(This is the twelfth in a series that begins with A Night in Steerage.)
I’ve wanted to see Canterbury Cathedral for as long as I can remember. Never more so than after I read The Canterbury Tales a few summers’ ago. It was on the itinerary for Wednesday but I almost didn’t go. There were “thundery showers” in the forecast for Thursday and I couldn’t decide if “thundery showers” were more suited to a pilgrimage or a trip to the Tower of London.
I decided when I walked out the door that I would save the Tower of London for Thursday. I got on the 205 bus to St Pancras and then a high speed train, which deposited me at Canterbury West in an hour. From the station I couldn’t see the cathedral so I didn’t know how easy a walk it would be. A taxi set me down in Sun Street so I approached the cathedral from the west. Suddenly there was the Christchurch Gate. I can’t think how many times in England I have said “There it is!” when I’ve come upon some place that has been in residence in my imagination for years, if not a lifetime.
I walked through the gate and there stood the old girl, worn and dusty as a pilgrim. I cried as I always do when I enter a cathedral. They take my breath away.
I followed the little guidebook to the site of the murder of Thomas à Becket. Hanging above the site is a dark, ominous looking metal sculpture of knives and swords. At the kneeler, I looked down the way I do when I’m studying my cuticles instead of praying. Carved into the floor is the name Thomas. It’s a powerful exhibit.
I went to two services at the Cathedral. At 11:00 AM on the second, every day since the end of World War I, the bell from HMS Canterbury, disabled in the battle of Jutland, is rung and a page is turned over in the book that lists the dead from all wars since.
As soon as this was over, I went to the crypt where we were told to not take photos and people were taking photos. There I participated in another communion service, this time on the site of the original burial of Thomas à Becket. My communal partners included sixty school-children from Germany, ages 12 -14. They were pretty cute and probably fairly bored.
Canterbury Cathedral doesn’t sparkle like Wells Cathedral does, but somehow that seems appropriate to its history and its significance.
The Canterbury Tales is a museum of sorts. You go on a little pilgrimage though the sights and smells of the 14th century, watching tableaux and listening to the characters from The Canterbury Tales tell their stories. It’s staffed by people in old costumes, talking in a sort of bastardized Shakespearean English. I got no end of respect after they found I had read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.
After buying fudge from the Fudge Kitchen, I was ready to go back to London. I asked at the Tourist Info center how much trouble I might get into trying to walk to Canterbury West train station.
“Oh, no trouble at all,” they assured me.
“Please don’t tell me I can’t miss it!” I said.
It turns out that all I had to do was carry on down the High Street, called at various stages the Parade or Peters Road, and turn right at Station Road. It was barely a quarter of a mile and I didn’t miss it.
I got back to London late afternoon. I knew there was a church in back of St. Pancras Station that was worth seeing. I couldn’t remember why it was worth seeing but I was glad I persevered in finding it. Naturally I thought that if it was in back of St. Pancras station, it would be in back of St. Pancras station. So I looked out the enormous window of the enormous station. There was nothing back there except busy streets and boring buildings. But I spotted an arrowed sign that said “To St. Pancras Old Church.” When the trail went cold, I asked someone in an official-looking uniform and he told me exactly how to get there.
“And remember,” he twinkled. “It’s not pancreas!”
“And not kidney or gall bladder either,” I agreed.
Talk about taking my breath away: St. Pancras Old Church transported me right into the 19th century as sure as any time machine could. It was straight out of Dickens with the tall iron gates to the churchyard and the old headstones in disrepair. The tiny church doesn’t just smell of damp; it smells of old damp. On a close, overcast afternoon with a storm threatening, the atmosphere was perfect.
I remembered what I knew about this place: This was where Jerry Cruncher and his son went body- snatching in A Tale of Two Cities! Yes, I know he was a fictional character but the point is, this was a place Dickens knew well.
Thomas Hardy was once employed to work in the churchyard. To note his opposition to the encroachment of the railways, a living tree in the cemetery that is fused with old headstones is called The Hardy Tree.
I stayed at St. Pancras Old Church for a long time. I could hear the city roaring in the background but inside the gates, life was protected, sacred and full of spirits of the past.
I worked my way back to Euston Road by walking through St. Pancras station. In the morning I had noticed there were pianos every 25 yards or so. In the late afternoon, people were playing them. A young woman was playing Mozart. Someone else was playing jazz and at the far end a man was playing a ragtime of “Buffalo Gals.”
After a bit of a hotel rest, I walked back up to the Edgware Road to Marks and Spencers to buy some of that Luxury Gold tea that had won the taste test in The Guardian. They were all out of Salad Niçoise at Pret à Manger but I got a chicken salad that was just as good. I fell asleep over an episode of Foyles War.