Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Chaucer who?

Head to Victoria Station in London, buy yourself a round-trip ticket on train or National Express bus, and you'll be in Canterbury in less than two hours. Canterbury is a cute little university and cathedral town, bustling with locals and tourists roaming the downtown shopping/eating district that abuts the huge cathedral.

In my England-is-a-theme-park mind, Canterbury has been good for one thing and one thing only: Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury. This mostly has to do with the blithely erroneous movie that I've written about before. Aside from that amazing drama, I have a thing for Becket. He's one of the most opaque figures in English history, I think. Why, after all, the sudden switch in loyalties from Crown to Church? What deep-seated problems of conscience was he wrestling with? It's fascinated countless authors, including of course T. S. Eliot.

So you can well imagine how insanely excited I was to see the very spot where Becket was murdered, a place marked by the Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom or some such slightly odd name, as well as this piece of jarringly modern art above the word THOMAS cut into the floor in red letters. Nothing remains of Becket's shrine, which held place of honor in the cathedral for generations until Henry VIII had it taken out and the bones pulverized. An archbishop who rebelled against his king? It's a wonder Henry didn't raze the cathedral to the ground.

The cathedral itself is huge and imposing from the slightly battered-looking outside, which is undergoing considerable restoration (you can sponsor a stone for five pounds a month). On the inside, its scale is mind-boggling but somewhat cut down by the choir screen and other edifices that rise within the cathedral itself; unlike, say, Chartres, you can't stand at the nave and get a sense of the entire cathedral. Instead, you end up processing it in parts. But they're great parts, which include the tomb of Edward the Black Prince and a colorful chapel devoted to the local regiment, which was decimated in a battle in India. A monument to the price of imperialism.

I skipped out on the cheesy Canterbury Tales museum in favor of hitting some of the outliers, including Saint Augustine's Abbey, where the saint is buried. Let me tell you, this was not the greatest. It's a field of grass with a few scattered ruins, so we didn't splash out the few pounds to go in. However, getting lost in residential Canterbury, we found a much better ruin: the Roman-built pumping station that used to pump water towards the Abbey. How many tourists find this, huh?

After a refreshing and abundant cream tea at a Tudor-era tea shop, the day ended with William the Conqueror's castle. I kid you not. Also ruined, as you might expect after 1000 years, but in much better shape than my guidebook had led me to believe; the walls still stand, and you can see the herringbone stone pattern of the fireplace niches and the zig-zag holes where the stairways were. Poking around, I discovered one reconstructed stairway that you can climb for a bit of a view. I don't know what was a bigger trip: walking in the cloisters that Becket once walked, or looking out the same window William once looked out over his newly conquered lands.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Ben Again--

Thanks! Maybe you should add "and Traveler" to the title of the blog--not that these travel posts are devoid of textual contexts by any means, just that it seems that you're reading the world as much as books these days, and it's that combo which makes the blog so fun to read.


PS. And believe me, if and when the little Heidi's come along, you'll be especially glad you took advantage of this time in your life to travel this much. I know I wish I had!