This piece was originally distributed as HVM Society Travellers’ Tales – No.26
Looking down from an upstairs café window at the entrance to the Cathedral precinct, I amused myself imagining the crowds of a past time – the raucousness and smells of mediaeval Canterbury, the poke bonnets and stagecoaches of the rather more genteel Victorian era (I had just finished re-reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch“).
Seated at the café table with my long-suffering husband and me, was a man with dapper moustache and a notebook, his quick eyes observing everything he saw. The waiter didn’t seem to notice the pipe smoke, and the other café users seemed to be unaware of his presence.
We left the café and went through the archway to the Cathedral. Our companion’s eyes lit up at the soaring towers and he reminded me of how he had visited the heights of Bell Harry tower in 1939. He seemed scandalised when we were asked to pay admission, but when I explained that it costs £18,500 a day to run the Cathedral, he admitted maybe there was a need for it.
Once inside, the soaring heights of the nave drew our thoughts heavenwards. As the hour struck, a clergyman ascended the pulpit and led a short prayer for the troubles of the world.
My friend, nursing his trilby (and glaring with outrage at a young man who had kept his cap on in ignorance), pointed out window after window of mediaeval stained glass, the deep blue colouring the pavement below. It was impossible to take in all the details, as Bible story and saints’ tale were depicted in miniature panels on windows stretching higher than we could see. Only the mason and conservator would ever know the details of these wonderful windows.
We entered the shrine of the Martyrdom, and a guide launched into an enthusiastic description of how well Becket’s death was chronicled as he fell in the presence of the most literate men of the day – the monks. A recent sculpture emphasises the violence and brutality of the murder. Mr. Morton capped the guide’s tales with accounts of his own.
Well covered with Becket’s gore and smarting from King Henry’s penance, we moved on into the Crypt. Here was peace and the silence of centuries long gone by. At the back was a treasure house of secure glass cases, and I was hurried along to see the chalice and patten used by Hubert Walter on crusade in the Holy Land. It was an amazing artefact. “There is not a place to which this chalice travelled in Palestine that I do not know,” Mr. Morton commented. I also saw the mazer mounted with a yellow gemstone reputedly from Becket’s shoe, which came originally from the almshouses of St. Nicholas, Harbledown.*
We ascended (never did a Cathedral have so many different levels!) to the Quire. Here delicate pointed arches give way to the architecture of Byzantium. Flame-coloured flower arrangements reminded us that the Sunday before was Pentecost. We sat and savoured the scene.
On further exploration, we found the tombs of Bolingbroke (Henry IV) and the Black Prince. We learned that Henry, because he was not a prince in his own right, (being the son of John of Gaunt) was anointed with holy oil (reputed to have been given by the Virgin Mary to Becket) to justify his being crowned King, after deposing Richard II.
By then, our feet were aching but our companion seemed indefatigable. He kept peering into corners, walking into chapels, saying “You must see this” and showing us ancient wall paintings or quaint memorials from the Kentish Regiment. Eventually I managed to coax him outside and we ended up, as every good visitor must, in the Gift Shop. Here, I left him explaining to my husband how in bygone ages, the shops of Canterbury sold little lead medals as souvenirs whereas now one could buy books, CDs, teatowels, rubber ducks complete with bishops’ mitre . . .
When I returned from making my purchases, my husband was alone.
“Where’s Mr. Morton gone?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “He said something about going back into the Cathedral.”
Maybe if you go there, you will find him too, and he will enlighten your visit as he did mine.
Elisabeth Bibbings, Northamptonshire, England 12 July 2014
* “I Saw Two Englands“, ch. 3, section 5.