ancient path.
“In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims never actually reached their destination. So, the big question for today’s racing pilgrims is – will they?”
While the first Canterbury Trails event is scheduled to take place in March next year, entry is now open and places are expected to be taken quickly.
Upon completion, racer will be awarded a special-edition volume of the Canterbury Tales as a literary memento of their participation.
For more information, head to the website.