Category Archives: travel

England Day Trip: Canterbury

Like every good student of English literature, I of course know much of the journey to Canterbury, care of Chaucer, but what about the town itself? Aside from the cathedral, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I took the train up to London as part of my England travels back in April. I was going there for a day-trip to visit my friend Richard who lives there (and who actually has been to visit NYC in the time I’ve taken to get to blogging this, wow, this year is going fast).

It turns out that Canterbury is very small and very charming. It still includes some of its old Roman city wall, and a canal that serpentines through its center, lined with stone bridges, riverside homes, and gardens. Richard gave me a tour of the city sites, which of course included the cathedral (he even knew the secret for getting in for free, I love touring with locals!), so I will start with that.

For some reason, I thought that since the church was so old, it would not be quite so big. Not so! It was founded in 597 (yes, you read right, not 1597, 5.9.7.), but has undergone different constructions through 1834. It is now a Gothic monolith, 515 feet in length.

Like all Gothic cathedrals, designed to give a sense of imposing awe, it feels even bigger on the inside.  Canterbury Cathedral is particularly imposing, as it’s the base of the Church of England and where the Archbishop is stationed. This dates back to 597, which the monk Augustine was sent to England by Rome to reestablish Christianity. The church has continued ever since, of course not without its tumultuous times.

Here is the baptismal font against the arches in the nave, which dates to 1407.

Here is a gate with a lock design I found curious. An abstract dragon?

Burials in Canterbury go back to the 7th century, with many archbishops and royal family members. Here is an interesting epitaph on the tomb of someone named Barkley.

I love finding old graffiti, here is some that dates to 1723. I imagine many pilgrims would try to inscribe their name somewhere on the walls once they finally made it there.

And for what reason did pilgrims flock to Canterbury? Not just because it was such an important church to Christianity in England, but because of a very famous murder. In 1170, the archbishop Thomas Becket was killed by four knights. King Henry II and Becket had frequently clashed over power, and after some excommunications that riled the King, he stated something similar to (exact words have been lost): “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” The knights took this to be an assassination order and on December 29, they stabbed the archbishop to death inside of the cathedral.

As you can tell from these photos, the current shrine is not the original. That one, which was incredibly popular, was destroyed in 1538 after a bizarre trial of the then-sainted (and also long dead) Becket by Henry VIII, who declared him guilty of treason and took away all of the pieces of the shrine in carts to London. Now Becket has this more modern, less lavish, and kind of terrifying tomb with drawn swords pointed down towards his name etched in red.

I’m not sure if this is part of the Becket memorial, but this skull was carved in white marble quite close to where Becket is said to have been stabbed, although I’m bet it might be the entrance to someone else’s tomb.

But the real skull action was at this grisly tomb for Charles Fotherby, Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.

After the cathedral, we did some exploring in its other buildings, including the courtyard which is lined by these beautiful arched halls.

Attached to the cloisters courtyard is the chapter house, which dates to the 1400s and has a stunning ceiling.

There’s also some amazing stained glass of important figures to the church and England, Here you can see Henry IV, Henry VIII, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

We thought we should do a photoshoot with the current archbishop in postcard form.

We exited through the main gate to the cathedral, which has a bronze statue of Jesus (I think it must be somewhat modern) flanked by angels.

We saw many other Canterbury sights in addition to the cathedral, including a lot of the old town, where there is this a strange piece of history with this ducking stool. (It looks like a diving board in this photo.) It was used as a form of punishment in which people were held under the water, but more famously as a test for witches. If she drowned after enough time underwater, hurrah, she was not a witch. If she survived, she was burned alive.

The Whitfield Monument, for John Whitfield who died in the 1600s, is behind glass in the tower of St. Mary Magdalene Church, the only structure remaining from it as the rest of the church was demolished in 1866.

This precariously leaning house was made famous by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield: “At length we stopped before a very old house bulging out over the road; a house with long low lattice-windows bulging out still farther, and beams with carved heads on the ends bulging out too, so that I fancied the whole house was leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the narrow pavement below.”

As you can see, the space is for rent! You could open your own Dickensian curiosity shop. (I mean, shoppe.)

Here are the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey. It had its first foundation laid in 598 under the guidance of the monk Augustine (now St. Augustine). Unfortunately, like the shrine to Thomas Becket, its story ended with Henry VIII. In what is known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the king disbanded this and all other monasteries starting in 1536, and its structure was dismantled.

Richard also showed me this secret garden area by the canal. As you can see, it got a bit stormy skied late in the day.

Being a good tour guide, he did not leave out the creepy cemeteries. Here is a cemetery that has been turned into a park and the graves moved to the side, as if watching the park goers and reminding them of what the land still contains.

Here is the cemetery outside of St. Martin’s Church, which was built in some sections from Roman bricks.

It’s a rather unsettling place! Especially on a day with slight winds and dark clouds.

It came time to leave the city walls and take the train back to London. Richard recommended I take the train back to St. Pancras, and he was right, a gorgeous way to end the day. See for yourself:

London Day 3: Dennis Severs’ House

It was raining when I arrived for my evening visit to Dennis Severs’ House, and ringing the bell at the dark door I was greeted by the friendly overseer of the house and my eyes then started to adjust to candle light. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect of this London house in Spitalfields that was set up as a “living painting” by the late artist Dennis Severs, as photographs I’d seen online made it look like any other carefully preserved historic home. Yet this was all built by one man over 20 years, from 1979 to 1999,  while he lived in and laid out the meticulous rooms, capturing different time periods in an effort not to celebrate the beauty of single things, but a build a tableau vivante that you moved through as much with your imagination as your body.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

Although Severs was born in California, he was drawn to London by the “English light,” and the house he has left behind feels like its creator has only just left, and that its fictitious Jervis family has also only momentarily stepped out from the rooms. Fresh fruit rests on tables, fire crackles from inviting hearths, there is the soft mumble of voices around corners, the words difficult to catch. You feel like you may be intruding on the lives of the people who have placed the flowers in vases and left their food half consumed. Only a few visitors are permitted to enter the house at a time, so you go through much of it alone, with no phones or photographs allowed. While visits are offered in daylight, I really recommend going to the house once the sun has set and the flicker of candles softly lights the way.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

The structure of the house dates to 1724, and the Jervis family is meant to have lived there from 1725 to 1910. You follow their family through wealth and misfortune, eras captured by the tone and emotion of each room. It may be odd to say that there is emotion in the spaces empty except for you the visitor, but there is something entrancing that’s difficult to describe that comes from the combination of the natural, yet deliberate, arrangement and choice of furniture, along with the subtle sounds, and smells that place you in a moment. The motto of the house is “Aut Visum Aut Non!,” or “You either see it or you don’t,” but I think it would have been more accurate as “You either feel it or you don’t.” I liked the notes left by Severs around the house that emphasized this, harassing you about looking at objects instead of the big picture and telling you to “pay attention!”.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

The visit starts in the basement, which was quite dark, and then you move up through salons and sitting rooms, bedrooms and parlors. Some are the realms of a particular family member, others capture a moment in their story, such as a ladies’ party that has a chaotic edge with tipped over tea cups and a pastry stabbed through with a fire poker while a clock wildly chimes a frantic hour.  In another you walk by an unmade bed, and make small connections between the woman in the portrait and the clothing that has been arranged just beyond. All the details are suddenly part of a larger world, the objects are belongings, the rooms breathing with these people. I got so lost in the place that it was a shock to suddenly be at the top floor and stand in a room in ruins, the family’s fortune gone with the turn in the economy, the once lavish furnishings in tatters.

(copyright Dennis Severs’ House)

I highly recommend a visit to the Dennis Severs’ House, as it is now one of my favorite places in London. Less a historic time capsule, it is more akin to something like the immersive theatre experience Sleep No More, where you are transported through all senses to another world. Yet unlike that experience which relies much on human interaction and dance, here you are left with your own mind to absorb and decipher the intense details and pull them into a complete work of art, a still-life painting where you are able to move through the brushstrokes.

Another Adventure, Another Safe Landing Home

I returned to NYC last night, concluding a two week visit to England where I spent time in London, Manchester, Leeds, and Canterbury, visiting friends and seeing sights. I am still adapting to the timezone change, but blogging recaps will be coming soon! In the meantime, enjoy some Instagram photos from my trip. (And if you want to see all my Instagram photos, click here.) It was my first time for me to use social media while traveling, and I found it was a great way to share glimpses of my adventures and also, through twitter, get some great travel tips. Don’t worry, though, I spent most of my time off the iPhone and enjoying the landscapes of new places and consuming lots of tea (it was rather cold and rainy, but I don’t mind that kind of weather as long as there are warm drinks). Here are the photos:

This is one of the many forked-tongue dragons prancing around London.

I enjoyed this whimsical street art near Spitalfields Market.

Sphinxes keep watch by Cleopatra’s Needle on the Thames.

Stormy skies, and a foreboding raven, set an ominous scene at Hyde Park.

This weeping lady adds to the haunting atmosphere in Kensal Green Cemetery.

In park-like Brompton Cemetery, people are invited to walk their dogs and ride their bikes in the broad lanes.

Karl Marx’s grave is in Highgate Cemetery.

Here is a biodiversified (that’s possibly not a real word) view in the Natural History Museum in London.

Charming Daunt Books offered a relaxing morning activity.

I was enchanted by this beautiful staircase installation by Do Ho Suh in the Tate Modern.

King’s Cross Station is futuristic.

This playful sculpture by Elmgreen & Dragset is in Trafalgar Square.

The Cathedral in Canterbury is quite commanding.

The stunning arches of St. Pancras make it the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen.

Harrod’s department store is a weird place.

This statue of Newton outside the British Library was based on a William Blake study.

Okay, more to come!