Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Twenty-One

Thursday, 6 April, 1989
London to Rochester to Canterbury to Moatenden (Kent)
Day Twenty-one

Got up and dressed in time to go feed the meter a pound or two. That was only good for an hour but that’s all the meter will give you in the daytime.

Phyllis* was already gone to her job but one or two of the roommates was rattling around. Didn’t see any of them, though.

Made myself some breakfast then got out of there, bag and baggage, around 9:00. Did not want a ticket.

I’d made no particular plans for today, but I thought I’d like to see Westminster Hall. So I muddled through the very slow London traffic, figuring I’d get down to the Parliament buildings and check out the parking and take things from there. But when I hit Parliament Square the sidewalks were lined with people behind barricades and bobbies everywhere. Parking situation didn’t look hopeful enough to even mess with. So I took the Lambeth Bridge south then started looking for the A2 to Canterbury.

This morning I took a version of Phyllis’* advice of last night. I spotted a coach with a Kent logo on it and followed it. Although the way to the A2 was fairly well marked, staying in the wake of that light green coach made things a lot easier.

I was well into the suburbs when I heard on the radio that all the hooha in Westminster was because Mikhail Gorbachev was in town today, Raisa in tow. Another good reason to skip town. That could’ve been a zoo.

The signs for Rochester came along just before the junction of the A2 with the M2. I decided what the heck, as Dr. Gendle [my Oxford medieval architecture history tutor] says the castle’s worth seeing, I might as well look it over as long as I’m here.

You go through a town called Strood first, then across a good big stretch of the River Medway, before you get into Rochester proper. The downtown is still pretty old looking but they obviously do a good deal by way of shipping. I parked the car on the street under the castle wall, opposite a marina.

The light meter on the Minolta is definitely screwy. The ring on the lens is stuck and the lollipop and stick never line up. So first item on the agenda was to find a camera store on High Street and get it checked.

The man there says the meter’s fine, if you disregard the fact that the f-stop ring on the lens is stuck. I nearly let him sell me a used exposure meter but the thought of having to fiddle with it was too tedious. Besides, I’ll see about getting the camera fixed in Oxford, this weekend. Did get a typical reading for today’s cloudy conditions and that’ll have to do. You’d think that after fifteen years of using that lens I’d be able to set it without the meter, anyway.

Well, we’ll see.

Another thing-- the camera’s case smells like beer. That’s strange, because I didn’t have it in the pub with me Tuesday night.

It was mizzling a bit when I got back to the castle. Came in by way of King John’s round turret, or rather, through the encircling wall to the left of it. The castle entrance is up some modern steps to the forebuilding. Inside you meet the admission desk and the postcard concession. Your tariff paid, you turn right to go into the castle proper-- though it’s more like going outside, since the hall and solar are now roofless all the way up.

The circulation is all around the perimeter, with stairways in the corner towers. Kept having to remind myself that the stairs wouldn’t’ve been so precariously worn in the 11th and 12th Centuries. But still, the old owners had a fine disregard for the niceties, like railings and uniform riser heights, considered so necessary by 20th Century American housing codes. The National Trust has supplied the railings, but some of them were wet with paint today. It was really too bad for some of the other visitors, such as some women wearing medium-heeled shoes. With my suede waffle-stompers I was fine.

The central wall is still there, of course. I’m trying to remember if one of the shafts in it was a rudimentary sort of dumbwaiter, or if that was just the loo. Pretty fancy loo, if so.

The castle also has some nicely-carved fireplaces for the various chambers. All very up to date and civilised, for the time.

They’ve built a new roof, with a skylight, over the chapel, which is in the upper storey of the forebuilding. It looked better-preserved than the rest of the castle. It got me thinking about the religious attitudes of the old inhabitants-- were they sincere Christians or just using God (like so many of us do) as an endorser of their own plans and prejudices--in their case, the making of war on their neighbors? From our pacifistic perspective it’s easy to think the latter, but who are we to judge?

Could’ve done with less rain today. Used the flash a lot, which overcame some of the meter problems. Deliberately set it low to preserve some of the effects of the subdued lighting.

After the purchase of two or three postcards, I went out and took a look at the remainder of the castle grounds. There’s a very fine dogtooth-moulded Norman archway to the northwest-- except that it’s a restoration. I feel so ambivalent about that.

Skipped the cathedral-- no time to satisfy mere curiosity-- and returned to the High Street in search of something portable to eat. This town turned out to be remarkably short on fruit stands, which is what I really wanted. But I got a box of shortening biscuits from a grocers and a couple of disgustingly greasy pastries called Eccles cakes from a bakery and returned, dripping crumbs, to the car.

Took off at around 1:00. Tried to be creative on my route out of Rochester but I only succeeded in getting myself sequestered down a potholed, dead end lane. Back across the bridge across the Medway and through Strood, then.

Listened on the radio to the effusions of enthusiasm for Gorby and company that were coming out of London. I can’t believe the simplemindedness of some people. They probably think Mrs. Thatcher’s a spoilsport because she advises caution.

Back on the M2 and thereby to Canterbury. Cute town, lots left of the ancient city wall. But with all those generations of pilgrims and tourists you’d think they could do better regarding parking. I drove round and round and round, literally, before I found a carpark that had spaces, let alone one that was affordable. And we were talking 40p per half hour, at that.

Anyway, ditched the Astra and threaded my way though a pedestrian mall in the city center and eventually found myself at the Cathedral.

More scaffolding, lots of tourists. Expected by now, and at least it wasn’t high season.

Entered by way of the southwest porch. But I couldn’t hang about contemplating the nave, as one is required to purchase a photography permit. You get that at a little bookstall in the southwest transept. So I made my way there first.

After that, I passed between the parish altar and the massive choir screen to the northwest transept, to where it all happened in 1170.

It’s a little daunting to consider that-- there’s no doubt of it whatsoever-- in this very spot St. Thomas á Becket was murdered. And whatever you may think about the relative merits of his case and of Henry’s, there’s still the fact that Thomas was upholding as best he knew the will of God. There’s an immediacy about being there, even after these long centuries, enhanced by the evocative modern sculpture, a cross formed of two jagged swords and their scabbards, set above the altar. And behind you is the cloister door through which the four knights entered . . . Kyrie eleison!

There was also a plaque commemorating the occasion on which Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Runcie prayed there together. Very sweet and ecumenical, what?

Took the stairs down to the crypt, with its chapel and treasury. There’s a sign reminding people that that’s still part of the church, but some boys down there hadn’t got the idea. I refrained from adding my admonishments to the noise, though.

Quickly scanned the display of church plate then reëmerged back up around in the southwest transept. Being limited as to time I didn’t spend much time in the choir, rather I crossed quickly again northwards and climbed the aisle steps to the Trinity Chapel. They’re a big flight of them, but I decided that if all those people for all those centuries could make it up without complaining so could I. It was piquant to think I was making my own Canterbury pilgrimage, anyway. I liked the sense of heritage.

The glass in the Trinity Chapel is absolutely brilliant, in any way you use the word. God, those glaziers know what they were doing! 17th Century Flemish stuff is cut and paste in comparison.

While I was contemplating the Becket miracle windows the PA system came on and a man’s voice welcomed the visitors to the cathedral. It also reminded everyone that this is not only a tourist attraction but also a house of worship and prayer. After informing us when the evening service was to be, the voice requested everyone to please bow their heads for the Lord’s Prayer. I knew there were a lot of French tourists about today-- there always are, lately-- and I wondered if they’d know what was going on.

Apparently so, because although not everyone seemed actually to be praying, the noise level, blessedly, went down.

I wonder who that was on the PA. Robert Runcie himself? No, probably not . . .

I passed around then and stood before the spot where Becket’s tomb once stood. There’s nothing left of it now-- Henry VIII and his successors made sure of that. But still, at the site of the final earthly lodging of a determined and visionary cleric I was moved to pray for the ministers soon to come out of Coverdale College*, for their ministries and vocations, and especially for Nigel’s* . . . O sancte Thoma, ora pro vobis!

To the east is the Corona with its altar-- it’s roped off so you must survey the glass there from a respectful distance. The Jesse Tree window is there.

I came back round via the south aisle of the Trinity Chapel; I was disappointed to see that both St. Anselm’s and St. Andrew’s Chapels, pre-Becket parts of the Cathedral, weren’t open to visitors. But as long as I was now back on the north side, I popped out to see the cloisters. They’re elaborately fan-vaulted, and ornamented with everybody’s and everyone’s shields and arms.

The Cathedral bookstall, in the southwest transept, didn’t have as many nice postcards as I would have wanted. Still, I purchased one or two and was reminded at any rate to go visit the West Window with its image of Adam delving, before I departed. It’s some of the most ancient glass here.

Couldn’t stay much longer, though: I was afraid of getting a parking ticket. But I did pop into a souvenir shop on the High Street and got more postcards and a nicer Cathedral guidebook than they had in the church itself.

One thing they didn’t have was a copy of The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. Nothing but modern. If it could be done with sufficient economy, it’d be neat to have an edition that was dual-language, with illuminations.

Got back to the carpark by 4:30 or so; no ticket, thank God. Got out onto the A28 and headed southwest.

I really love the names of the towns in this place! Between Canterbury and Ashford there’s actually a town called "Old Wives"! Is that the original site of the original tales?

Got the A262 then the A274 and began to look for Mrs. Deane’s guidemarks for Moatenden Priory-- except for doing it the other way round: she’d assumed I’d be coming from the north. They were good directions and I spotted the turn-off just fine. But as I wasn’t expected till 7:30 and it wasn’t even 6:00, I overshot it on purpose and drove up to Sutton Valence to see what I could do about dinner.

Not much, there. I stopped into the local pub. They weren’t serving proper dinners yet, since the cook wouldn’t be in till 6:30 or so. But I could have a beef burger for around six quid. What is this, London or something? I declined and drove down the lane to Chart Sutton. But the pub there wasn’t open yet at all.

Oh well! So I’ll be early!

Mrs. Deane, the white-haired lady who owns Moatenden Priory, didn’t seem to mind. She showed me up some narrow steps to a good sized room overlooking the back garden. It had a fireplace (plugged up, unfortunately), nice dark-wood furniture (including a glass-fronted case full of books), and two twin beds, one of which had a coverlet of patchwork deerskin, with the hair still on. The other had a synthetic thing that was more or less supposed to match it, in a fake fur sort of way.

The other people staying here, a couple from London and their grown daughter, pulled in before I could get my things out of the car. It was a pity, because otherwise I could’ve moved mine and got an unobstructed photo of the front of the house-- part of it is 12th Century.

All day I’d been wondering why the back of my Minolta smelled of beer-- and now I found out why: The lid of the jug of cider I got in Taunton yesterday morning was loose. Oh, boy, are the EuropCar people ever going to love me!

Mrs. Deane suggested I try Headcorn for supper. I’d decided that since it was my last night out I’d splurge on one. The people in the local there were rather friendlier and the prices weren’t so ridiculous. I still had to wait for the cook to arrive, though, so I retired to a table with a half pint of ale and Walter Scott and sat back to observe the goings on.

It was rather different from the Plough in Somerset. The people here came filtering in wearing jackets and ties-- good chance they’d just finished a commute from London. And when one bloke pulled out a portable phone and made a call, I almost burst out laughing, it was so incongruous. Because for all that, it still was a basic British pub, with kids running in and out (the boy may’ve belonged to the landlord) and the usual decor, enhanced in this case by airplane memorabilia.

I ordered roast beef with peas and potatoes and was glad to get it, too. Can’t get it at Coverdale*.

Back at Moatenden, I sat down in the little white painted hall reading in front of its great fireplace and making faces at the little dogs that trotted in and out. That fireplace is taller than I am-- I could’ve walked right into it. The fire on its bed of ashes and coals occupied one corner-- you could just imagine pulling a chair into the other side of it.

I didn’t see any other of the company while I was there; I retired to bed around 9:30. I decided, even though I’d been sitting on the bed with the fake fleece coverlet, to sleep on the other one-- one doesn’t often get a chance to slumber under deerskin and I doubted I’d ever have such again.


blackdiamond06 said...


Canterbury. I am so incredibly jealous. I've been wanting to go there ever since reading some of the tales in English in high school...



St. Blogwen said...

If I were to kick myself at this late date, it'd be for being so cheap with the parking meter and failing to stay for Evensong. I'm sure I could've fed it another 80p and I had plenty of time before I was due at the B&B, after all.

But if you plan it right, it might be possible for you to go some day, especially if you travel in the off-season. And live on stale fish & chips and cold pastries!

blackdiamond06 said...

Dude! I love stale fish & chips and cold pastries!


But I might do my masters degree, (if anyone takes me in 2 and a half years), on roman influence on french architecture, so I might make it over to England for a few day trips!

Sandy said...

Ah, St. B. I love to take these trips with you!