‘Are we sure we’re in Canterbury?’ I said disbelievingly to my friend Brendan of the Travel Pop who came with me on our grand English day out. He shrugged and gave me a blank expression. What does he know, he’s Australian, I thought. He wouldn’t know how much the expectation I built in within me to visit what was meant to be one of the most historic cathedral cities in England. There was a feeling inside me that immediately pounced on me ever since I set foot in the city from our train journey from London. It was a feeling I wasn’t accustomed to but here it is:
It would be a city that would be synonymous to that dark feeling ever since 1170 when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, was stabbed to death in front of the altar by his trusted friend’s knights, King Henry II of England. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” was interpreted wrongly by the King’s followers as he gnashed his teeth for Thomas Beckett interfering his royal commands.
Not only that, a celebrated literacy playwright from Canterbury, Christopher Marlowe, was said to be betrayed by his good friend William Shakespeare who stole Marlowe’s works for his own. Will we ever know? No one will find out. Oh, by the way, he was assassinated as well.
So betrayal runs deep in this town like rivers of blood making its way down the streets. Perhaps I’m being just over dramatic and after all, betrayal was only my first impression. As we walked away from the sight that were the high street stores on the main street leading into town from the train station, I evaluated my betrayal. I was expecting a hugely medieval theme running throughout the entire city and perhaps to my morbid over-imaginative wonder, prisoners in stocks with the residents pelting them with rotten fruit and vegetables. Maybe there would be street urchins running about a royal litter carried by mail chained soldiers and just perhaps, the Old English Language would be spoken here. In truth, I wanted to be transported back in time.
So as we left the main high street riddled with stark modernity, we decided to get a bite to eat at Mrs Jones’ Kitchen where we were pleasantly surprised by a pair of festival troupe reciting poems about the feelings of the world – anger (betrayal I surmised with mirth) and also hope. Would there be hope for my day here? With polite applause, they left to our brunches in peace.
Now we could get exploring. I consulted the Lonely Planet Great Britain book again as I had done on the High Speed Train to Canterbury. Perhaps, we could get a taste of the Canterbury Tales, a collection of 20 stories written in Middle English by the celebrated Geoffrey Chaucer. There was even an interactive museum dedicated to the works. We hightailed it there eagerly, hoping to get the cultural fix that I especially needed. Again, as soon as I saw the building, there was that feeling again.
Consulting the guide outside, I felt that I wouldn’t take away what I wanted. It was just too much for families and children, I gathered, only for slapstick characters I couldn’t take seriously. So onwards, I trudged past the horrific sixties architecture to try to get my next fix of traditional culture – Canterbury Castle.
Shortly after the 1066 Battle of Hastings, Canterbury Castle was built as part of a trio on the old Roman road to London from Dover by William the Conqueror. It was said to be one of the biggest tourist attractions after Canterbury Cathedral in the city. So after a five-minute walk from the Canterbury Bus Station, I was greeted with the towering castle with the expectation that it would have to offer like Caernarfon Castle. There was no way inside it. All I could do was walk around it and appreciate it from a far. Surely, it looked historic but without having to feel you were inside it, I stared bleakly at it under the clouding sky and hurried away to find a toilet. (Perhaps, my bladder was betrayed.)
So what was left to see of Canterbury before hitting up the main attraction that is Canterbury Cathedral? I didn’t profess much hope. Other than the sneaking glimpse of the streets around the Cathedral, Canterbury didn’t feel at all historic. I looked around in vain for the reason why. Has there been a fire or were the city badly bombed in the second world war?
Meanwhile. we had been given recommended advice from a friend of ours who went to university here – ‘You must visit the Dane John Gardens!’ So onwards we went.
Dane John Gardens immediately lifted my spirits as soon as I saw this at the entrance.
The chavs (council house and violent) were indeed at work and I began to smelt a rat when I could see a lot of them with alarming regularity over the course of the day. But in Dane John Gardens, they were not to be found to my relief. For once, we could stroll along the city walls and appreciate the history of the place as Dane John Mound loomed before us. That, we had to climb. The Gardens used to be a Roman Cemetery until it was modified into a Norman Fortification before being turned into a Civic Park in Georgian times.
So the name Dane John? Where did that come from? No, there wasn’t a famous guy called Dane John (pretty cool name, if you ask me) much to my consternation. It’s actually a corruption of the Norman word ‘Donjon,’ which means ‘Fortification.’ Go figure.
It was actually rather quaint standing high on top of Dane John Mound and looking out across the city to see Canterbury Cathedral warmly inviting us in. The rolling green below us gave me breathing space. Not even the loud smacking of lips of the two teenagers on the other side of the monument on top of the mound distracted me from my gladdening reverie. Perhaps I expected too much of this city. Maybe in fact Canterbury was rather alright and I was just picking fault for not meeting my exceedingly high expectations?
Not even, while on the way to Canterbury Cathedral, the discovery of finding out you had to pay a large sum of money to view the remnants of St Augustine’s Abbey, ruins of a sixth century church up close could pinprick my rising mood.
As we stopped for lunch at the Thomas Beckett Pub for some very delicious pie, I was struck with the realisation what I should do next. It was so clear and perhaps a saintly vision from Saint Thomas Beckett himself. (I should note that I had a few of the local ales already). What should you do if you’re betrayed?
You forgive and forget.
With a hearty meal inside me, it was time to pay homage on the Pilgrim’s Way to the very embodiment of betrayal – Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. I’ll tell you what, I’m glad I did. Because the cathedral completely changed my view of Canterbury itself.
But that’s another article…