That was a bit different! As a child rural churches were a real community hub for all sorts of activities. We should be doing more with these beautiful buildings. Chris Woodruff, Manager of East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

The National Association of AONBs Annual National Conference was an occasion to examine the UK Government's 25 Year plan to improve the environment, within a generation 'A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment'.  

Hundreds of delegates gathered to debate the role of UK's Protected Landscapes to deliver a healthy environment for future generations.  As well as conference, workshops and briefing sessions delegates could attend thematic field visits.  20 delegates attended a Green Pilgrimage field visit.  Leaving on foot pilgrim style, delegates left Kent University to head for Canterbury Cathedral where Canon Clare Edwards explained the Cathedral's pilgrimage role past and present. Lunch was a chance to hear from Paul at the Foundry Brew and their relationship with walkers, local produce and promoting heritage as part of their food and drink offer.

Julia Lewis also met the delegates to explain how local associations like the Kent Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome are developing awareness of routs like the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. Julia has walked from Canterbury to Rome and the Camino to Santiago de Compostela.

We really should work more with the church and cathedral heritage in our area.  I've been inspired by how the pilgrim history in Kent can be a real drive for positive change in the landscape; promoting walking, heritage buildings and local produce. The 'tread lightly' ethos of pilgrimage definitely resonates with the work of UK's protected landscapes.  This field trip has been hugely inspiring and interesting. Chris Woodley-Stewart, Director of the North Pennines AONB and Trustee to the National Association of AONBs was very enthusiastic.

Continuing on foot delegates hopped on the train to Bekesbourne to join the North Downs Way National Trail.  Dr Andrea Nicholson greeted the merry pilgrims at Patrixbourne Church. The village of Patrixbourne lies on the route of the Pilgrims Way and the North Downs Way, the trail that led untold thousands of weary medieval feet towards Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of Thomas Becket. Andrea explained how the church is welcoming increasing numbers of pilgrims and walkers, some for a brief tour, some for coffee and cake and some for overnight stays. The church contains superb Norman carvings and details of the building role and development since 1170 are present everywhere in the masonry, windows and various additions.  Andrea explained the church's ambitions to improve facilities to welcome more overnight pilgrims.

After a charming English China tea, delegates continued on the North Downs Way National Trail heading back into Canterbury, retracing the footsteps of pilgrims eager for their first site of Canterbury Cathedral and their pilgrim destination.  

Peter Morris, North Downs Way National Trail Officer, explained the importance of National Trails offering high quality countryside access to urban communities.  The North Downs Way skirts Farnham, Guildford, and Canterbury including the Dover and Folkestone loop.     

Delegates climbed the hill back to the University of Kent, ending their journey as pilgrims; in need of a shower and looking forward to a shared meal and evening conversation. 

Catherine Bradley who led the visit on behalf of the Kent Downs AONB was delighted with the lively debate and interest that delegates showed in pilgrim heritage and its potential for rural regeneration