Following the route of King Charles II as he fled Parliamentarian troops and escaped to France in 1651, the Monarch’s Way is a delightfully meandering 1,006km/625-mile trail through 15 English counties.
Words by Lizzie Enfield
The oak tree at Boscobel, grown from one of the original Royal Oak’s acorns.
From the ramparts of Cissbury Ring, an Iron Age hillfort constructed around 400 BC, I look out across the gentle curves of the South Downs. Heavily pregnant sheep graze on terraces caused by soil creep, the chalk trail of a footpath shines brightly in the spring sunshine and, in the distance, the shimmer of the English Channel is just visible.
There is always something uplifting about a glimpse of the sea from a distance, especially when you are walking towards it. But imagine the mixture of emotions you would feel when you are several weeks into a journey, during which you have been pursued by enemy forces and the sea represents your only means of escape. And what’s more, you are just 21 years old, your father has been beheaded by Parliamentarians and there is a £1,000 price tag on your head.
Despite the bright sunshine that accompanies me on this penultimate leg of the Monarch’s Way, it is hard not to feel the long shadow of the past at every turn.
Steeped in history
The Monarch’s Way is England’s second-longest waymarked trail, exceeded in length – just – by the South West Coast Path. It follows the route taken by King Charles II, as he eventually fled to France following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The meandering 1,006km/625-mile route reflects the precarious situation in which the king found himself. From Worcester, he travelled first north towards Wales, where his route was blocked by Cromwell’s troops, forcing him to retreat south through the Cotswolds and Mendips to the Dorset coast and, finally, along the South Downs to Shoreham, where he made his successful escape to France. He was accompanied and supported by loyal followers who put their own lives at risk giving him shelter and food along the way.
Established in 1994, the Monarch’s Way was created by West Midlands Rambler Trevor Antill, who grew up close to the site of Bentley Hall in Walsall, one of the country houses where Charles II hid during his flight. A keen walker with a great interest in history, Trevor decided, after retiring, to follow in the Stuart king’s footsteps. But it took him some time to establish a route that was both faithful to the king’s original journey and accessible via public rights of way. Much of the route had been radically changed in the intervening centuries by enclosure, mining, urbanisation and the building of roads, canals and railways.
Arundel Castle, West Sussex
As well as walking the route and lobbying local authorities to make rights of way accessible, Trevor also wrote three guidebooks detailing the Way in three sections. The Monarch’s Way Association continues his work, promoting and maintaining the route. It is now chaired by John Tennant, another keen walker drawn to the path by its unique appeal.
‘The route is a wonderful combination of its history and the variety of landscapes it passes through. And it’s full of surprises,’ says John. ‘I’d expected the stretch from Keynsham to Bristol to be mundane, but you walk first along the River Avon, then join a canal path into the city centre, and the next minute you are strolling along the floating harbour, past SS Great Britain, with the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the distance.’
The route is maintained by 64 volunteer path minders, each overseeing one of the 64 walking stages outlined in Trevor’s guidebooks. It is waymarked with a distinctive yellow roundel displaying illustrations of the ship Surprise, which eventually carried Charles on his escape to France, a crown and the Boscobel Royal Oak tree in which he hid.
The Monarch’s Way Association has recorded just 105 hikers who have walked the route in its entirety, but over the past year there’s been a surge of interest from local walkers wanting to follow sections of the trail during the pandemic.
The beauty of the Way is that it passes through around 15 counties, taking in some of the finest scenery in western and southern England, including two World Heritage sites, one National Park and six Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, plus many historic buildings and features of interest.
A fine view in Hampshire
A touch of danger
In The Escape of King Charles II, author Richard Ollard shares the tale of Colonel Gunter, who masterminded the monarch’s passage through Sussex, riding out from the Hampshire village of Warnford to meet the king. On seeing him, rather than give the game away, Gunter rode straight past, as if a stranger, and continued to an inn where he stopped for refreshment before retracing his way and catching up with the king on Old Winchester Hill.
I began walking from the same place, the George & Falcon pub in Warnford. I followed a track and passed through a series of fields, before climbing a grassy embankment that leads to the spur of the South Downs which is Old Winchester Hill. From here, there are outstanding views across the Meon Valley to the Isle of Wight and the New Forest. Perhaps fittingly, there is also a touch of latter-day danger in the form of unexploded bombs from the 1940s. A sign reminds walkers to stick to the path, which eventually emerges at the Bat & Ball pub, beside a stone monument marking the site of the Hambledon Cricket Club. This is credited with being the cradle of English cricket, a game almost as quintessentially British as its monarchy, albeit not played in Charles II’s time.
The route from here skirts around Portsmouth to Rowlands Castle, where it passes through Kingley Vale forest. Here, in a shady grove, twisted and ancient yew trees are among the oldest living things in Britain, dating back over 2,000 years. I emerge in the pretty, flinty downland village of West Dean and continue along the path which runs close to, and sometimes joins, the South Downs Way, as it winds through Sussex towards Brighton. Most of this section is fairly easy going with moderate ups and downs.
The most challenging and perhaps also one of the most appealing parts of the Way is the Yeovil Loop. When he rode into Dorset, Charles had hoped to sail from Charmouth, but the town was full of Parliamentarian troops and his presence aroused suspicion. He was forced to retrace his steps. For walkers it means there is a 146km/91-mile part of the Monarch’s Way that begins and ends in the village of Trent.
Brian Earl, a member of Beaminster Ramblers, has walked most of the loop. ‘The sections with the biggest wow factor are the Jurassic Coast walk from Charmouth to West Bay,’ he says. ‘The climbs over Thorncombe Beacon and Golden Cap (the latter being the highest point on the South Coast) are strenuous but rewarding. When you get to the top, you can see Portland to the east and the Devon coast to the west and south – as far as Start Point on a very clear day. The major scenic highlight inland surely has to be Pilsdon Pen, where the [Iron Age] Durotriges tribe held up Vespasian’s march towards Exeter.’
The Yeovil Loop also crosses over Horn Hill Tunnel, the oldest pre-railway road tunnel still in use (built to transport sailcloth to Devon), Broadwindsor, where Charles was forced to do a moonlight flit disguised as a washerwoman, and Thorncombe Beacon, site of one of the chain of beacons lit to warn of the invading Spanish Armada.
In contrast to these big rural Dorset vistas, the final stage of the Monarch’s Way is urban, running between the sea and Brighton town centre, past grand Regency buildings and beside the basin that eventually leads to the port of Shoreham. Here, Charles boarded the Surprise. One of four benches dedicated to Trevor Antill is a good place to stop and take in the view across the Channel towards France, where Charles was heading. Two hours after he sailed, the cavalry arrived to arrest him. It was the narrowest of escapes.
The 1,006km/625-mile route is divided into 64 sections of between five and 16 miles. Most of the walking is moderate and to walk the entire trail takes around six weeks.
The Monarch’s Way is shown on OS maps and Trevor Anthill’s three Monarch’s Way guidebooks (The Midlands; The Cotswolds, the Mendips and the Sea; and The South Coast, the Downs… and Escape!) provide great walking and historical companions to the route, £9.75 each, £18.50 for two or three for £25, Monarch’s Way Association. See below.