One of the things I miss most about Freiburg is the city’s medieval flair: the cathedral, the old city gates, the winding, cobbled alleyways. Brighton’s dilapidated Victoriana is charming and fascinating in its own way, but nothing really makes my heart soar like a gloomy old pile of rubble from a thousand years ago. So, when offered the opportunity to get out of Brighton and go see something medieval - like, say, Canterbury Cathedral - well, I don’t even need to give it a second thought. I’m out the door with my camera in my hand before you can say Thomas à Becket .
Distance-wise, Canterbury is only about two hours away from Brighton by car - but it’s a world away from Brighton in just about every other respect. Despite being fairly well packed with tourists, the center of Canterbury lacks the frantic hustle and bustle (not to mention the noise and automobile fumes) of Brighton. It is, in fact, rather quaint, with lots of sagging half-timbered houses and pleasant side streets winding away from the main pedestrianized area.
We entered the heart of town by crossing the River Stour and going through the old West Gate, pictured below. They’ve built a lovely park along the water here, and you can even take boat rides down the placid river. But being the modern pilgrims that we were, we were anxious to get to heart of Canterbury - the cathedral - and so we headed on down the High Street.
The old buildings on the main street have a lot of fascinating architectural details on them, including some very - ahem - interesting grotesques. The one pictured below is a particularly fine example of one of the many breast-hugging grotesques I saw in Canterbury.
The traditional approach to the cathedral is along Mercery Lane, a narrow little alleyway with old lanterns swinging overhead and high buildings overhanging the cobbled street. As I walked along the lane and caught a first glimpse of Christ Church Gate at the end of the street, I had one of those incredible time-slip moments in which I felt as though I had sped backwards through the centuries and arrived in Canterbury circa 1400, with the Knight , the Friar and the Wife of Bath at my side.
This exceedingly content-looking devil smiles down from one of the shops along Mercery Lane. His expression and posture fascinate me; he looks rather jolly - benevolent, even. Maybe he’s pleased with himself because he figures if you’re stopping to window-shop instead of heading directly to the cathedral to do penance and pray, then he can look forward to spending some time with you in the afterlife.
Christ Church Gate is the entryway to the cathedral close. It’s an impressive piece of Tudor architecture, the effect of which is only slightly lessened by the fact that it’s sandwiched between a shop on one side and a Starbucks on the other. In a way, though, I suppose this is somewhat in keeping with the spirit of the whole medieval pilgrimage thing: even in the Middle Ages, Mercery Lane was lined with souvenir shops, and I’m sure there was refreshment on offer for the pilgrims back then as well.
When you walk through Christ Church Gate, you get your first good look at Canterbury Cathedral. It’s not as serenely beautiful on the outside as Salisbury Cathedral, nor as wildly ornate and overwhelmingly massive as the cathedral in Cologne, but it’s still very impressive - particularly when seen against the backdrop of a thundery black sky. Its pale stone takes on a luminous quality in the gloom, and you can feel the weight of history hanging in the air around it.
Depending on how you look at it, we were either very lucky or very unlucky with the timing of our visit to the cathedral. On Sundays, the cathedral closes at 2:30 for services and opens again for tourists at 4:30. We walked through Christ Church Gate at about 2:25 on a Sunday, as the bells of the cathedral were ringing to call the faithful to prayer. After two seconds of debate, we decided to take a chance and dash into the cathedral to see what we could see before they kicked all the tourists out.
This turned out to be a very smart thing to do. For one thing, the cathedral wasn’t charging admission because the church services that were about to start are open to everyone. For another thing, most of the tourists had left already, and the remaining ones were making a noble effort to be quiet in the last moments they had before being asked to leave. And finally, as we walked in, the organ began to play and the voices of the choir swelled up from the center of the cathedral to fill that cool, dark, hallowed space.
There were two things that I knew I had to see inside the cathedral - the first one, of course, being the spot where St. Thomas à Becket was murdered by four of Henry II’s knights in 1170. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get around to the northwest transept, where the murder probably took place, but I was able to catch a glimpse of the site where the shrine to the murdered saint stood for over 300 years - before it was destroyed by Henry VIII. All that’s left to mark its former location is a candle flickering in the middle of the floor.
The other thing I absolutely had to see was the tomb of Edward the Black Prince, who fought at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 when he was just 16 years old, and who led the outnumbered English army to victory over the French at Poitiers ten years later. As I gazed at Edward’s glorious golden effigy and let the names of those famous battles of the Hundred Years’ War resonate in my mind, I had that old feeling again: that odd feeling of displacement, of having been born in the wrong century (the wrong millennium!), of having some part of my soul rooted firmly in the Middle Ages with all of its blood and misery - and all of its magic and beauty.
Even though he probably wasn’t a very nice guy, I stood by Edward’s side for a long time in Canterbury Cathedral, and I felt nothing but awe.
By this time, the last few tourists were being shooed out so that the church service could begin in peace, so we trundled outside and sat on a bench to gaze at the cathedral a while longer and listen to the bells, which were still ringing insistently ( Jeremy actually got a recording of the bells if you’d like to hear them for yourself).
Storm clouds had moved in while we were inside, and when the heavens finally opened up over us, we stood up from the bench, opened our umbrellas, and went for a little walking tour of the cathedral grounds.
The rain drove most everyone else for shelter, so as we made our way to the north side of the cathedral, we suddenly seemed to have the world to ourselves. There were faint rumbles of thunder, and we could still hear the choir singing from inside the cathedral, but other than that, there was only rain and the sound of our own footsteps. The cathedral stood out starkly against the low, grey sky, and every step we took offered up another incredible view of its towers and rooftops, stones and glass.
The grounds of Canterbury Cathedral are immense. We wandered around for ages, and at every corner we discovered a beautiful building, or a brooding archway, or a soft, green lawn. The Great Cloister was particularly stunning; its vaulted ceilings are decorated with countless animals, grotesques and bright coats of arms, some of which are pictured below. There are low stone benches dotted around the cloister, so when you get a crick in your neck from walking around looking up at the ceiling, you can take a seat and look out into the courtyard through the harmonious arches enclosing the walkway.
You could easily while away several hours exploring the grounds of the cathedral, finding all the nooks and crannies, examining all the intriguing architectural details, breathing in all the history. We probably spent about two hours outside of the cathedral, and for the entire time, I could feel myself walking in the footsteps of pious monks and murderous knights, hopeful pilgrims and contrite kings. I was in my element, a merry pilgrim of history.
All those all old stones sparked my imagination and sent me off on flights of fancy, and even when I had to come back to earth (or to Brighton, as the case may be), I managed to keep that feeling of excitement, as if I’d visited not just another town, but another time and another world - and one in which I felt completely at home.