As was expected, the day was gray and cold, almost too cold, but the weather was a perfect match for a taste of medieval England. I had read a little about Canterbury before heading out and found out that Canterbury derives from the Old English word Cantwarebyrig
which means "fortress of the men of Kent". Interestingly enough, when we came upon the city limits we were greeted by old stone walls surrounding the old town, with the occasional set of small windows and watch towers. Fortress indeed.
Dane John Garden was just across the car park, and even in the silver mist of the morning sky it looked quite stunning. We later learned it was the place of a Norman motte and bailey castle. What is a motte and bailey castle? Well a motte is a small man-made hill and a bailey is a an enclosed courtyard, so it's just a type of castle common in the days of William the Conqueror and his mates.
The motte in this site was still preserved and we could walk up via the spiraling track upwards, right to the peak, where the statue of Alderman James Simmon's who apparently graced the people of Canterbury by endowing them these gardens. We could see the newer developments outside the city walls from up there, the more residential areas of Canterbury.
We noticed some old ruins just past the gardens so we climbed down and headed in their direction. It turns out it was the Canterbury Castle, or the remains thereof, built by the Normans in the 1080's. There was nothing much to the outer walls of the abandoned castle except the old tales of men that it whispered.
Inside, the corroded walls still clung to its old and wasted rocks, but told of battles and lords, shields and glory. The word "castle" denotes medieval grandeur but this one was quite small, and although in ruins, we could still tell that this did not house an important lord. And as is common in old remains, the flutter of bird's wings echoed throughout the empty shell of the fortress. Imagination is a great thing when in these sites.
By this time I was so cold it was painful, so Ed and I ventured into the center of town where people were already starting to come out of their houses, some in their Sunday best on their way to church, others looking for breakfast. We found a nice coffee shop among the array of old medieval inns, pubs, restaurants, and shops. While sipping our life-saving cappuccinos we gazed upon the magnificent presence of the Canterbury Public Library. This building was exquisitely English, too bad it wasn't open to enter. Artistic depictions and posters of the Wife of Bath, the Knight, the Friar, and the Pardoner and other Canterbury Tales characters were hung around the library.
We decided to leave the bustle of the main streets for later, so we followed the signs that read Riverside Walk
. Tiny bridges and stone pathways crossed or bordered the narrow river that flowed constantly northbound. Closer to the city, luscious gardens decorated the banks of the river and as we were walking through one of the old bridges, we noticed two swans quickly waddling upstream. Too idyllic to be true.
We found ourselves back in the narrow streets of town upon the mighty archways of the cathedral decorated with colorful coat of arms held by angels and Christ enthroned welcoming the pilgrims. We paid our entrance fee of £6 and were advised to enter the crypt first, since it was to be off limits within 15 minutes, as a
baptism was about to take place. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed in the crypts but Ed and I were naughty and managed to sneak a few pictures of the dark undercroft. There was a board illuminated with candles where you could write your prayer to be read in Sunday's mass. I wrote: a prayer for Ed and Lucia so that they may continue their travels in safety and love.
Inside the cathedral, the sky-tingling naves of Gothic arches were clearly not in the measure of man, but in the measure of God. Sculptures of saints and angels looked over the visitors from high above, and the supine effigies of some of the Church fathers flanked the central nave. According to the Canterbury Tales, the group of pilgrims were traveling to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett in this cathedral. Beckett was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century and was assassinated in the cathedral by men of King Henry II.
The cloisters of the church were very aged, but like a good wine, they looked more graceful and beautiful in their decrepit state. The vault's arch ribs were decorated with different coat of arms, like the blood that runs through veins. Along the floor of the cloisters were tombs of lords and ladies interred, the names on their stones barely visible anymore.
It was getting increasingly cold and a light drizzle commenced just as we were exiting the cathedral. It was finally time for lunch! There were many places to choose from and any cuisine one could want, but we wanted a traditional English lunch at a pub, enjoying a pint of lager or stout. We sat in Hobgoblin through sandwiches and chips, with a bit of coleslaw salad all for just under £8 each -including the pints, of course.
Alas, our visit to Canterbury was coming to an end as the cold and the rain were making our sightseeing unbearable. So as pilgrims ourselves we bid our goodbyes to this medieval fortress for religion, art, history, literature and architecture. Although there were some things we did not get to see and the weather was....well, typically English, we managed to leave with a good sense of what Canterbury was all about : once medieval, always medieval.
When I was in High School I had to read the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, but since I never paid attention in class I was surprised to find that there actually was a place called Canterbury in England. So with nothing planned for Sunday, Ed and I drove to this old city in eastern Kent, just 2 hours from London.