Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Our Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury was windy, cool and overcast this morning, which was fine with me, because all this warm, sunny  English weather was starting to weird me out. I mean, I went out the weekend before this trip and bought the only hooded windbreakers I could find, paid a ridiculous amount for them at that sports store that has replaced bookstores across the U.S., and not one drop of rain since we arrived in London. Very un-English. So I was pleased to dig out our dorky, matching windbreakers in fashion colors. We pulled up our hoods and marched into town.

I wanted to look at the Cathedral right away, but since we'd gotten such a late start (we'd gotten a late start every morning since that first one with Westminster Abbey) we already wanted our lunch. We found some odd European bistro-looking place with skinny tables and plastic highchairs for everyone. I didn't know whether to expect a martini or a bib. (The best places offer both, of course.)

Here we followed our usual M.O. with restaurant food, where I order some expensive dish I'd never get in the States (fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash, etc.) and Ron and Benny would split a hamburger or some plain chicken breast. I expected this routine to continue into France, with Ron and Benny eating breadsticks while I tucked into coq au vin. After two weeks, I'd most likely roll into America 10 pounds heavier while my family trailed after me, too weak to carry their bags.

I'm a big one for chronological sightseeing; I like seeing the Romanesque church before the Gothic cathedral and the Norman castles before the Baroque chateaux — you get the drift. So I herded us into Canterbury's Roman Museum, where we stood behind a lovely Indian family who spent half-an-hour mulling whether to get a city museum pass before declining. This gave Ron plenty of time to pick out historically themed school supplies, including a Caesar pencil sharpener and a Roman Ruler (ha ha).

Benny the Roman Gladiator
The museum cost 6 pounds a head, but believe me, it was worth every pence. We practically had the whole place to ourselves, and it was quite informative and tastefully high-tech. Britain has obviously invested some money in their museum exhibits, because the new techie touch-screen presentations have been first rate. The Crown Jewels at the Tower, Roman Canterbury and later Dover Castle were all presented in that interactive, 4th-grade-reading-level strategy that was too easy for the 9-year-olds but perfect for their tired, middle-aged parents.

We had to tear ourselves out of there though, because Canterbury Cathedral beckoned. I was fully prepared to pay serious money to see the place and was all psyched up not to say "You're shitting me!" when presented with the 25-pound admission price, but it turned out the Cathedral was free because it was Sunday. Or we just snuck in accidentally. Either way, we saved some money and it partially made up for the 6 Pound chicken Benny wouldn't touch at lunch.
The cathedral nave.
We'd barely had 10 minutes there — hardly enough to gawk at the rose windows — when people started gathering for Evensong in the quire, with the King's School Boy's Choir. This was not to be missed, so we lined up and found ourselves sitting on the ancient, red-cushioned benches. I let Benny read his book until the procession began, with a dozen boys Benny's age pacing by in robes with Elizabethan ruffs. Ron and I were hardly able to follow the service; instead we sat agog, mouths open, at the pure voices soaring up to stained glass windows. By the time we left though, Benny had had enough, so Ron took him outside while I toured the rest of the Cathedral.

The "Adam Delving" stained glass window. What's he digging, a well?
There are few things I like better than wandering around some historic place alone with some dorky guidebook, and Canterbury Cathedral was no exception. But I kept getting lost, ending up at the Adam Delving stained glass window when I wanted to see the spot where was Thomas Becket was murdered, or stepping into St. Anselm's Chapel when I hadn't seen the Black Prince's tomb yet. This makes chronologically obsessed tourists like me crazy.

The modern Altar of the Sword's Point where Becket was murdered, so named because a knight's sword point broke with the ferocity of the blows.
The figure made of iron nails hanging above the original spot of Becket's tomb, cryptically named "Transport."
I lingered as long as I could, admiring the chapels and crypts. Another thing Europeans do well is integrate modern art into the most ancient of sites. The dramatic modern cross above Becket's murder site and the human figure made of nails hanging above the original location of Becket's tomb are two great examples of this. (I noticed some distinctive modern art in the Louvre gardens as well.)

We tried to have dinner at the King's Head again, so Benny could pet the cat, but Sunday hours are pretty strange in Britain. We arrived and settled ourselves at 6 p.m., when dinner service usually begins, but a quick look at the menu revealed that on Sunday, the pub doesn't start dinner until 7. So we ended up at a fish and chips place across the street that apparently didn't care about the Sabbath, and once again went to bed ridiculously early, since we were catching a morning train to Dover the next day.

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