Category Archives: england

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 7: Wandering Highlights

Continuing my April London adventures…

I did more on my seventh day in London that just visit a forgotten medieval prostitute cemetery, so here are a few highlights! We started our morning at St. John Bakery under an old archway, an almost hidden place that is apparently known for its doughnuts. I’m no expert, but they were delicious to me.

We returned to Borough Market again for lunch. Really, that place is so massive that you could go everyday and try something new. This time I got a vegetarian pie.

Right by Borough Market is Southwark Cathedral, adorned with these forlorn gargoyles. The site has been a place of Christian worship for around 1,000 years, and parts of the cathedral date to 1220.

Taking photos inside the cathedral is not allowed unless you pay a fee, but I couldn’t resist sneaking a photo of this statue of Shakespeare holding a sprig of rosemary (for remembrance, per Ophelia). The statue was installed in 1954 to honor the anniversary of his birth in 1564 and above is a stained glass window featuring characters from his plays. There are a lot of old graves and memorials in the church, with one of particular interest being that of a certain Dr. Lockyer, who died in 1672, a quack doctor by most accounts, but you would never guess from his boisterous epitaph which concludes: “His virtues & his PILLS are soe well known/That envy can’t confine them vnder stone./But they’ll surviue his dust and not expire/Till all things else at th’universall fire./This verse is lost, his PILL Embalmes him safe/To future times without an Epitaph.”

We decided to use the bus as a free tour of the city viewed from the top of the double-decker, and we somehow found ourselves in Shoreditch, which I can say is pretty much the Brooklyn of London. Or the Williamsburg of London, to be specific. So many skinny jeans. I stopped inside a wonderful art bookstore and bought many things.

I believe this is the evening that we went to see Les Misérables, which was the second time for me during this trip. What can I say, I do love to obsess, and surprisingly a lot of the ensemble cast roles were played by different actors than the ones I’d seen just a week ago, which was interesting. On the way to dinner at a delicious Indian restaurant pre-theatre, we walked by this Elmgreen & Dragset rocking horse in Trafalgar Square. After the theatre, we took a walk through Chinatown and its busy evening streets.

One more day trip and one more London day to recap from the England trip!

London Day 7: Cross Bones Graveyard for the Outcast Dead

[Continuing my London adventure recaps from my April trip…]

On Redcross Way in London is a red fence covered with ribbons and fake flowers, an ongoing memorial to the “outcast dead” buried under what is now a concrete lot. This place, known as the Cross Bones Graveyard, was used as a burial ground for prostitutes in medieval London, and then later for paupers into the mid-19th century when it closed in 1853.

The lot itself is off limits to the public, although the gate was unlocked so I snuck around for a quick photo of the memorial inside. Otherwise, it is totally empty, and without the tatters of fabric, strands of plastic beads, and left messages you would have no idea it was a cemetery for an estimated 15,000 people. It’s quite close to the bustle of Borough Market, but the street is much more silent and less traveled. It was in fact forgotten entirely until the 1990s, when it was rediscovered during the construction for the Jubilee subway line, which uncovered 148 skeletons in a mass grave. These skeletons included many stillborn babies, and most of the skeletons showed the effects of poor health and disease.

The prostitutes buried here in the Middle Ages were known as the Winchester Geese, and although they were buried on unconsecrated ground, they worked freely under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester on the South Bank of the Thames at the Liberty of the Clink. The Liberty of the Clink was actually the estates of the Bishop, taking its name from the nearby Clink prison, and the church even made money off the prostitutes due to licensing. Although this area is now within the City of London, it was formerly outside the city boundaries and thus away from its rules. In addition to the brothels, there were other marks vice such as pubs, theatres, bear-pits, and of course prisons like the Clink.

Around the 1760s, it was a graveyard for paupers of a parish in Southwark. The ribbons on the fence are sharpied with the names of the dead, a memorial led by the Friends of the Cross Bones Graveyard, which also holds a monthly vigil.

The graveyard is part of a planned development project by Transport for London and Network Rail, which could potentially surround the cemetery with modern buildings (I think it’s unlikely they would just build over it with the public backlash it would cause). Whatever construction takes place will have to be delicate, as the graves are so close to the surface that teeth sometimes turn up in the soil (one reason it was closed was that the burials were done so shallowly as to cause a health risk as the corpses rotted in the air).

It’s impossible to look at the Cross Bones Graveyard and not think of other spontaneous memorials, whether it’s a street corner at a car crash decorated with photos and flowers for a victim, or even the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, although to compare these all on the same level of loss is impossible and oversimplifying. However, they are all driven by this need to create something to remember in places that without any sort of memorial would be anonymous to the loss attached to them.