My Canterbury Tale

I love London. I do. And sometimes I say that with conviction. Other times I just can’t. The smog and the noise and the people and the aggressive displays of concrete can render me completely immobile. In love with London – in love with the quirky East London culture, the plentiful food markets, the never-ending variety of the city – but suffocating and still, all the same.

I’ve discovered two antidotes (not including my wine and Downton Abbey nights). One, find a new place in London to explore. Oftentimes just the simplicity of breaking my daily routing and wandering along the Thames, or sampling way through Borough Market on a quiet Thursday afternoon, reminds me that London is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen.

London Borough Market
London Borough Market

If, however, the city and I simply need some time apart, I rely on day trips. Sometimes I’ll head up to Edinburgh for a quiet weekend, or perhaps the Kew Gardens on the outskirts of London. And the other week, I visited Canterbury for the first time.

I’ve always known I would visit Canterbury someday. It’s strange, I’ve never actually made travel plans, so you’d think I wasn’t that interested. But I’ve always had a rather bizarre obsession with Geoffrey Chaucer – (how could you not love this man?)

Via A Knight’s Tale

And the legends swirling around Canterbury have held an unexplained mysticism over me for many years; it just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t explore the infamous city someday.

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I’ve either been traveling with Chris or to visit Chris for months, which has been wonderful. But for once, it felt liberating to return to my own method of traveling, where I happily disregard timetables and plans. It was a day to wake up when I wanted to, arrive at the train station when it suited me, and hop on the first train that interested me. Pure bliss.

As it so happened, the train to Canterbury was scheduled to depart five minutes after I arrived at King’s Cross station. Plans sorted.

To place myself in the right mindset, I read Joanna Courtney’s The Chosen Queen on the train ride over. Medieval feasts, courtly politics, and tensions between the Saxons, Normans, and Vikings were all buzzing in my head by the time I arrived in Canterbury.

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Sometimes when we visit tourist destinations, we forget that people call these sites home. With this in mind, I made an active effort to pay attention to the real versus the cultivated. And I could see it. I could see the efforts the town has made to preserve history for the sake of tourists. I could see how locals might become tired and even disgusted by this misplaced romanticism many of us feel towards the Medieval Ages. I could see the flaws: the ramshackle houses and debris littering the outskirts of the town. Contemporary, gritty life exists as it always has.

But even so, shop after shop – building after building – has been preserved for hundreds of years. Tea rooms boast of their long-occupied ghosts and original timber framing. 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe lived in Canterbury once upon a time, and vestiges of his past decorate the town. In contrast to many other touristy sites, there was a certain authenticity – and lack of tacky shops – that I found quite refreshing.

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Tiny Tim’s Tearoom – my favorite!

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marlowe

And then of course, at the center of the history and cobbled streets, the ancient pubs and inns, resides Canterbury Cathedral. The site of so much love and hope and bloodshed.

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The cathedral’s history can be dated back to 597 AD, and had been completely rebuilt by the time of Sir Thomas Becket’s untimely death in 1170.

Truthfully, while I can admire and appreciate cathedrals, I find that they oftentimes blend into one another. I expected to enjoy my trip to Canterbury, but I didn’t expect to feel such a strong connection to the cathedral, particularly given that I’m not especially religious. Perhaps it was the crypt,  void of light, filled with ancient stone archways and quiet corners to pray and hear the distant, muted echoing of voices above. Maybe it was the stained glass windows of King Edward IV, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and their sons, who would one day become the famed “Princes in the Tower.”

Maybe it was the tour guide. He had a few wisps of white hair and a distracting habit of rubbing his hands together as he spoke.

I’d like to take this time to point out that I hadn’t actually signed up for a tour. The man simply appeared by my side unannounced.

“Is it okay if we take pictures?” I asked.

“Yes, of course!” The tour guide smiled. “Don’t forget to get a photo of Adam.” He looked suddenly quite grave.

“Adam…?”

“…And Eve?” He raised his eyebrows.

“Right. Of course. Why exactly?”

“Oh, well,” the tour guide gestured as grandly as an elderly man could (considering he’s British), and guided me towards the front of the cathedral. “Adam is one of our most prized possessions,” he confided. “The oldest stained glass window in all of Britain, right there before your eyes.” He beamed, as proud as if he had created it himself.

Can you spot Adam?
Can you spot Adam? (He’s the fourth one on the bottom row)

The man shook his head and seemed ever so slightly shocked to see me still standing next to him. He handed me a brochure.

“Right, yes, follow the American Trail,” he winked as he placed it in my hands. I tucked my third Canterbury Cathedral brochure of the day into my pocket. Believe it or not, all three were subtly different. Impressive, really. This one highlighted various spots throughout the cathedral where Americans could rejoice in their infinitesimal historical influence. I thanked him, knowing the brochure would remain folded in my pocket, and continued to explore the vast, seemingly endless arched halls.

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When I reached the entryway to the crypt, I stopped. Cold. Uneasy. I raised my camera to snap a photo of the wooden door before me, when something halted me. Somehow, in some way, it felt almost vile to take a picture of this innocent little door. I replaced the lens cap and stumbled away from it, eager to move into a warmer, lighter space. Once sitting in the pews, I realized that I had been standing in the same exact spot where Sir Thomas Becket – canonized as a Saint after his death – had been brutally murdered by King Henry II’s men.

I took a deep breath, ridding myself of ghosts and nonexistent threats, and descended into the crypt.

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Okay, I will warn you now: do not, under any circumstances, take pictures in the crypt.

Allow me to explain.

The crypt stretches far beneath the cathedral, and it wasn’t until I entered a room with ancient medieval engravings decorating the walls that I even remembered to retrieve my camera. I was spellbound.

I took a seat in the corner to simply absorb my surroundings as a man and woman snapped pictures of the room with relentless enthusiasm. Snap. Snap. Snap. Snap. Around the time the woman left, another lady sauntered inside.

She reeked of cigarettes, and had the haggard, taught face of someone who smoked too much, or maybe just never learned to smile.

“This is a waste of time,” she muttered under her breath, and crunched into the chair near me. She took up a fair amount of space, leaving me crowded and cramped. I moved towards the alter.

Turned on my camera.

Undid my lens cap.

Adjusted the aperture. When suddenly –

“What in the absolute fuck do you think you’re doing?”

The Cigarette Lady had spoken.

There were only a handful of us in the room, but with the way she spoke, you’d think she felt the need to be heard over a screaming heavy metal band.

“Sorry?” The man next to me lowered his camera.

The woman rolled her eyes and stomped over towards me. I’m not sure what I expected her to say, but it certainly wasn’t what came out of her mouth.

“Are you French?”

I’m blond, tall, and blue-eyed. Not exactly Marion Cotillard, and I was about to say so, when I just…didn’t?

I’m honestly not sure what came over me.

Maybe it was her defiant expression, and some child-like impulse to mess with her. Maybe I secretly still want to be French, and seized the opportunity to do so. Either way, instead of correcting her, I simply nodded my head. “Oui, pourquoi?”

“Figures,” she spat. “Can you even read?”

She wore eight rings, all of which cut deeply into her skin as she pointed her puffy fingers at me.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” She continued swearing so loudly, I had an absurd, fleeting fear that the bones of Sir Thomas Becket would begin rattling in anxiety. Hasn’t he been through enough?

She disappeared and returned carrying a sign with a picture of a camera and an “x” through it. I tried explaining that the man must not have seen it, as I hadn’t either, and that we were able to take pictures in the rest of the cathedral, and that I hadn’t even taken a picture, but she was having none of it.

“I’ll report you, I will. This is vandalism. We all have the respect not to take pictures in a church, but you!  Oh,” She shook her head, clearly too distraught by our horrific act of vandalism to speak. “You have no respect. You’re a disgrace.”

The man spoke with a mild, pleasant smile. “No worries, M’am. I must not have seen. You’re right, but there’s no need to cause a scene. I won’t take any more pictures in the crypt.”

“Oh it’s too late for that,” she seethed. “I’m reporting you, I am.”

By this point, I was certain that everyone in the massive crypt could hear each word she spoke with crystal clarity. I stepped forwards, mistaken in thinking that perhaps I could try one last time to speak reasonably to this (as it seemed) rather miserable woman, when she whirled on me, her tiny eyes beady and cruel and sad. “Fuck you. I mean really, truly, FUCK you. You’re nothing but a rude – thick – French – bitch,” she drew out each syllable, as if expecting me to burst into tears.

“You understood that, didn’t you?” she sneered.

I just stared at her, thinking, should I tell her I’m not French?

How would she react if I started speaking in my American accent? Probably smash one of the glass stained windows in outrage at my sin, I thought.

The photographer and I glanced at each other and shrugged. For all of that, I hadn’t even taken the photo I wanted. I spent the next 15 minutes lurking in the crypt, imagining guards whisking me away, which would only follow in a confusing, awkward conversation in which I’d have to explain why I pretended to be French in the first place. Despite claiming I’m not religious, I feel uncomfortably guilty about lying in church, so consider this my confession.

Needless to say, it wasn’t quite the peaceful cathedral experience I had expected.

Regardless, I spent the remainder of my time in the cathedral enjoying the sights and history, and finally left feeling as if I had visited a place I was always meant to see.

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From Sir Thomas Becket to The Canterbury Tales, Christopher Marlowe and the ancient, preserved shops, Canterbury contains more historical cobbled alleyways to explore than I could have imagined. So if you’re ever tired of London, visit Canterbury.

Just don’t take pictures in the crypt.

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