15 May 2007

Canterbury revisited

Ten years ago I spent a day or two visiting the beautiful cathedral town of Canterbury in Kent, the first stop on my backpacking travels in the UK and Europe. Last week I decided to revisit Canterbury to enjoy the sights again and to see if anything’s changed since then.

Canterbury in 2007 seems more up-market, busier, and is still full of the many tourists who have replaced pilgrims as the main economic driver of the town. The town's encircling walls and cobblestoned main street are now augmented by a smart new shopping precinct with an impressive range of shops. Hundreds of French schoolkids throng the main street at lunchtime, chattering noisily and swaggering around pretending to smoke chocolate cigarettes.

The main reason the French schoolkids and I visit Canterbury is to explore the splendour of Canterbury Cathedral. It’s been the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury since the sixth century, when the Pope sent a mission led by the clergyman Augustine to bring the isolated souls of England back into the fold of the Church. Augustine converted Aethelbert, King of Kent, to Christianity, and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. After his death Augustine was quickly beatified as a saint.

But the main reason Canterbury Cathedral is as grand and impressive as it remains today is the fateful violence inflicted by two knights at dusk on 29 December 1170. King Henry II had appointed his former friend Thomas Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury and assumed that he would be a compliant churchman. But he found that once appointed, Becket thwarted the king’s every move, which reputedly led Henry to utter the famous cry, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”. This royal outburst was taken to heart by two vigorous knights, who rode straight to Kent. There they burst into the Cathedral through the cloister door, surprised Thomas Becket as he knelt to say his evening prayers, and hacked him to death with their swords.

The martyrdom of the Archbishop galvanised English Christianity to a massive extent. Becket was swiftly beatified as St Thomas, and the Cathedral became a centre of pilgrimage for Christians across England and Europe, rivalled only by Santiago de Compostela in popularity.

Nowadays even the Cathedral gatehouse is an example of impressive artistic expression. At its centrepiece, a seated bronze Jesus is flanked by distinguished angels bearing coats of arms. Jesus himself has been fitted with anti-pigeon spikes on his shoulders, and this along with his gaunt face gives Jesus the air of a Goth deity or perhaps Edward Scissorhands.

Inside the Cathedral itself the soaring fan-vaulting of the nave still astounds, masonry fountains bursting into the heavens, bracketed by stunning stained glass windows depicting a myriad of Biblical figures or English saints and royalty. Fragments of history are liberally scattered throughout the interior. In the north transept an altar and bronze statue of lightning-flash sword blades marks the spot where Becket was martyred. In the Trinity Chapel lie the grand sculpted effigies atop the tomb of King Henry IV Bolingbroke (reigned 1399-1413) and Queen Joan of Navarre, and there’s also the grand military display at the tomb of the feared Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales (d. 1376), at whose pointy-toed armoured feet lies a carving of a most peculiar pig-like grinning dog.

Earlier less reverent pilgrims have left their mark on the Cathedral too – one soft stone pillar bears the clear mark, “Thomas Cray 1704”, three centuries after his vigorous act of graffiti. And to cap it all off, in the central quire at midday the young choir of St Thomas’ School in London performed, singing lofty spiralling odes in a truly angelic fashion.

Later on in the middle of town I had a quick look around the Canterbury Museum, an odd arrangement of historical detritus and bric-a-brac. Apart from the obligatory Becket-themed paintings from the Victorian era, the highlight for me was a curious pair of ultra-thin chicken-skin gloves of uncertain age, along with the walnut shell they were stored in. Another wing of the museum is devoted to the infantry regiment known as the Buffs. In it, a scrap of paper bears a strikingly personal note from the Napoleonic Wars. It is the sombre last note of Capt Joseph Fenwick, written in his own blood:

I am shot thro the body and arms for God’s sake send me a surgeon English if possible if I do not recover God bless you all

There were no surgeons able to reach Fenwick before he died in Spain, in December 1810.

As the afternoon drew to a close I paid a visit to the site of St Augustine’s Abbey, which was founded in the 6th century. Little remains of the original buildings, and even the remnants of the 12th century Norman abbey are limited, so the audio guide is important to understanding how the history of the abbey is reflected in the site. Four kings of Kent were buried here, and to the side of the nave lie the gravesites of the first four abbots, starting with St Augustine himself, who died in 609AD. The main culprit to be blamed for the fragmentary nature of the abbey is Henry VIII of course, because by the 16th century St Augustine’s was the fourteenth richest abbey in England, and in the huge campaign of the Dissolution the abbey was stripped of its wealth and turned into a soon-forgotten royal residence. By the 1840s the overgrown remains of the abbey were used by a publican as a beer garden, which led a Victorian MP to organise a campaign to buy back the site and begin the process of restoring it into some shadow of its former splendour.

While the quiet abbey grounds were a pleasant relief from the busy cathedral, the park setting of Canterbury Castle, a 13th-century square keep just inside the city walls, was even quieter. Now just a shell of rugged walls open to the elements, the Castle is close to the man-made hill in Dane John Gardens where its wooden motte-and-bailey predecessor was built by William the Conqueror formerly stood. The gardens’ name is derived from the conquering Normans’ name for the keep, the donjon.

That evening I was reminded of the perils of staying at YHAs in Britain, because the angelic voices of the school choir I had seen in the cathedral that day had been transformed into squawking excitability and the elderly dwelling rang with the stampeding footsteps and serial door-slamming that is the hallmark of eight year-olds everywhere. As it turns out, they quietened down reasonably quickly after about 10.30pm, but the less said about their rowdy 6.30am start, the better…

On my second full day in Kent I bought an all-day bus pass to venture further afield. First stop was the pretty village of Chilham, perched on a gentle slope about 25 minutes west of Canterbury. Its pretty street is very sensibly named ‘The Street’, and features plenty of Tudor houses with obligatory rose gardens and ivy. There’s a pub at the bottom and another at the top, on the village square. This presumably was once a traditional village green, but is now paved and used as a carpark. At one end of the square is sweeping grounds and the stately home known as Chilham Castle – a family dwelling not open to the public. At the other end of the square sits the peaceful medieval St Mary’s Church with its 18th century gravestones, and carved inscriptions on stone arches above the church doors reading “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” and “thou Lord hast never failed them that seek thee”. One gravestone is crowned with two morbid skull-and-crossbones symbolising mortality, and marks the resting place of Elizabeth Luckett, who died aged 29 in January 1729. As I stepped between the ragged tombstones the church clocktower struck midday, the peals ringing out across the village.

After taking the bus back to Canterbury, I hopped on another service to the coast to see the seaside town of Herne Bay, namesake of the moneyed suburb in Auckland. Unfortunately the grey skies and blustery chilly weather failed to enhance the rather drab atmosphere and grim architecture. Two observations on Herne Bay: it has a shop seemingly selling only imperfect duvets; and the town streets exhibit a strange profusion of dachshunds. One saving grace for the town was the vintage car and motorbike fair that had taken over the town’s pedestrian arcades for the day. About ten English-made Panther coupes sparkled from hours of polishing as proud owners sat in canvas deckchairs, basking in the envy of car fans. A superb swoop-backed 1948 Cadillac in pearly white glammed it up alongside a picture-perfect pale yellow Packard Eight roadster with brown running trim.

Then it was a 15 minute bus ride along the coast to the fishing port of Whitstable, which is much more likeable than Herne Bay. Stretching along the beachfront east of town is the town’s famous collection of brightly-painted wooden beach huts, row upon row of candy-striped holiday shelters, some with little balconies and overhanging porch roofs to protect from the sun or the occasional English summer rainshower. In the centre of town is a working fishing port replete with seafood stalls and sailing clubs. I passed an English family daring their young daughter to eat an oyster whole – as I walked past she tilted her head back and tipped the oyster in her mouth, and then quickly spat it back onto the plate, giggling wildly. After exploring the town I headed back to Canterbury to round out the evening listening to an excellent radio adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ – tales of urban poverty and deprivation that put my gripes about noisy hostel kids and the ubiquitous dormitory snorers into sharp relief. Mind you, look what it did for George Orwell.

Oh, and did you know that Orlando Bloom comes from Canterbury? Fancy that.
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