Kent – it’s full of history

Written by Haydn Williams

Another wedding last weekend, and another excuse for a long weekend and a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage site.

On Friday we drove down to Canterbury and wandered around town for a bit until we stumbled across the cathedral. I balked a bit at paying £10 to see the inside of a church, particularly one which I knew wouldn’t be as glamourous as the ones we’ve seen abroad lately (catholic vs. Church of England). However, the UNESCO designation was pulling me in, and two things struck me once we got in there.

Canterbury Cathedral. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
Canterbury Cathedral. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

1) It’s bloody huge. I mean, ginormous. What it lacks compared to the showiness of Prague’s churches, for example, it certainly makes up for in scale. The main nave is cavernous, and the Trinity Chapel at the back  isn’t much smaller.

Cathedral is massive. This is the nave. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
Cathedral is massive. This is the nave. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

 

Sunlight in the cloisters. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
Sunlight in the cloisters. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

2) It’s absolutely crammed full of history. And not just boring lame history, proper old-fashioned British history. For starters, it was Canterbury Cathedral that Thomas Becket was archbishop of; you’ll remember he was murdered by over-enthusiastic knights in 1170 when King Henry II said “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?“. He didn’t mean literally, but it was too late by then. In the same area of the cathedral as the shrine to Becket once stood (before everyone’s favourite king, Henry VIII, destroyed it), is the tomb of Edward Plantagenet, AKA “the Black Prince”. He basically married his cousin, bashed the French around a bit, and then died from something nasty before he had chance to become king. Hanging on the wall opposite his tomb are the actual items he wore during his funeral procession in 1376. Let’s put this into perspective: these things have been kicking around for over six hundred years. And no-one’s stolen them, no-one’s defaced them, no-one’s hidden them away from view. Incredible.

When these windows were made, glass in general was a cutting-edge technology. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
When these windows were made, glass in general was a cutting-edge technology. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

 

This is just a little sideroom off the cloisters. Mental. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
This is just a little sideroom off the cloisters. Mental. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

 

Light and shadow in the Trinity Chapel. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
Light and shadow in the Trinity Chapel. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

There’s also the tomb of Henry IV, the first King of England from the Lancaster side of the Plantagenets. The other side was York, and the two were to get all tangled up in the War of the Roses in a couple of kings’ time. Henry IV also fought Owain Glyndŵr between 1400 and 1415 in the last spirited defence we Welsh put up against your English colonialism (he writes from his Leicestershire home).

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know that it also stood up to the best traditions of almost all UNESCO sites I’ve ever visited: there was scaffolding on a large section of the outside (and a bit of the inside) where the walls are falling apart.

From Canterbury, we travelled east to the coast, and our accommodation at a place called Deal. We dumped our stuff and then went straight back out again because I was over-excited at the thought of seeing the famous white cliffs found in this part of the world. We headed south to St. Margaret’s Bay, and it was well worth it. A steep windy road takes you down through trees and suddenly pops you out at the foot of a ruddy massive cliff which matches all the cliched views you had in your head on the way there.

First glimpse of the white cliffs, shrouded in sea mist. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
First glimpse of the white cliffs, shrouded in sea mist. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

The next day was wedding day, and with a favourable forecast I got up early with the camera for a walk along the beach. And I was very glad I did so.

Sunrise on Deal beach. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
Sunrise on Deal beach. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

 

This boat has the same name as the weekend's bride. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
This boat has the same name as the weekend's bride. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

A short excursion later on that morning took us north to Kingsgate for a walk along more cliffs. We got down to the beach for a closer look at these. Chalk is occassionally climbed by people with the same gear as you’d use for snow and ice, because it’s so soft. This also means it has a tendency to fall apart, and any desire I may once have harboured to try it out soon evaporated. It looks like death on a stick. But it’s very scenic and the rockpools were pretty good too.

Kingsgate Bay. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
Kingsgate Bay. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

The wedding that afternoon was lovely, being held outside and involving the presence of not only scrumptious food but jellybeans too. It was brilliant to see the happy couple exchanging their vows, and great to catch up with people we’ve not seen for way too long (winning the quoits match was also a high point, even if it was against two tipsy girls. I’m nothing if not chivalrous).

On our final full day we walked along the coast to a lighthouse that proved most un-photogenic (but at least we found it that time; on the Friday evening we’d lost it in a dense mist that rolled in from the sea). After that it was time for more history, this time in the form of Richborough roman fort. I marvelled at the Acropolis a few weeks ago, but this fort has been around for two thousand years as well, and the fact that most of it’s still standing amazes me. What’s really impressive is that Richborough was on the coast at that time, and this is the point where Romans first landed for their successful conquest of Britain under Aulus Plautius in AD43 (after two previous failed attempts!). It was the base from which they fanned out across the isle and influenced so many aspects of ‘British’ life and culture vastly. To stand at the point where it all began is quite humbling and a little odd.

Yes it's just a wall. But a wall that's been there 1,800 years. Richborough roman fort. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
Yes it's just a wall. But a wall that's been there 1,800 years. Richborough roman fort. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

Anyway, Monday was “going home” day, with another stop at Canterbury so I could take photos in the cathedral and so that we could visit St. Martin’s Church. This is another bit of the UNESCO site in Canterbury, and has the distinction of being the oldest parish church in Britain in continuous use. It was originally built as somewhere for the wife of Æthelberht of Kent to worship in the 6th century; at the time, she was a Christian but he wasn’t. Although Christianity had been around in Britain since the Romans, its popularity had waned since their departure. Eventually Æthelberht caved in and converted, a story which will be familiar to anyone who’s read any historical fiction based around that time, as basically everyone was doing it. Anyway, I can report that the current structure is both old and pictureseque, but also closed on Mondays.

St. Martin's Church. Quaint, but inconvenient opening hours. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011
St. Martin's Church. Quaint, but inconvenient opening hours. Copyright Haydn Williams 2011

After that, all that remained was the M2, the M25 and the M1.

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