We jump forward to Wednesday, Monday’s hike having limited Tuesday’s activities to recovery and another unsuccessful hunt for a waxed cap. Feeling our age more than our oats, we prudently decided that a large portion of our travel on this day would be allotted to train service, and that was a good thing because we were headed back to Kent. Not back to Churchill’s Chartwell, but to Chaucer’s Chanterbury, uh, I mean Canterbury. (We kent get enough of Kent. Two can play at this game.) We had spent a week in England, and I was finally caving in to Elizabeth R’s passion. No, not me (this isn’t that type of blog), but to another form of antiquity. Today we would be spending time in a really, really, old building.
Even though I have lately become interested in learning of past events, that interest has been limited to a more recent vintage of history. Still, I have heard of Canterbury Cathedral and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” though not in any great detail. My understanding of Chaucer’s work was that he could be described as a 14th century blogger who wrote a series of stories attributed to pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, sort of like Elizabeth R and I are doing now … except Chaucer is easier to follow than I am. Anyway, on this beautiful sunny Wednesday, I cheerfully slung my knapsack on my back, and Elizabeth R and I started our own pilgrimage to Canterbury. I’ll let her tell you how we got there.
We got there by train. You’re thinking we might walk? C’mon, now.
It was a paltry walk of several blocks from the train station before we crossed the moat and entered the walled area of Canterbury, where we were totally astonished by what we saw. It wasn’t the narrow cobblestone streets lined with old buildings that surprised us; it was the fact that these streets were filled to capacity with young, school-aged people. And I didn’t get the impression that these kids were very much interested in appraising antiquity. Let’s just say that I felt like MTV must have recently decided to set a reality show in Medieval England titled “Cacophonous Canterbury Kids.” They were zipping about like punch-drunk dragonflies, and I do have to admit there was a hum of energy about the town that exceeded anything I might have expected.
Still, the town itself had a charming medieval feel to it. The trick was line of sight – you just had to train your eyes to look at things above about 6 feet or so, roughly the height of the tallest teenager.
Boisterous teens I can see anywhere, so I just kept steering a course as straight ahead as possible until the Cathedral hove into view. I had a feeling that we would lose most of the kids when we entered this sanctuary.
Most of the kids, true, except for the exceedingly proper and well dressed students of the King’s school, located right in the midst of the Cathedral’s premises. I commented on the sylvan recess time probably experienced by the students of the Royal School in the Great Park. What would these King’s School kids do in their spare time? Would being surrounded by such majesty and antiquity be daunting and/or inspiring? Probably questions for the school’s brochure; kids are still kids, after all.
Being neither an architect nor a historian, there isn’t much I can say to describe Canterbury Cathedral. I’ll have to let our pictures do most of that job. The fact that construction started in the 11th century should satisfy anyone that the cathedral is old, and to me, the combination of age and immensity of the building are what I found astounding. How could such a building be imagined, much less built, in ancient days? What must it have been like for a builder to show up to work knowing that the cathedral would probably not be finished in his great-great-grandson’s lifetime? ( Here I must insert a plug for Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth,” an epic and fascinating historical novel about the construction of a medieval cathedral.) I get overwhelmed by projects that take more than a week! Yet somehow construction moved on and on and on.
… Though This Timeline From The Lower Right Hand Corner Shows That Many A Builder Had An Opportunity For Input
Awe inspiring, certainly, and it’s true that pictures can illuminate this more than words. But for me, trite as it sounds, being enveloped in its history took my breath away. The Cathedral is the site of the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and major thorn in the side of King Henry II, in 1170. Nothing remains of his remains, as it were, since in the 16th century Henry VIII went to great lengths to eradicate all traces of the fractious cleric, who he viewed as a symbol of the conflict between Church and Crown. Henry was very thorough, as he did not fancy the idea of being crossed. Much artwork of the period was also removed during Henry’s Reformation rampage, leaving eerily blank recesses in walls and passages. A twentieth century memorial to Becket was placed on the site of his murder in the Martyrdom in the northwest transept of the Cathedral, the modern art depiction of the 4 swords used to kill Becket all the more moving because it seems so out of sync with the Cathedral’s antiquity.
A Bloody Sword Is Not The Type Of Artwork You Might Expect In A Cathedral, But It Did Grab Your Attention
This Is Where You Would See Some Very Old Art Work If It Hadn’t Been Removed … But It Was … So You Can’t
A more somber area of the sanctuary was the crypt. It contains, among other things, the tomb and funeral effigy of Edward, the Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III and killed during the Hundred Years Wars in 1376. The only place in the Cathedral in which photographs were not allowed was, understandably, the crypt. The universal “no photography” icons were in evidence everywhere. We sighed and shook our heads as we passed a middle aged couple, he in a comic pose in one of the alcoves desecrated by Henry VIII, she gleefully snapping away with her phone. My thoughts were not suitable for a place more deserving of reverence and awe.
As our tour was self-guided, we wandered about freely, stopping to ask questions when the need arose, but mostly just wandering and absorbing. Scaffolds in various locations attested to the fact that maintenance is ongoing, and in a way that might be some sort of link between the contractors of today and the artisans of the past. It also gives a feeling of vitality to the cathedral, a thought that this was a living structure that shrugged off age as irrelevant. Somewhat surprised, I came away from this visit more impressed than I thought I would be.
As we left the sanctuary proper and reemerged into daylight, what did we discover but – ruins! I don’t know what it is about ruins that so affects me; even more than ancient buildings themselves, what is left of ones which have not survived intact sets my imagination into overdrive. These ruins, adjacent to the Cathedral proper, were of a Benedictine monastery that dated from the year 998. My trusty guidebook helped me identify a water tower that, with the aid of lead pipes, enabled the hard working monks to wash up, and the arches remaining from a 7 seat lavatory. Real people, real life, 1,000 years ago.
Alas, we had to go back to the 21st century, eased into it by the medieval town if you looked up, and the swarms of young people if you looked straight ahead. And then the fast train back to London, and the slow one back to Windsor. A day of contrasts. It had started to rain again.
[Note: since we just finished describing a day of contrasts, why not end this post with yet one more? And, as an added bonus, this video will eliminate the need for us to write, and you to read, about the Savill Garden portion of our walking tour of the Great Park. Instead, you can simply sit back and take the two minute video tour. I have to warn you, though, that more words will be coming next week, so you had better enjoy this opportunity while you have it.]