Canterbury Cathedral review
Canterbury is a long way away from London, but it's a very pretty train ride. Most of it is through fields and distant hills, decorated with leafy trees and hedgerows, and little stone buildings and brown-brick country stations with names like Sevenoaks, Pluckley and Wye. If you want to sit back and enjoy a bit of English countryside then this is the route to do it.
The sun is out today as well. Normally it is raining when I do these long trips, but she's in a good mood today. She's brushed her bright blue hair too -- there's not a cloud in the sky. Everyone seems to be in a good mood today -- even me. That's because I'm off to see where Thomas Becket got murdered. Nothing cheers me up quicker than a murder scene -- that's the kind of guy I am. I know he's supposed to be a Christian martyr, but I'm a royalist through and through so I'm siding with the king. Becket was a pain in the butt and he deserved a knock on the head. (Probably not with a sword though.)
Before you head towards the cathedral you should definitely allow yourself a couple of hours to walk around the town and have a cup of tea. It's a really pretty place, full of old houses with crooked wooden walls, cobbled streets and crumbling stumps of stone where the city defences used to be. And the town is small enough to walk around too -- you can literally do the whole thing in two hours, easy-peasy.
The main road that is worth walking down runs in a straight line from the West Gate, down St. Peter's Street, and past the High Street and St. George's Street. If you check out all the side streets once you cross over the canal, then you will come across some really nice stuff. There are lots of Tudor-style houses with black-beam timbers and whitewashed walls, and rickety old pubs with overhanging arches. There are a few stone chapels with pressed-flint fronts too, and people punting and larking about on the river. This is how all of England should be. This is England from a picture postcard, before the builders got their hands on it.
The best moment will come when you round a corner and find yourself staring at the cathedral gatehouse (directly opposite the entrance to St. Margaret's Street). It's the most fantastic looking thing you'll see all day, sitting in a pretty little square with open-air cafe tables. It rises up a few floors from the ground, and is covered in coloured heraldic shields and statuary. It is wonderfully ornate and obviously old, and sets the scene for what you'll find inside.
I must admit that the cathedral wasn't as big as I thought it was going to be (nothing ever is), but inside it opens up like a huge cavernous tube. It is long and narrow and amazingly tall. They could do with sticking a few curtains up though, because it's a little bit bright for my tastes. I like my churches to be dark and gloomy, but this one is bright brown. When you reach halfway you'll find the bit that everyone has come to see -- the spot where Thomas Becket was bludgeoned to death. And whilst it is certainly interesting to look at, they've blundered by hanging a bloody great big modern art piece on top of the altar, like three jagged swords, which seems totally out of place to me.
I like the crypt better because they've turn the light level down a few notches, and you can wander around the columns exploring all the little chapels tucked inside the walls. You can't really appreciate the candles upstairs because it's too bright, but down here they glow gold. If I was going to do some praying then this is where I would do it. Where no one can see me. I suppose I could do some praying while I'm here. What's the harm? But I'm not in the slightest bit religious though, so I don't know what to do.
After the central screen comes the real heart of the church -- the Quire and altar. That's the bit with the wooden side stalls in plush red leather and dark varnished wood. To the right of that comes a little treasure that you might walk past if you're not paying attention -- some genuine bits of armour worn by the Black Prince. If you know your medieval history then you'll know that he was quite a cool dude -- the Rambo of his day -- beating the French at the Battle of Crecy and Poitiers. And next to that are two of the most vibrant and colourful stained-glass windows I have ever seen in my life. I wish you plenty of sunshine when you come, because when those windows are backlit by the sun you'll be treated to a picture show.
So is it worth a visit? ...hmm. As much as I enjoyed it (and I did enjoy it), I'm not sure that I'd want to spend a whole day of my holiday on it. The town certainly is pretty, and the cathedral is definitely worth seeing, but it's nothing compared to Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's Cathedral. So if you want to see something religious then I'd stick with one of those.
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