A Day Out: Canterbury

Monday, February 29, 2016

I’ve been feeling a bit at loose ends lately.  Boat life is fine.  Work is picking up speed.  I run. I cook.  I watch tv.  But it’s all been getting a bit routine.  So I decided I needed to get out of town and do Something Officially Interesting.  Thus it was that last Saturday morning I set the alarm and got a train to Canterbury.  Astute Go Stay Work Play Live readers will of course know that Canterbury is famous for its cathedral, which is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England.  As such it’s considered the Mother Church of the Anglican faith worldwide (that's Episcopalian for anyone tuning in from America).  It’s also a World Heritage Site, the location of the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett in the 12th century, a rather well-known site for Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, home to the tomb of the Black Prince, adjacent to the quite posh King’s School, and conveniently down the road from a Pret A Manger (of course).  So it was clearly going to be easy to make a day of it.

The history of Christianity in England began when Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory to convert King Ethelbert in 597 AD, at Canterbury.  Of course the cathedral as it stands today came along much later.  Apparently at first they simply reused an old Roman church, because of course there’s always some kind of Roman connection in this part of the world.  Always. Really, if you go somewhere in south-east England and don’t come across a Roman archeological site you must have chosen a very dire location indeed if even the Romans shunned it.  Like possibly Willesden Junction.  Anyway, back to the cathedral, which in its present form was build between 1070 and 1077, though alternations and additions continued until 1834.

Let’s just pause for a moment here.  Did you catch those dates?  Started in 1070!  
LOOK AT THIS PLACE.  This was built a THOUSAND years ago.  Are you kidding me?

I am now obliged to tell you about the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett, because you’re not allowed to talk about Canterbury Cathedral without talking about Thomas Beckett.  (That stricture is actually in the Magna Carta.  Little know fact.)  (Also not actually a fact.)  (Also apparently we don’t call him Thomas À Beckett anymore.  I don’t know why.  You have Google. You figure it out.)  Thomas Beckett was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 12th century, and was not best favoured by King Henry II, possibly because Thomas excommunicated Henry, which, to be fair, would probably tax the patience of even the most saintly of monarchs.  So you can maybe understand why Henry was sort of pissed off at Thomas and uttered some version of the famous quote “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”  Four of Henry’s knights, on hearing those words, interpreted them as a royal command and travelled back from exile in Normandy to Canterbury where, on the evening of December 29, 1170, they assassinated Thomas Beckett inside the cathedral at a spot now known as The Martyrdom.

The location of the assassination.  The modern sculpture at The Altar of The Sword Point, alludes to the idea that one knight struck Beckett with such ferocity that the tip of his sword broke on the stone floor.  (Nearby, there’s a plaque on the wall commemorating a visit by Pope John Paul II, the first Pope ever to visit England.  The plaque says, “On this spot on 29 May 1982 Archbishop Robert Runcie and Pope John Paul II did arm wrestle over the concept of transubstantiation.”  Or something like that.)

But let’s back up a bit (or possibly fast forward, since we were just in 1170, and then 1982). When I arrived in Canterbury I didn’t actually go straight to the cathedral.  This is because it was quite a chilly day, made all the more bracing by a persistent wind, so of course I decided to visit a ruined castle very near the train station in stead of finding a nice warm coffee shop. (Clever of them to build the castle so close to the station though.  Presumably it made it easier to get good staff.)

Here’s the castle.  It’s near the site of the original Norman motte and bailey built soon after the Battle of Hastings and replaced with this stone keep in 1123.  Sadly, while “motte and bailey” sounds a bit like an obscure cocktail (As in: “Barman, I’ll have a Motte & Bailey please.  And don’t scrimp on the Motte!) it’s actually a primitive fortification.  A motte is a large mounded earthwork with a fortification on top, and the bailey is an enclosure nearby.  Quick to build with unskilled labour, they were a popular first step when securing territory.  Think of them like a medieval conqueror’s starter castle.

And because touring the castle and walking into the centre of town didn’t chill me enough, I then cleverly elected to do a 90 minute walking tour around the town.  Astute Go Stay Work Play readers will remember I’m a big fan of guided tours, and the train arrived just in time for me to catch this one, which I thought would be a nice lead-up to the cathedral.  I joined the walking tour guide Karen at the Buttermarket - a square outside the main gate into the cathedral enclosure.  Karen was of course relentlessly cheery and full of interesting tidbits of information.  She led us through Canterbury's lovely old medieval streets, pointing out many of the surviving Tudor buildings with stout oak beams and second storeys that jut out over the pavement.

Here’s Karen and the group standing in Mercery Lane, the traditional pilgrim’s route to the Cathedral itself.  (Pilgrim’s Route? Huh?  Read on…)

Just as you can’t talk about Canterbury Cathedral without mentioning Thomas Beckett, it’s similarly impossible to talk about Canterbury itself without mentioning The Canterbury Tales. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century, the tales are presented as a collection of stories told by a group on religious pilgrimage from London to the shrine of the martyred Thomas Beckett at Canterbury.  The work is significant because it’s written in Middle English - the vernacular of the time - as opposed to Latin or French or Italian.  Also, the tales feature characters that cut across social classes, including clergy, tradesmen, women and nobles, giving a rare insight into the lives of different levels of society.  It’s considered one of the most important works of English literature.  (I have the Riverside edition of Chaucer tucked up in a box in Canada, which was the assigned text in a university course I took on the Canterbury Tales.  When asked why he’d chosen that particular edition as the course text, the professor said it was because the cover illustration featured a particularly nice shade of blue. Impeccable logic.)

One of the main Tales-related attractions in Canterbury (besides the cathedral itself) is a very touristy offering called, with singular lack of imagination, The Canterbury Tales.  Having taken that whole university course on the Tales, I felt this version might not have quite the level of scholarly rigour that I would find satisfying, and, based on the website, would include wax figures, costumed actors, scratchy audio recordings and, terrifyingly, the very real possibility of some kind of audience participation.  Also the admission price was £9.75, which is just 75p shy of the actual cathedral’s admission cost and about £9 higher than what might be appropriate. Instead I elected to spend my money on a very nice lunch of local cheese and toast, a chocolate flapjack and several cups of coffee, and did not regret my choice for a moment.

I didn’t do the guided tour of the Cathedral, but I did buy their small printed guidebook and, after a short break to restore feeling to my fingers and the tip of my nose after reaching the sheltered warmth of the actual cathedral, I wandered slowly through, starting in the nave.

The nave.  178 feet long, 71 feet wide and 80 feet high.  
Again... built in the ELEVENTH CENTURY.

Of course it’s stunning.  It’s a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles, which means it’s got some round and some slightly pointed arches.  It’s full of slender columns supporting fan vaults, and the outside walls have lots of stained glass and small side chapels, and there’s a beautiful quire with ornate wooden carved benches in the central crossing.  The tour also goes into the crypt, with a much lower ceiling, heavy columns and short round arches supporting the massive weight of the central bell tower above.  The crypt was also mercifully equipped with several commodious window ledges in front of which were piping hot radiators, so I lingered a while to soak up the ineffable mystery of whatever and thaw out a bit more.

Look! Pilgrims on the road to Canterbury!

And this candle marks the spot in the sanctuary where Thomas Beckett's tomb was during the height of the pilgrimages.  It used to be a gold-plated bejewelled shrine, but Henry VIII took care of all that, destroying it and Beckett's bones in 1538.

A circuit of the cathedral was enough for me, because I returned later in the afternoon to attend the evensong service in the quire itself.  This was not out of any sense of religious obligation (being the godless heathen I am) but simply because it’s a perfectly lovely way to see the church as it was intended.  Plus they have a fairly well-known boy’s choir, and the service was only 45 minutes long and the seats were padded and you can spend a lot of your time staring upwards contemplating the ceiling.  It was all very nice, until I realised that I hadn’t made any provision to put something in the collection plate when the time came, meaning that I was left scrabbling in my backpack to extract the only thing I had in my wallet - a ten pound note.  This irked me at first and then I reminded myself that £10 is a paltry sum indeed to enjoy a live choral performance in a thousand year old architectural miracle that probably could use an extra few pennies to stop itself from crumbling into dust.

I left feeling very satisfied and spent another hour or so wandering through the streets until it was getting close to dusk.  I started back to the train station, but not before exploring this diverting park near the city walls. (Of course Canterbury has long sections of Roman / medieval city walls that survive to today.)  Dane John Mound is an artifical mound that started out as a Roman burial ground, then became the site of the original motte from the Norman conquest.

Now it's a nice lookout spot.

Having come full circle, it was a short walk back to the train station and a slow but warm train back to London, during which I managed to complete the Saturday Prize Crossword.  And later when I got back to my chilly little boat I was able to get the temperature back up to toasty in record time.  So really, not a bad day out: gorgeous cathedral, local cheese, hot coffee, nice singing, a proper motte, a successful crossword, and no digits lost to frostbite.

And GSWPL number 132 posted.


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