Saturday, August 21, 2010

Canterbury Tales

Above the Cathedral Gate

By Chuck
This morning was one of those rare English days when the sun was shining from first thing in the morning. We dared to believe that summer was finally with us. Needless to say, this quickly changed. The day has been overcast, with fairly constant light misting and high humidity. At least it is not cold—for the second time in 11 months we switched back from our down comforter to a lightweight fleece blanket for sleeping warmth.

We wimped out and rode the bus into town, rather than hike or bike it. They made it so easy it was hard to refuse: Walk outside the campground and flag down the next bus. Of course we had to pay £2.50 each for a return ticket—that’s English for round trip. I am glad we did it, especially since we carried back perishables on the return.

We really only aimed at 3 definite activities, today: Wifi access, walking tour of the city, and meds for me.

Second Breakfast—Cappuccino and Danish

We arrived early and found a coffee shop that had free Internet access. Our netbook did not perform well, but we eventually were able to upload the blog. While Claire finished the uploading of pictures and the blog posting, I went to the Welcome Center to purchase tickets for the walking tour. Later, when we finally located a pharmacy we were startled to find that England does not honor prescriptions by foreign doctors—those not in the English registry. In France, we had absolutely no problem with filling our American prescriptions. As they say, cultures differ.

The River Stour

Dunking Stool Along the River Stour—They Had Their Witchhunts Before We Had Ours

I am shocked, shocked I say, to find that there is no actual proof that Chaucer ever visited Canterbury—at least that is what Martin, our guide, said. I guess that shouldn’t make Canterbury Tales any less memorable.

The Unwashed Masses in front of OUR gate

I know of Canterbury from the story of Thomas à Becket. What we have heard is mostly the myth; the truth is more elusive and, presumably, less exciting. Edward II needed to appoint an Archbishop of Canterbury; he chose his carousing buddy, Thomas. The goal was to eliminate opposition to his plans to have a single code of criminal law for civil offenses, rather than the then-current two-track system of separate sets of laws for ecclesiastical and secular offenses. When the church was finished with meting out its punishments, Edward thought it should turn the offender over to civil authorities. Becket underwent a radical change after receiving his appointment and fought his King to maintain ecclesiastical authority, eventually prompting Edward to ask “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest.” Several Knights were up to the task and murdered Becket before fleeing the country.

Naturally, miracles were quickly ascribed to Becket and pilgrimages became commonplace. He was fast-tracked to Sainthood in 3 years, which may set a record of some kind. The far east end of the cathedral is occupied by an apse chapel known as the Corona ("crown"), because it once housed the relic of St. Thomas' head. For many years, the iron-rich (and red) water of the river was touted as red with Becket’s blood.

The truth about Becket may have more to do with hubris than with religious zeal. “As Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162, Thomas Becket excommunicated the archbishop of York and two other bishops in November 1170. The excommunication of the bishops by Becket was his response to the coronation, in June 1170 by the archbishop of York, of the young son of Henry II who was a token co-regent until his father's death in 1183. Becket had been in exile for earlier oppositions to the king, and this brought matters to a head. In Becket's eyes crowning the king was a Canterbury privilege. He agreed terms with Henry and returned to England with the intention of punishing those who had infringed that privilege. When the excommunicated bishops complained to the king, then in Normandy, Henry II's angry words prompted four knights to cross the Channel and kill Becket in his own cathedral on 29 December 1170, a murder that shocked Christendom. Little more than two years later, in February 1173, he was canonized by Alexander III.” In another episode, “When Thomas went to France in 1158 to negotiate a marriage treaty, he travelled with such pomp that the people said: ‘If this be only the chancellor what must be the glory of the king himself?’"

One of the most interesting natural phenomena we encountered was a hybrid American/European Plane tree with a very large trunk. We know these as Sycamores, but Martin said their Sycamores are a distinct species from ours.

Hybrid Plane Tree on Cathedral Grounds

We visited the King’s School. The school became possible when Henry VIII appropriated all properties of the Catholic Church in England and established the Church of England. Those buildings that were not destroyed were repurposed in various ways. One became this school. Originally, the school was for poor boys; they were trained to sing in the choir and learned two musical instruments; there was no other way in that period that such students could receive such a musical education. Today, the same schooling is £25,000 per year. Let us consider a few of the former King’s School Choir boys— Christopher Marlowe (playwright), William Harvey (circulation system), Somerset Maugham (author), Carol Reed (Director—The Third Man), Field Marshall Montgomery (WWII), and Michael Foale (first British astronaut). Somerset Maugham, when he became famous, was asked by the school to fund a scholarship for boys like him who were poor and worthy. They couldn’t find anyone willing to take the scholarship, apparently, so he built a science lab instead. His request was that his ashes be buried under the window upon his death, within sight of the headmaster.

Christopher Marlowe is famous for authoring Doctor Faustus and other Elizabethan era plays. Some claim he is the actual author of the works of Shakespeare—this is often on the grounds that, lacking much formal education, Shakespeare could not have written his works. Perhaps they haven’t really thought through the meaning of ‘genius’.

The building now known as the Mayflower Pub, is the location where the contract to convey the Pilgrims from the port of Plymouth to the New World was actually signed. Since the Mayflower Compact was devised on that voyage, England can claim a role in the development of democracy in America.

Mayflower Pub

Our first view of Canterbury Cathedral was through the Cathedral gates; this view was so restrictive that we were unimpressed, thinking we were seeing the full site. Wrong. This is among the largest cathedrals in England; it is enormous. Originally founded in 602 AD by St. Augustine—of England, not of Hippo—it still functions as the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We were surprised to learn that the bulk of the stone used in its construction was brought in from France—the local stone cannot be squared easily and is unsuitable as the primary substance for building construction.

Canterbury Cathedral

We were surprised to find that many of the buildings in the city that seemed to be of brick construction actually had only a brick tile facing—bricks added to the underlying wood construction would have toppled the buildings.

Tiles on Building Facings

One building was leaning: Attempted renovations many years ago began to distort the structure; it was shored up with steel before it collapsed; but, the chimney did eventually implode, leaving the rest of the house intact; however, the interesting doorway was retained.

Bent House

The second story of the overhanging building down the street, on the right, was a dancing school until about 50 years ago. Only the wooden floors gave it the flexibility to withstand the movement.

Street With Old House

During the early years of mass pilgrimage to the Cathedral, special accommodations were constructed for richer pilgrims; they were able to stroll down covered walkways to rooms with fanciful names—for example, Heaven and Paradise. Poorer folk at in a group mess at the other end of the walkway.

Heaven and Paradise Rooms (in the rear, left corner of the image) for Richer Pilgrims, in Descending Order of Height

As usual, it is always awe-inspiring to see buildings that were rebuilt in the late medieval period—in this case, anywhere from the 1200’s to the 1400’s. It is really quite humbling to those of us from the New World.

The original abbey had its own well and a complete plumbing system. The water had a specific order to follow, from kitchen to monks bathing and ending with the 55 seat latrine, from which the water spewed into the dump for the city—trust me, this latter spot is not the place you wanted to live in Canterbury.

Well for the Abbey

Remains of a Latrine for 55 Persons

The change in the weather has been interesting. We are getting less actual rain, though it constantly threatens, and it misted fairly steadily, today. The wind is stronger than usual, day and evening. We are aware of the humidity at this point—something we have not been conscious of for some time. But, we have not really been cold; in fact, we find ourselves quite warm whenever we exert ourselves—walking to the bus, for example.

The Streets of Canterbury at Mid-day

Pizza with Salad in the Donut Hole Center

In closing, I admit to being disappointed in this, our last campground in England. It is certainly serviceable; but, the facilities are old and it is crowded—it has no real separation between pitches; it has a little bit of the feel of a parking lot. I would have preferred to end on a high note.

Any nation that thinks more of its ease and comfort than its freedom will soon lose its freedom; and the ironical thing about it is that it will lose its ease and comfort too. ~ W. Somerset Maugham


Elle in Umbria said...

I have to know (and bear with me b/c I've been a-political + out of the country for so long):
did you post that ironic quote b/c you perceive America or CA as going that way, or is it a British reference?

In either case it bears memorization.

Chuck and Claire said...

You're very perceptive. We were thinking about the fact that it spoke so much about what's happening today in America.

Elle, packing for CA said...


And yet back we go.