Sorry for the corny title, I just couldn’t resist!
I spent a whole semester of high school studying the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s 24 stories “told by” a group of pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. My favorite teacher Mrs. George had a slightly eccentric style and an unquenchable enthusiasm for literature, and I guess at least some of it stuck. I still remember feeling like we were opening a window to the past as we decoded the lines of Middle English. So I didn’t want to leave England without a visit to the real thing.
Chaucer wrote his tales in the late 1300s. That was already 200 years after Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed in the cathedral by four knights and, three years after, sanctified. That made it a pilgrimage site, reason enough for fame; but in fact it’s hard to go anywhere in England without hearing the name Canterbury. The archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Church of England, so it comes up in lots of historical tours and venues.
It turns out that Canterbury is a lovely, but infrequently mentioned, day trip from London–via the train, of course! It’s a small town, easily explored with time to get back to London for dinner. Just check ahead to make sure the cathedral will be open for visiting.
- The train station is right downtown, so you almost immediately find yourself in the historical core around the cathedral, with its cobblestone streets and timbered houses. Pieces of the Roman/medieval wall are intact (perhaps restored) so it really feels a bit like walking into the Tales!
- The Great Stour river divides for a while into two branches, both of which run through Canterbury.
- A quiet street. Check out the ancient building on the right! It’s quite amazing that anything is still standing, as Canterbury was targeted by Hitler and heavily bombed in 1942. (For some heart-stopping photographs, see https://www.kentonline.co.uk/canterbury/news/the-day-bombs-fell-like-126561/). Thank goodness some of these old structures have survived.
While we couldn’t help stopping here and there on the way from the station, the cathedral was our initial destination. There’s a small admission fee, and then you’re inside the cobblestoned grounds with the cathedral ahead. Part of it was closed to visitors for a service; that just meant we got to explore the rest of it while listening to the choir!
- I love seeing modern art in ancient buildings. This cathedral is so large that even my wide angle lens just couldn’t capture the awesome scale. I’ve cut off the ceiling, there is much more to the left and right, and the archway visible under the glass art is the quire, only about halfway to the end.
One of the crookedest buildings we’ve seen.
Before we knew it we were back on the train to London. Afterward I was tempted to re-read the Canterbury Tales. I did find my old well-thumbed, marked up copy of the Norton Anthology, but it would definitely be a challenge! Even just a few lines, though, bring back memories of this lovely town.