Category Archives: united kingdom

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 4: Postman’s Park and the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

The final stop of my London cemetery day (after visiting Kensal Green, Brompton, and Highgate) was Postman’s Park. The green space was formerly the burial ground of St. Botolph’s Aldersgate church, and is just a short distance from St. Paul’s in Central London. The church has since been demolished and cholera outbreaks and overcrowding encouraged the removal of burials to the new Magnificent Seven cemeteries set up in the 19th century (including the three I’d visited earlier in the day). The ground in Postman’s Park is in fact still higher than the area around it because with no room left for burials, corpses were instead placed on top of existing graves and covered with dirt. However, the existing graves in the churchyards were not necessarily moved to the new garden cemeteries, and relatives had to apply to disinter their family members and could also just take the tombstones. Postman’s Park was opened in 1880 on the old cemetery, and the old tombstones now line its garden.

The story of the small park is interesting enough, yet its the pavilion inside it that brought me there. The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice was created by the artist George Frederic Watts to be an area of remembrance for extraordinary actions by ordinary people, particularly those who died while trying to save someone else’s life. There are now three rows of tablets, with the most recent being added in 2009, each with its own ghastly and fascinating tale. I could have easily photographed them all, but I picked a few as my favorites that I will share below.

London Day 4: Brompton Cemetery

The next stop on my London cemetery day after Kensal Green (I’m skipping blogging my short jaunt into St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery that borders Kensal Green, but you can see the photos here) was Brompton Cemetery. Another of the Magnificent Seven garden-style cemeteries that were established in London in the 19th century, Brompton opened in 1840 in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Much more than any other cemetery I’ve visited, it really felt like a public garden (it is in fact managed by the Royal Parks). People use the road in the middle to cut through and there were children bicycling and people walking their dogs. It was definitely the cheeriest cemetery I’ve visited.

There are around 205,000 burials in the 39 acres of Brompton, so it is a bit of a crowded cemetery, although you can really see a lot of different styles of graves contrasting with each other, including all the above different styles of crosses. While burials there were stopped between 1952 and 1996, it is again an active cemetery.

The domed chapel in honey-colored Bath stone in the cemetery is really stunning, reminding me of an old observatory. It was meant to reference St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and its piazza, and from either side are long colonnades with arches framing the views to the graves.

Brompton was originally known as West London Cemetery, and was laid out by Benjamin Baud with the symmetry of a cathedral, with three chapels, as well as a canal, but financial problems and a shift of preferred styles from the Classical to the Gothic resulted in a reducing of the architecture.

Catacombs are directly beneath the colonnades, with metal doors decorated with symbols of death and the afterlife, including snakes, inverted torches, flying hourglasses, and ouroboros. While the catacombs can accomodate thousands, only a few hundred are buried there, as they like the rest of Brompton had little early financial success. If you visit the cemetery on its Open Day, you can see the inside of the catacombs.

Here is a view to the colonnade with one of its cross-topped towers. I read that Beatrix Potter took the names for her characters, including Mr. McGregor and a “Peter Rabbett,” which definitely lends a darker air to those children’s books. Mr. McGregor’s garden may even have been modeled after the colonnade.

There are a few interesting burial stories for people who have since been disinterred. The Sioux chief Long Wolf who was traveling with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was buried in Brompton in 1892 after contracting bronchial pneumonia, and was placed in the same grave as a Sioux girl named White Star who fell off a horse. Long Wolf was finally moved to South Dakota in 1997 to his ancestral burial ground. Paul Eagle Star, also Sioux in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, was buried in 1891 and finally exhumed and reburied in the States in 1999.

A group of ravens was cawing from the top of some of the tombs while I was walking through. Oh, sorry, I mean a conspiracy of ravens was there. That sounds much more fittingly ominous. Here is one stalking along the main path.

The most interesting grave I happened upon was that of Reginald Alexander John Warneford, which had a depiction of an airplane that has just shot a dirigible. Warneford was a British pilot in World War I who gained notoriety for taking down a German zeppelin. He unfortunately died in a test flight only days after his victorious action, when a wing of his airplane collapsed.

Another monument that caught my eye was the tomb of Frederick Richards Leyland, designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Leyland was a ship owner and art collector, especially of work by the Pre-Raphaelites, and this funerary monument is the only one that Burne-Jones created.

Here is another Pre-Raphaelite monument: the tomb of painter Val Princep, who was a friend of Edward Burne-Jones and son-in-law of Frederick Richards Leyland. Princep’s grave is structured as a tomb chest elevated up on rows of columns, with ornate sculptures that have unfortunately much deteriorated. Princep had bought it thinking it was a 13th century relic, but it was probably a fake.

If you are in London and not the type to usually visit cemeteries, I recommend Brompton, as it’s much more of a park atmosphere without any of the more harrowing cemetery vibes. Yes, there are definitely unsettling aspects, but no Victorian cemetery is without its heavy symbolism and looming monuments.