Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we visit the place where my wife’s ancestor made a man into a saint. And I took a lot of pictures.
15: Scene of the Crime
To take a train to Canterbury, one must leave from Victoria Station. Victoria Station is just like Paddington Station…on steroids. Busy, loud, lines painted on the ground leading people off in various directions, massive readerboards overhead, no place to sit, no place to toss your litter (No waste-bins? What’s up with that, London?), loudspeaker announcements that boom and echo between the metal girders and tile floors. In short, Bedlam. But, due to the experience we’d gained in the last week, not scary. Plus, I knew what I was doing; I’d looked everything up on the BritRail website and was just looking for the one train going to…
It wasn’t there. Nowhere on the readerboard was the train to Faversham, by which we’d connect to the train to Canterbury; not this one, not the next one, they just weren’t listed. I’d have to resort to (gulp) asking directions. The gent behind the Information Counter was very helpful, if you spoke East-Ender; I only speak “restaurant East-Ender,” so I only got about half of what he said, but it was enough. In short, all the information I got from the BritRail website was wrong, and we should just take the train to Dover Priory, leaving in about 3 minutes. Dover, I knew, was past Canterbury, so that made sense as a terminus. I took him at his word, and we legged it.
Train travel has all sorts of little quirks that one doesn’t have to deal with in other modes. For instance, your plane from Seattle to San Francisco isn’t going to stop in a handful of little towns in between; it’s going to be the equivalent of an “express,” no question about that. And, if you’re taking a plane from Seattle to New York, you’re not going to have to worry about whether or not you’re in the right half of the plane, since the plane won’t be dividing at Chicago, with the front half going to Atlanta and the back half continuing to New York. These are only train-travel concerns.
Thankfully, though, British Rail assumes you’re an idiot, and gives you plenty of information and time to figure it out. So, though we’d gotten on the train that was going from London Victoria to Dover Priory via Just-About-Everywhere, and even though the train would “divide” at Faversham, with only the rear 4 cars proceeding on to Dover Priory (via Canterbury East), we were able to make sure we were on the right train, and in the correct half of said train. Whew. So, off we went on a train that would be calling at Bromley South, Longfield, Meopham, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham, Newington, Sittingbourne, Faversham, Selling, Canterbury East, and Dover Priory (and I guarantee you’ve mispronounced at least one of those).
We left Victoria and passed by the Battersea Power Plant, made famous by Pink Floyd with their “Animals” album cover. This time, we were heading southeast out of London (our previous day-trips had been to the northwest), so I was eager to see if the landscape was markedly different. And it was. Kent is a big shire, running east from London, south of the Thames, all the way to the sea. It’s much more wooded than Oxfordshire, with small towns, winding roads, and rows of Victorian terrace houses with all their terra-cotta chimney pots. Each town had its community “pea patch” near the railroad tracks—though I find it difficult on first glance to tell the difference between a British pea patch and a Victorian graveyard, since they have a similar state of disarray and haphazard unkempt-itude. Another difference about this trip was the fact that the cars were mostly empty, whereas the cars along the rail corridor from London-Slough-Reading-Oxford were often full-to-standing.
Along about Longfield, the terrain gave over to cropland, and it was then that we had our first, real “ticket-check.” You’ll remember that, back in Paris, we thought we were going to have a ticket check (“mumble-mumble”, click-click, “Merci”) only to turn and find a guy begging for coins on the train. I couldn’t imagine someone doing that on this train, but I took a glance over my shoulder, just to be sure. Nope. Real guy checking real tickets. We flashed him our BritRail passes and he nodded at us like we were VIPs.
We passed through Rochester, which sits astride the River Medway. It’s a schizophrenic little town, with lovely red-brick Regency homes, a couple of good-sized churches, and attractive, flower-basketed streets on one side of the river, but all smoke-stained yellow-brick Victorian terrace houses, a very large cathedral, and dock- and rail-yards on the other side. It looked like a nice place to spend the day, but we headed onward, listening to the automated announcement tick off the stops (including Sittingbourne, which we both kept hearing as “Sitting Bull”).
Starting at Rainham I noticed that every little town had an oast house near the tracks. Large, generally circular, with tall conical (often thatched) roofs, they all had distinctive weather-vane-like cowls over the central smoke-holes that would spin with the prevailing wind and help draft the smoke from the hops-drying process going on inside. Naturally, I also started to see the tall trellises of hops farms, but not as many as I’d expected. A lot of the oast houses have been converted into residences, a common practice in England, where every other building is “graded” by the historical society and cannot be torn down or changed in its outward appearance.
We rolled into Canterbury, its rooflines dominated by the cathedral deep in the town’s central core. Canterbury is easy to navigate from the rail station, as the whole of the historical district is surrounded by restored Roman/Norman walls and battlements. Instead of diving into the confusing maze of streets, you can just walk the battlements, keeping an eye on the cathedral, until you get to the High Street, at which point there are signs at every other block along the pedestrian mallways, pointing you to the several sites of interest. We were peckish, so we stopped at a place called Café Rouge, where we ordered the café complet and had the best French breakfast since Paris (or even better). We sat out on the terrace, which was pleasant with the cool air off the sea, but unpleasant due to the busker who’d set up out on the curb. Take one banjo player and one pre-recorded Backup-Jug-Band; add tourists who’ve never heard a banjo before; apply a repertoire as small as the player’s talent; mix well. Tourists were happy; I wasn’t. Like a bagpiper in Seattle, his novelty here far outweighed his virtuosity.
We were going to hit the cathedral and then go over to the Roman Museum (on a friend’s recommendation) but we ended up spending 4 hours at the cathedral. At this point you are saying, “How do you spend four hours at a cathedral?” For us, at Canterbury, it was easy.
Canterbury Cathedral is immense, and it also has a lot of history associated with it. Not only that, the parish has opened a great deal of the grounds besides the cathedral, and has documented all of it quite well in a helpful little guidebook you can get on entry. Even more helpful than the book are the many docents wandering about, all of whom absolutely adore the place they work, and who are most eager to share stories and history of the place. It also is different from other cathedrals we’d visited. You see, Canterbury is old, real old, like started in the 7th century old, and it’s been built up, torn down, redone, burnt, fixed up, sacked, rebuilt, sacked again, fixed up again, and refurbished for about 1300 years. As a result, it’s really quite unusual, and unique in many aspects. But our first stop was, of course, the scene of the crime.
Before this day, almost everything I knew about Canterbury Cathedral I learned from the movie “Becket.” Therefore, as far as I knew, the soon-to-be Saint Thomas was murdered on the altar steps, but when you look down the nave, there are great steps going up to a wall with a door in it, and you can see that the cathedral continues onward past it. Where’s the altar? Up the steps and through the door is the quire, and beyond that are the transepts, and then beyond that, through a weird, almost funnel-shaped apse that focuses your attention (and, supposedly, your spiritual prayers), is the high altar. It’s like two, two, two cathedrals in one! But there’s even more to it than that, for downstairs are the crypt and the undercroft, almost another cathedral in itself.
The only other thing I knew about Canterbury before today was that my wife was related to one of Becket’s assassins. Yup. Digging back in my wife’s past, I found not only that she and I are related (we share a great(*)-grandfather in William the Conqueror, but one of her other great(*)-grandfathers was Robert Fitz-Urse, younger brother to Reginald Fitz-Urse, leader of the assassins of Thomas Becket (he’s the guy with the bear on his shield in all the stained glass windows depicting the murder). So, when we arrived, we immediately headed to the altar and the scene of the crime.
Except that it’s not there. At the altar, that is. The actual scene of the crime (noted as “The Martyrdom” on the guide maps) is in front of what is now the quire, but back then was actually the north transept. Go down a few steps, turn the corner, and there you’ll see a simple wooden bench before a shield fronted by three stylized blades that reminded me of post-Holocaust sculpture. There’s a kneeling bar for pilgrims (and many come for that purpose) where you can pray before the eternal flame burning on the small bench. It’s a simple, violent shrine, and very out of place amongst in the forest of soaring Perpendicular-style columns surrounding you, but it’s one of those spots in the world that has been given so much attention and energy, that it just radiates with power. Regardless of whether something important happened here, or whether everyone just believes that something important happened here, it’s an important place, no denying it. In the years after the martyrdom of St Thomas, the eastern end of the cathedral burned down, was rebuilt even larger and longer, and a shrine was erected to house the relics of the saint.
We spoke with several docents during our visit, including one Father Ron Jeremy (I am not making this up, you sniggering students of pop culture) who explained to us the “miracle” windows that described the miracles ascribed to the saint as well as the newer windows made to replace some of those destroyed by the Protestants, showed us where the shrine with the saint’s bones used to stand, gave us his opinion on whether the priests had been a step ahead of Henry VIII and spirited Becket’s bones away before he sacked the cathedral, told us stories about Edward the Black Prince (entombed nearby), related tales of his days during the Blitz, and apologized that the chantry of Henry IV and Queen Eleanor of Navarre (also entombed here) was closed because, back in the ‘60s, they found a family picnicking there.
Outside the cathedral are the grand cloisters, a chapter house with a barn-shaped roof and a remarkably ornate “wagon vault” ceiling, an old cistern that used to supply water to the priory, the monks’ herbal garden, and ruins from the ancient monastery. It’s a big site with lots to explore and take in, and it’s all just breathtakingly beautiful, so I’m surprised we got out of there in only 4 hours.
Before leaving, we stopped for a sandwich and a bag of crisps. The sandwich was an egg-and-cress salad, made with ingredients from “Kent, the Garden of Britain.” I don’t know anywhere south of Northumberland that doesn’t call itself “the Garden of Britain” except London (which is either the Mouth of Britain or, according to Sweeney Todd, the other end), but nevertheless, this was quite good. Due to the late hour, we gave the Roman Museum a bye, and caught the 16:02 back to Victoria Station.
That evening, we went up to the patio and I enjoyed a Cuban cigar along with our host, Philip (he brought his own). We chatted, learned that the house we were staying in was about 120 years old, a “workman’s cottage” as they were called, built to house the men working on the Underground. It’s small, by American standards (about 2100 square feet on 3 floors (including the basement apartment we were renting), and would list for about £2 million. Yep, that’s Pounds Sterling we’re talking about. London is not cheap, folks. Philip is an interesting guy, an Irish Catholic from a large family who disappointed his parents and joined up with the British Army, flew helicopters in Bosnia, flew airliners for BMI, met a girl, talked her into marrying him, and now they’re setting up a family.
We had an interesting visit with him, and then went down to rest and sleep in. Tomorrow was going to be an “easy” day, with just quick trip down to Holland Park.