3. Pilgrims Eat McDonalds?
Day one was a bit of a modern day pilgrimage for Daniel and I. We'd already journeyed to Hever Castle for my own personal sojourn to pay homage to Anne Boleyn. The next on our list was the more traditional of pilgrimages.
Here's some background on Canterbury for those who aren't history buffs or Anglophiles like me: inhabited since pre-historic times, it was captured by the Romans in the 1st century AD but eventually abandoned by them in the early 5th century. It then became an Anglo-Saxon community attracting the attention of Pope Gregory the Great. In 597 the Pope sent Augustine (eventually St. Augustine) to convert it's king, Æthelberht to Christianity. A grand Cathedral was built and from then on it became the principal location for the English Church. The Archbishop of Caterbury is still the head authority of the Church of England. Surviving wave after wave of Danish attacks, the city of Canterbury gave no resistance to William the Conqueror when he arrived in 1066. The thing that Canterbury is most known for though is Geoffrey Chaucer and his book, The Canterbury Tales. Written between 1387 and 1400 Chaucer tells the story of a group of pilgrims traveling together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket.
Thomas à Becket was the sitting Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170 when Henry the Young (son of Henry II) was crowned heir apparent by 3 Bishops in a breach of Canterbury's privilege of coronation. Thomas retaliated by excommunicating the 3 bishops which angered Henry II who already had a tumultuous and incredibly complex relationship with Becket. An angry and exasperated Henry II was heard to mutter, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four of his knights took this as a way to curry favor with their king and set off to murder Becket. I feel that I should point out that there is some question to the validity of Henry II saying this but I'm gonna roll with it cuz it sounds good, so I ask you to just go with it too. December 29, 1170 those four Knights walked into Canterbury cathedral and confronted Becket. When Becket refused to go with the men, they set upon him with their swords. Honestly it was a gruesome attack so just trust me when I say that they killed him viciously. By all accounts Becket had been a devout man so upon his death he was venerated as a martyr and 2 years after his death Pope Alexander III canonised him.
Sadly we have Henry VIII to thank for the destruction of the shrine of St Thomas Becket and also for the destruction of the actual bones of the man in 1538. I tell ya, that Henry VIII has a lot to answer for. His reputation as a tyrant is well deserved.
With that history lesson out of the way let's get back to our own modern day pilgrimage. Seeing as we were arriving in Canterbury on a Sunday, we wanted to attend a service at the Cathedral. We had a few hours before the service began so we went straight to our hotel. Spoiler alert: this was one of our very favorite hotels of the whole trip. The Falstaff Hotel is a class act! We walked in and it was buzzing!! We had to dodge patrons at the bar to get to the reception. I felt incredibly scruffy and underdressed, surrounded by ladies all dolled up and looking their best. I wanted to tell each and every person that I walked past that I'd just gotten off a 10 hour flight and been sightseeing.
Our room was located in a separate building called the Old Woodmill situated behind the main hotel and restaurant. It didn't look like much from the outside but as we climbed the stairs to our top floor room we found that we had been given a cool attic room with skylights. Our bedroom at home is a loft with skylights so we felt so incredibly at home. Honestly if it had had a little kitchen I would have just moved in and would still be there to this day.
There was a letter waiting for us in the room! I said it before but I'm gonna say it again: Class Act!
Okay confession time: we took a nap! I know, I know...you're not supposed to! We couldn't help ourselves. We were going on so little sleep at that point. Let me tell you how hard it was not ignoring the alarm I had set, I would have paid money to be able to hit snooze repeatedly. With a little freshening up we set out for the cathedral. Canterbury is a lot smaller than I had imagined, although it has a population of around 55,000, it felt like half that size. I was grateful for this as I was not ready to jump into a city- I like small, quaint, and manageable- especially when I'm trying to get my bearings and also adjusting to be being outside of the US. We were greeted with the most English of views as we crossed the street and walked away from our hotel. Westgate, the last remaining medieval gatehouse in Canterbury is the largest surviving city gate in England. Made of ragstone it currently houses a museum and cars still drive through the two drum towers. The current incarnation of the gatehouse was built by Archbishop Simon Sudbury in 1380 replacing the ancient 4th century Roman gate. Gatehouses have traditionally been used for defense and attack purposes but it has been suggested that Archbishop Sudbury replaced the original gatehouse with the current one as an entrance for pilgrims visiting the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Basically, it is a 14th century tourist attraction.
In juxtaposition to the Westgate are two currant red telephone boxes, built some time after 1926 because they are both emblazoned with the gold crown. Yes, my nerdy self took the time to research red telephone boxes. The two that stood before us were of the K6 variety, the most prolific of the red telephone box designs. These two were in desperate need of a cleaning, but are of course empty and just a reminder of a bygone era. In 2009 a movement began to repurpose the abandoned red boxes and turn them into mini libraries, art galleries, and defibrillators- with a few around London repurposed as mobile phone charging stations. I just love that this recognizable part of English heritage is being preserved.
Walking to the cathedral we passed by the Old Weavers' House, currently a restaurant. The building takes it's name from the Flemish weavers who occupied it in the 16th century. Although the date on the sign says 1500, much of the structure is actually much earlier than that. The foundation has been found to have been laid in the 12th century and much of the front is 15th century. It is absolutely lovely to look at and sits right on the River Stour with the water lapping the side of the building. We didn't get a good photo of it, but there is a medieval ducking chair at the back of the structure which juts out over the river. What is a medieval ducking chair you ask? It's a thing I'm truly grateful doesn't exist today- a man could pay to have his wife put on the chair and dunked into the filthy river, if he felt she nagged or talked too much. I'm not a nag but I do talk a lot and well, it's likely Daniel would have a monthly subscription to the ducking chair.
We walked down Mercery Lane and were awed by the resplendent Christ Church Gate that welcomes you to the cathedral precinct itself. Built between 1507 and 1517 (depending on which source you read) much of what we see today is a 20th century restoration. To me the most striking feature is the bronze sculpture of Christ that was put up in 1990 to fill the empty spot left by the original destroyed by overzealous soldiers using it for target practice in 1643. I read an article where the author shares his dislike of bronze as the chosen medium for the statue because he said it looked out of place with the rest of it- I disagree, to me it highlights the statue and draws you in- it is so striking in person. It's like Christ is literally beckoning you into his sanctuary. Although be forewarned- he is going to charge you.
Because we were genuinely there for a service we didn't have to pay to get into the cathedral precinct, but it normally cost £12 per person (about $16) to gain entrance. I didn't know what to expect as I'd never been to an evensong service before but it was one of the most soothing experiences I've had in a long time. The female Canon Pastor, Reverend Claire Edwards has the most melodic voice- soft and lovely to listen to, lulling my sleep deprived self. It was a surreal experience for me to look back on that day which had started over 24 hours earlier in my bedroom in California culminating in me sitting in the Quire of Canterbury Cathedral holding a book of hymns. Not to forget the fact that I'd also been to Hever Castle earlier that day, which now felt like a different day entirely. When the service concluded we filed down the stairs to shake the hand of Reverend Edwards. I didn't take any photos while in the cathedral since we weren't there as tourist and wanted to be respectful. I look forward to going back in the future and really exploring the interior though!
After being in that serene environment it was like a blast of air to the face to be walking along St. George's Street where the sounds of a discotheque could already be heard while still daylight, the bass pumping and youths walking in packs down the cobblestone street. Yes, I just said "youths" like an old lady, but I tell you that's what they were...drunk, raucous youths. I'll take my Alka-Seltzer with a side of Werther's Orginals, please.
Beaney House of Art and Knowleged. Built 1897. Why can't every library be as cool as this?!
What we did next I'm ashamed to say. At this point we were both starving and too tired to think beyond anything that may be right in front of us. We were searching for a place to just pick up quick sandwiches but everything was closed early due to it being Sunday. We didn't have the energy to keep searching and went to the only place that was open and right where we were. Have you guessed my shame yet? I'm betting some of you have...we found ourselves at the entrance to the Golden Arches. Yes, I capitalized that cuz it really needs no other introduction. Gah, I don't even eat McDonald's in the States! It had been well over a decade since I'd stepped foot in one and there I was, contemplating the menu. The English have mastered the art of limited interaction. As an introvert I have never been happier! You see, we didn't even need to speak to anyone! They have large touch screens with the entire menu- you order and pay at the machine and then just wait for your number to be called. Glorious limited interaction!
We took our food back to our awesome hotel room, ate and promptly fell into bed, probably snoring!
Alas! This isn't the end of Canterbury though!! We woke up bright and early (hellllllo jetlag!) to have the best breakfast buffet ever at the Falstaff and then to explore a bit more of the city before we set out on the first full day of historical sites. The weather was beyond amazing- clear and warm- Canterbury that morning was magical. We took a quick stroll down the High Street and walked along the Great Stour in Westgate Gardens. If we didn't have such big plans that day, I would have liked to have sat in the gardens and just watched the ducks. The colors were so vibrant, all the tulips were in bloom, the river full and flowing. For this California girl a full river is a rarity and it was just amazing to see and HEAR water! One of the flight attendants on our flight was collecting trash from the passengers when he asked if he could take my plastic water bottle- I stopped him and said, "Wait, there's still a little in there", to which he replied smiling, "It's not like it falls from the sky or anything." My smart ass reply? "Not where I come from!"
Canterbury, thank you for the glorious views!