diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day Out: Canterbury
It's one of the oldest cities in England, and historically one of the most important. The Romans kicked things off, but it's as the cradle of Christianity that Canterbury's best known. The cathedral dominates the town, but there are also several museums and places of interest tucked away in its medieval streets. And all now less than an hour from London by High Speed train. So that's where I went yesterday. Starting at the big church.
Visit Canterbury
The Beautiful South: Canterbury
Canterbury 2010 tourist brochure (pdf)
The Canterbury Tour

Visiting... Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury CathedralThere's been a cathedral in Canterbury for the best part of a millennium and a half. Originally under the rule of Rome, it switched under Henry VIII to become the centre of the home-grown Church of England. The cathedral's a huge building, easily the dominant structure here or hereabouts, and its grounds take up a fair proportion of the square mile within the old city walls. Medieval pilgrims made their way here in droves, seeking solace at the shrine of a murdered saint. Entrance is via an intricately carved town gate, much of which is original but the bronze Jesus is a modern replacement for the original ripped out by Cromwell [photo]. That's the spot, opposite the Tourist Information Centre and immediately to the left of Starbucks. Pay your £7.50, give the Archbishop your Gift Aid, and you're in. [photo]

Whenever you visit a cathedral it's always half-covered by scaffolding - that's one of the unwritten rules of ecumenical tourism. At the moment it's the east end that's shrouded, but that leaves the main west end towers clean and clear and spiky and sparkling [photo]. I arrived early enough to have most of the place to myself, with just a few folk attending a bring and buy in the Chapter House to contend with [photo]. The interior was as awe-inspiring as it must have been to those first pilgrims, with a high vaulted ceiling, dazzling stained glass and the nave stretching down to the choir screen. I wandered around a little before deciding that I'd better get an audio guide or else I'd surely miss something important. And I was right.

Canterbury CathedralDown a staircase, in a transept called The Martyrdom, is the spot where Archbishop Thomas à Becket was murdered in 1170. A very simple square altar marks the site, or more precisely the single word "Thomas" carved in red letters on the stone floor. Only the audio guide revealed the gruesome method of TàB's assassination - "the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral" [photo]. No wonder they made him a saint. So long as there isn't a party of French schoolkids milling round by the radiators, or a couple of old ladies trying to rearrange their handbags out of shot, you might get a decent cerebellum-free photo. [photo]

Becket's shrine used to be down in the Norman crypt - now a vast vaulted basement set aside for private prayer. But his remains were later translated up to the chapel behind the high altar [photo], due to public demand, and presented to the world in a glittering casket. Pilgrims came from far and wide, making their final approach by shuffling up a stone staircase on their knees. But they stopped coming when Henry VIII had the shrine destroyed, so today all you'll see is a single lit candle (and the deep hollows those kneecaps eroded in the nearby steps).

Given this cathedral's position at the heart of Anglicanism, I was expecting a harder sell. A quick prayer over the loudspeakers on the hour, a few lists of services dotted around, and a single invite to pray at the very end of the audio guide, that's all. I appreciated Canterbury Cathedral all the more for its lack of missionary zeal, with the emphasis far more on welcome, sharing and understanding. If only the ancient Church had acted more like that, maybe with a gift shop selling tea towels, less blood would have been shed.

Visiting... St Augustine's Abbey
St Augustine's Abbey Visitor CentreEngland's history, even world history, would have been very different without St Augustine. He was sent from Rome by Pope Gregory in 596AD, and it was his job to try to convince pagan Britons to turn to Christianity. That spark was lit when he met King Æthelbert of Kent, who proved fairly easy to convert, and his entire kingdom soon followed. Augustine was granted some land outside Canterbury's city walls to build a monastery (across the ring road, past the pub, opposite a conveniently-sited Londis). Henry VIII, yet again, is the reason why the site's now mostly vacant. On Saturday morning I was the only visitor, for the reason that it had been snowing and the grounds were too dangerous to enter due to ice. I could only peer across the fence at the expanse of white lawn dotted with piles of stone and bits of wall (and the odd snowman). But I was permitted to look around inside the museum building for free, as a compensatory treat. Here were some proper sculpted chunks of stone and several archaeological finds, chronologically displayed, plus a few half-price biscuits in the English Heritage shop. Not quite what I was hoping to see, but serves me right for visiting in February.

St Martin's Church, CanterburyVisiting... St Martin's Church
Further up the road past the prison, where no tourist would ever think to look unprompted, is a genuine survivor from ye olde Canterbury. It's part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that also encompasses the much larger cathedral and St Augustine's Abbey site. It's St Martin's, and it's England's oldest (surviving) church [photo]. Parishioners here get to meet, pray and hold coffee mornings in a place of worship that's been operational since the 6th century AD. It was originally the private chapel of Queen Bertha - King Æthelbert's delightfully-named wife - and has evolved over the centuries into a minor parish church. I was lucky to find it open, taking refuge from the snow and biting wind beyond the old oak door. A volunteer perched in the chancel with a good book looked up to check I wasn't a vandal or a thief, then left me to look briefly around. Several bricked-up windows and doorways, at least one of Saxon origin, hinted at centuries of rebuilding. The nave narrowed abruptly beyond a high pointed arch, while the roof was modest with timbered beams. Bertha's church was so very unlike the grand cathedral up the road, but far more representative of the modern Church at the heart of its community.


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