For years I had been talking about Canterbury to my students and telling them what an important role this cathedral had played in the history of English literature. So it was inevitable that one day or the other I would make that journey which countless pilgrims used to undertake in the Middle Ages. No, I did not walk nor sit in a horse-carriage. I caught the train and got there in an hour and a half.
As the train sped past industrial areas and small towns I wondered what would Chaucer have thought of all this if he could have seen it. We walked from the station to the cobbled road which led to the cathedral. Strangely enough there are so many shops that one cannot see this ancient structure from a distance. The entrance to that courtyard which leads to the ticket counter is sandwiched between two cafes, and one is almost surprised by the way it springs up suddenly in front of your eyes.
Standing in the yard before the gates of this ancient structure one can only feel humbled. This place of worship has been standing here from the time Christianity came to England. It was enlarged and modified several times and it is still being restored and adapted. We first took a round and went to the cloisters which are at the back of the general entrance. I was fascinated by the statues which adorn the walls because I could see the English monarchs. There were statues of kings and queens in a sequence starting from William the Conqueror and some of those who ruled even before.
The quietness of those cloisters has the silence of centuries. This is where the monks must have walked. This is where they must have meditated. After sitting there for a while we went into the cathedral. By an extraordinary coincidence the Archbishop was there. We walked up to the altar because I wanted to see the place where Thomas Becket had been killed by the Knights. In the book from which I used to teach there was an illustration of Saint Thomas lying dead on the steps leading to the altar while the three Knights stood around him. So I was a bit surprised when I saw that in fact that spot was next to one of the small chapels near the altar. There is even a very modern looking sculpture to mark the place where Thomas had been martyred.
It was this event in 1170 that turned Canterbury into a place of pilgrimage and people came from all over Europe. Even today, as we were walking around, I could see tourists from various parts of Europe but also Asians. I was not aware how important this place was to practicing Christians. To me the connection was through Chaucer’s poetry.
After taking a round of the spaces behind the altar we had a look at the tapestries which adorn the walls to the left of the main space of worship. There we found an exquisite piece showing a scene from the life of Saint Eustace.
We came back after lunch and as the train pulled out of the station we imagined the pilgrims walking along these same fields and drinking from the streams that we could see out of the window.