As forecast, conditions were wet on the day that I walked into Canterbury. But it wasn’t a heavy, soak-you-to-the-bones, mess-with-your-touch-screen, kind of rain. It was a “soft day,” with light drizzle in the air, which can be quite pleasant to walk in.
I made a quick tour of the village of Chilham; its fortress-like church, half-timbered houses, and the privately owned Chilham Castle, which opens its gardens on Tuesdays until 25/Sep, should you be looking for a garden to visit on a Tuesday before then.
On my way out of the village, I met a man who said he liked my boots. (He also told me all about the contents of his bag and some other things that I didn’t understand). The Aku boots, with their orange laces, still look quite fancy, but the soles have already worn through after less than 500km of walking. Well, at least they lasted for this journey and I can take my time to find and break in my next pair.
I followed directions from maps.me for a while and realised that the app was taking me on a different route to the “official,” one. On another day, I wouldn’t be fussy, but I wanted to enter Canterbury on the road that pilgrims used for centuries, so I backtracked and got myself on the right path at the evocatively named hamlet of Old Wives Lees. What’s that about? From here, where there was a choice between “Pilgrims Way,” and “North Downs Way,” I chose the North Downs route because I have learnt that although it’s the longer way, it often offers better views and less tarmac.
As I walked I took the opportunity to reflect on the history of the pilgrimage to Canterbury – the veneration of Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was assassinated at the Cathedral. Compared to the backstory for the pilgrimage to Santiago, which involves a lot of implausible legend, the Canterbury cult grew out of more reliably recorded historical facts. The story centres on a power struggle between the church and the monarchy:
In the 1160s, when he was Henry II’s Chancellor, Thomas Becket was close to the King. That’s why, when the position of Archbishop of Canterbury opened up, Henry fast-tracked Becket’s ordination and promotion to the most senior position in the church. But, in an unexpected twist, Becket got religion. He took the Archbishop role seriously and didn’t let the King interfere with religious courts of justice. (Like an obsessive record collector, Becket told the King to keep his hands off his felonious monks). If, like me, you struggle to get your head into the twelfth Century, think of a contemporary situation in which a powerful leader might install a seemingly loyal ally in a position of influence, only to find that his former friend declines to his boss’s bidding.
The falling out between Becket and Henry went on for years, including a period when Becket fled to Normandy. Following his return, he continued to be a thorn in henry’s side with his decision to excommunicate the bishops who crowned Henry’s son (the young Henry), which prompted Henry II to inflame the constitutional wrangling with a spot of high profile vilification when he asked “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
Four loyal knights interpreted the King’s words as an imperative to act, and cut down Becket on the altar steps at Canterbury Cathedral on 29/Dec/1170. It was later reported that his blood stained clothes miraculously cured lepers, which provided the church with new merchandising opportunities. In 1173, Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III, and Henry II made a public display of repentance in Canterbury. In 1220, a shrine was dedicated to Becket in the Cathedral, which was a site of pilgrimage until 1538, when King Henry VIII, also in a power struggle with the church, ordered the shrine destroyed and the pilgrimage abolished. Today, there’s a single lighted candle in the place where Becket’s shrine stood, and a man in a black coat with a swiffer, who makes the stones shine (like the top of the Chrysler building).
Had Henry II been in politics today, he might have hired someone to flatly deny that he endorsed violence. But, while he didn’t have the benefit of modern spin doctoring, there are competing accounts of the wording that he used; a bit like the argument over whether Donald Trump referred to the countries of origin of immigrants to the US as shitholes or shithouses.
Once I got myself onto the correct path, I found myself walking between apple orchards, with crates stacked in the corners, ready for picking season. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of oast house chimneys beyond the neat rows of trees, branches heavy with glistening, ripe, apples; A Darling Buds of May scene, that left me half-expecting to bump into Catherine Zeta-Jones. I was woken from my reverie by the sight of the porta-shithouse and hand-washing station that ensure that our fruit isn’t contaminated as it’s picked. And then I came across the trailer park (“Bramley Avenue”) and the fleet of minibuses that transports teams of seasonal workers to the fields, orchards, and vinyl-covered, raised beds of strawberries (the most profitable produce in our supermarkets). I only came across a few small groups of Eastern European workers in the areas that I walked through. Perhaps most of the workers were in other parts of the farm, or perhaps they haven’t arrived in Kent yet. One car at the site had its windscreen stove in and damage on its side. I wondered whether that was a sign of some tensions related to the migrant workers.
I wonder what plans the farms in this area have for a post-Brexit future. Walking through the community-maintained No Man’s Orchard, gave me a picture of what orchards used to look like. Its name derives from the fact that it lay between between two parishes – Harbledown and Chartham (yet another village that appears to have lost a historic pub). Farming in Kent has evolved before and I suppose it will again.
After No Man’s Orchard, I passed Bigbury Camp; the earthwork ruins that were the site of Julius Caesar’s first skirmish with the people of Kent (the Cantii) after he landed on the coast at nearby Deal. He wrote about the battle. The Roman legionnaires ultimately prevailed by using their big shields and piling earth against the defenders’ fortified positions. But Caesar had some praise the defenders; the tenacious Cantii.
I soon arrived in suburban Canterbury; the brick houses looking much those around any English town, except for the Cathedral tower that kept appearing between the rooftops. I walked through the Franciscan Gardens, past the city walls and the city’s West gate, through which countless pilgrims have passed over the centuries. Today, pedestrians walk around it and only cars go through. From there, I entered the crowded St. Peter’s Street and High Street. I passed museums, kiosks selling punt trips, restaurants, and the historic pilgrim hospital. At the statue of Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th Century author of The Canterbury Tales, tour guides point out that one of the figures around the base was modelled after the movie idol Orlando Bloom, a son of the city. It’s a cheap gimmick to keep teenage language students interested, but Chaucer was just as bad; sexing up his stories with bawdy bits.
I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the welcome that I received at the cathedral. On seeing my pilgrim’s credential, the woman at the ticket office waived the entrance fee and invited me to store my rucksack at the security office. From there, I visited the welcome centre, where I received a stamp for my credential, information on how to receive a blessing at the cathedral, and directions to the stone that marks the start of the Via Francigena. I explained that I plan to come back another day to start that walk.
The cathedral was more beautiful than I expected, despite the fact that it’s undergoing a massive restoration project, which hides the towers on the outside and the vaulted ceilings inside. Although this wasn’t my first time in Canterbury, I had never been into the cathedral for which it is famous. I sat for a while in the nave, admiring an art installation by Philip Baldwin and Monica Guggisberg that seemed to fit the space so well. Titled “Boat of Remembrance,” it comprises 100 glass amphorae to represent 100 years of remembrance since the First World War. Part of a set of installations in the cathedral, called “Under an Equal Sky,” I found this work particularly moving, the more so after I read these words in the description:
The massed vessels are a memorial for the people, of all nationalities, who died in the First World War but also bring to mind those who were part of the great movement of peoples following both wars and who continue to seek refuge from violent hostilities today.
So I was wrong when I suggested, in my previous blog post, that we haven’t reached the moment when all of the victims of the war can be remembered equally in a church. Like other Anglican cathedrals, Canterbury has displays of regimental flags, and patriotic messages in commemorative plaques and stones. That is one of the roles of the Church of England. I expected it. But I was pleasantly surprised to also see this broad and inclusive response to the centenary of the First World War.
The walk was worthwhile. It put me in touch with people and places that I had been unaware of. It confirmed some of my feelings about the character of the country I grew up in, and the state that it’s in at this strange, tense, time. But it also gave me new perspectives and a better understanding of what is going on. One preconception that I conquered on my walk was my idea that my home village, with its street called The Street is unusually straightforward to the point of lacking creativity. I discovered that most villages in the slice of England that I walked through have a street called The Street. To paraphrase the film Casablanca, I discovered that my village was just like any other village, only more so.