Once upon a time, I planned a trip to England.
Three postponements later, I was finally able to set off. Traveling internationally during a global pandemic required some additional measures.
In total, I took three COVID-19 tests—one within three days of flying, one upon arrival in London, and one within three days of returning home.
The first I took at a local pharmacy; the second, at a test station within Heathrow Airport; and the third, in a hotel room using an online test kit. All were uncomfortable. All were quick.
In England, wearing masks was mandated on public transport, such as trains and the Tube. Elsewhere, they were optional. Few of the British wore them.
At the time of the trip, eighty percent of England’s population over the age of twelve were fully vaccinated (compared to not quite sixty percent in the United States).
Due to travel restrictions, foreign tourists seem to be curiosities in England. At Waterloo station, I asked an agent to validate my rail pass. He seemed fascinated by it. “I haven’t seen one of these in two years,” he said.
In the meantime
I was joined on different segments of the trip by friends Craig and Leslie. Previously Craig and I traveled to Peru (“High old time”) and Arizona (“Borderline“). Leslie joined me in the Netherlands (“Going Dutch”) and Washington (“Olympic proportions”).
Craig and I started our tour where time and space begin—or at least from where they are measured—the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. The observatory was commissioned in 1675 and charged with helping seafarers to navigate.
Greenwich Mean Time, by which the whole world sets its clocks, was established at the observatory. Greenwich Mean Time is the forerunner of today’s Universal Time Coordinated (UTC).
To help sea captains in the River Thames synchronize their watches, astronomer John Pond in 1833 initiated a ball drop from atop the observatory, which sits on a hill overlooking London. Unlike the Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve, the Greenwich ball drops at precisely 1 p.m. every day.
The observatory is also home to the prime meridian, from which longitude (distance east and west) is measured.
Greenwich’s prime meridian, located at 0° 00’ 00”, was adopted as the starting point for longitude in the world in 1884.
At the observatory the meridian is indicated by a stainless-steel rail embedded in the cobblestone courtyard. Tourists (like me) pose for photos astraddle the line with one foot in each hemisphere.
Back in London, we found the Spice Girls’s bus in front of the ornate Saint Pancras Renaissance Hotel across the street. The video for their hit “Wannabe” was filmed inside.
Apparently, the bus was there to promote the twenty-fifth anniversary of the song’s release.
No matter where one is within England, one is within seventy miles of the coast. The sea is ever-present. Throughout centuries of exploration, colonization, commerce, and war, England plied the ocean’s waves to world dominion. At its height, the British Empire was the largest in history. In 1920 England ruled a quarter of the world.
The empire’s naval might was centered in Portsmouth, a port on the southern coast. The city has been strategically important since Roman times and a naval base since 1212. Craig and I explored a couple of the dockyard’s most famous ships—King Henry VIII’s favorite, Mary Rose, and Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory.
Nelson joined the navy as a thirteen-year-old in 1771, advanced quickly, and obtained his own command at the age of twenty.
Despite suffering from seasickness his entire career, he was a daring commander and brilliant strategist who won a number of crucial British victories. Along the way, he lost his right arm and the sight in one eye.
In 1805, the English fleet, led by Nelson aboard Victory, encountered Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet near Cape Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. Nelson was outnumbered, thirty-three ships to twenty-one.
His battle strategy was to sail head-on into the enemy’s line and break its formation. The plan worked perfectly. During the ensuing fray, the Franco-Spanish allies lost twenty-two ships. The British lost none. The victory confirmed Britain’s dominion upon the seas.
However, the win came at a cost. During the battle, Nelson was shot and killed by a French sniper.
On display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is Nelson’s uniform with the bullet hole in the left shoulder.
England was devastated at the news. The Times said, “We do not know whether we should mourn or rejoice. The country has gained the most splendid and decisive Victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased. The great and gallant Nelson is no more.”
Victory needed repairs before it could return to London, so Nelson’s body was sealed in a cask of brandy to preserve it.
Six weeks later, his ship carried him home. His coffin was transported by barge up the River Thames and buried in the crypt at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Tens of thousands lined the streets.
Nelson is regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in history. Even before Trafalgar, he was a national hero. His death catapulted his fame into the stratosphere. He has been glorified with monuments throughout the world, perhaps most noticeably in London’s Trafalgar Square.
His memory launched a mania, called Nelsonia, and an industry that manufactured memorabilia celebrating his life, examples of which are on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.
Launched in 1765, Victory has been restored and now sits in dry dock at Portsmouth. She is the world’s oldest warship still in commission.
Craig and I toured Victory, climbing from deck to deck and inspecting row after row of cannons—one hundred and four of them. Victory had a crew of over eight hundred fifty men, living in extremely cramped quarters. We marveled at the ship’s immensity and might.
Of special interest was Nelson’s cabin, which could be cleared of its elegant decor and converted to a cannon deck in just minutes.
A plaque on the upper deck marks the spot where Nelson fell.
While on the train, Craig spotted the Uffington White Horse on the side of a hill near Swindon. The horse image, three hundred sixty feet long, is formed by trenches filled with white chalk.
The Uffington Horse is the oldest of the hillside white-horse figures in Britain, dating from between 1380 BCE and 550 CE.
We arrived at the University of Oxford just in time for a celebration. In the streets graduating students wore gowns of various bright colors, over formal outfits of black and white. Their proud parents took selfies in front of the university’s classic architecture.
Oxford was conducting classes as early as 1096 CE, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the second oldest in the world. Oxford has twenty-four thousand students.
At most English universities, there is no central campus. Instead, the university’s colleges are scattered around town. Oxford has thirty-nine self-funded colleges, each with its own property. Typically, a college is based around a gated quadrangle of halls, where a select group of students live, dine, study, and party together.
Oxford has many notable alumni, including twenty-eight of the United Kingdom’s prime ministers, numerous world leaders, and a dozen saints.
A short list includes J.R.R. Tolkien, Margaret Thatcher, Susan Rice, Michael Palin (Monty Python), T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Edwin Hubble (astronomer), Stephen Hawking, Hugh Grant, Indira Gandhi, Bill Clinton, Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, James Oglethorpe (founder of Georgia), William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania), John Wesley (founder of Methodism), and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Craig and I ate dinner at the King’s Arms, one of three pubs claiming to be the oldest in town. The inn is named for King James I (of Bible version fame). As the evening progressed, we made the acquaintance of an accredited tour guide at the next table. We hired her on the spot to show us Oxford.
The next morning Debbie was waiting for us on the main street near the site where Mary, Queen of Scots, ordered three Protestant bishops to be burned at the stake.
She toured us through Balliol College, which counts Boris Johnson and three other prime ministers as alumni. While Balliol’s dining hall resembles the one in the Harry Potter movies, the larger hall at nearby Christ Church College, with its stained glass windows, hammer-beam roof, and portrait collection, is the one that inspired the movie set.
During the weekend’s graduation ceremonies, Bulldogs guarded the university buildings. The Bulldogs are Oxford’s university police. They wear bowler hats and suits, which make them look something like Oddjob in Goldfinger. The Bulldogs are one of the oldest police forces in the UK.
We marveled at the university’s architecture. The Sheldonian Theatre, built in 1669, is used for music concerts, lectures, and the weekend’s graduation ceremonies. The Divinity School building is even older—built in 1483.
Perhaps most impressive is the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe.
Beneath the streets of Oxford, the library contains 153 miles of shelving holding thirteen million books. One thousand new titles are added to the shelves every day.
At the Museum of the History of Science, an exhibit promoted AstraZeneca, a vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19. The vaccine was developed at Oxford.
At the conclusion of the tour, we bought Debbie lunch at the Turf Tavern, which advertises “an education in intoxication.” Like the King’s Arms, it claims to be the oldest pub in Oxford, first appearing in the tax records of King Richard II in 1381.
The tavern, hidden in a narrow passage that was once part of the moat around the town walls, is nearly impossible to find.
During the Middle Ages, the ditch outside the walls was a venue for cockfights and gambling. Turf accountants, the term for bookies, is the derivation of the pub’s name.
The tavern has been visited by numerous celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Stephen Hawking, David Bowie, Margaret Thatcher, Ben Kingsley, Bill Clinton, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as the cast and crew of the Potter movies.
We continued our fact-finding mission at the Bear, which, as you might guess, claims to be the oldest pub in Oxford. It has been serving ale since 1242. Richard Edes, one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, recorded in 1583 that the proprietors of the Bear owned a tame pet bear.
The Bear’s walls and ceiling are completely covered with the remnants of nearly five thousand school neckties. In exchange for half-pints of ale, ties were severed and pinned to the wall.
Land o’ lakes
Craig and I picked up a rental car in Carlisle, a town just eight miles south of the Scottish border. Carlisle was once a Roman settlement, established to serve the troops along Hadrian’s Wall.
Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned in Carlisle Castle in 1568, on the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.
We headed into the Lake District, an area famous for its beautiful forests, lakes, and mountains, the highest in England. We headquartered in the pleasant town of Keswick (pronounced KEZ ick), a mecca for hikers. Ten percent of its shops are outfitters.
We slogged a few miles in pouring rain to Castlerigg, a mini-Stonehenge outside of town. Castlerigg was constructed around 3200 BCE, making it one of the oldest stone circles in the UK.
The arrangement of monoliths, ninety feet in diameter, is in the middle of a pasture surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Lake District. Sheep grazed among the standing stones, seemingly oblivious to the rain.
We drove a scenic route through desolate Newlands Valley and up to the mountain passes. The lane was wide enough for one car only. The turns were often blind.
Near the top of Newlands Pass, we parked the car and climbed in the rain for a better look at Moss Force Waterfall. In a letter to a friend, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the cascade as, “the leaping up & plunging forward of that infinity of Pearls & Glass Bulbs.”
Further on, we stopped at the Honister Slate Mine, the last working slate mine in England. Just past the mine is Honister Pass with a gradient of twenty-five percent. The sides of the road are strewn with chunks of slate and glacial debris.
The pass holds the record for rainfall in the UK. On December 5, 2015, over thirteen inches of rain fell within twenty-four hours. It might as well have been the day we drove it.
Overnight, the rain passed through. In the morning we set out to hike the Hawes End-Catbells-Derwent loop trail. On the way we passed hundreds of pheasants, gorging themselves in the fields of a country estate. We pulled to the side on a narrow track to allow a caravan of Land Rovers carrying camo-clad hunters to pass. Look out, pheasants!
We parked at the trailhead and headed uphill. Almost immediately the hike went vertical. The trail grew steeper and ended at a pile of rocks. We scrambled on all fours and arrived at a false summit, where the wind howled. Ahead of us was more climbing and a longer scramble.
Finally, we made the top, where the three hundred sixty-degree view of Keswick, the lake (Derwentwater), and Newlands Valley is spectacular.
In the village of Grasmere, we visited the Wordsworth Museum and Dove Cottage. (My English lit professor would be pleased.) William Wordsworth (1770–1850) lived in the Lake District for sixty of his eighty years.
He shared humble Dove Cottage with his sister, wife, children, and various friends for eight of those years, during a period of “plain living, but high thinking.” Living close to nature and roaming the countryside inspired his poetry.
Wordsworth was the UK’s poet laureate from 1843 until his death. The cottage, still owned by his family, remains largely unchanged and contains much of his furniture and personal effects.
The Lake District also inspired children’s author Beatrix Potter. During the early 1900s, Peter Rabbit was hopping around the district.
We headed north from the Lake District to the village of Once Brewed on the road established by the Romans.
There, we checked into Twice Brewed Inn, just a spear’s throw from Hadrian’s Wall. Twice-brewed refers to the strength of the local ale.
The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 CE. Forty years later, the Romans were still fighting for control of the northern part of the island. Most of what is now Scotland was never under Roman rule.
In ancient times, the northern area was inhabited by various tribes—Britons, Picts, Gaels, and Scots. These ancient peoples were not aligned, except in their determination to defend their territories. They fought the Romans fiercely. The Romans did not bother to distinguish between their adversaries, instead referring to them en masse as Caledonians.
The Military Road ran across the narrowest part of the island. Forts were erected to protect it.
In 122 CE Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to build a defensive wall along the road. Construction took at least fifteen thousand Roman soldiers and six years to complete.
The completed wall was seventy-three miles long, fifteen feet high, and ten feet wide. Each mile was marked by a small guard station called a milecastle.
Historians agree that the wall saw little military action and was perhaps intended primarily for border control. It slowed incursions by raiders and rustlers, regulated trade, and provided vantage points for spotting hostile forces.
Craig and I visited the remnants of three of the forts—Housesteads, Carvoran, and Vindolanda.
The Housesteads site is named for the farmstead built against the ruins of the fort. During the 1600s the farm belonged to various bands of border reivers; that is, thieves and rustlers who used the fort to hold stolen livestock. Today, the remnants of the fort’s headquarters, barracks, hospital, and latrines sprawl along the side of a hill.
The Roman Army Museum is located at the Carvoran site. Its displays explain how the Roman Empire expanded, how its army was structured, and how its soldiers lived.
Interestingly, five hundred archers from Syria were among the legions stationed at the wall.
At the time, Syria was ruled by Rome. The archers were respected for their skill with longbows.
With a guide we toured the ruins of Vindolanda. Archaeological excavations at the site indicate it was under Roman occupation from roughly 85 CE to 370 CE.
The site is famous for the discovery in 1973 of thin wood tablets bearing handwritten letters. One is an invitation to a birthday party. The Vindolanda tablets are among the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.
The staff at Twice Brewed wear shirts that read, “For those about to walk, we salute you.” Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still stand and the length of it can be hiked on the adjoining trail. Indeed, muddy wall-walkers arrived at the inn each evening.
Craig and I took our turn on the section between Steel Rigg and Sycamore Gap on a blustery, sunny day. On that stretch, Hadrian’s Wall takes strategic advantage of the high, rocky escarpment called Whin Sill.
George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire, admitted that Hadrian’s Wall inspired the gargantuan barrier in his series of fantasy novels.
“Today it may not be supersized like (Game of Thrones’s) colossal ice wall,” said Frances McIntosh, curator of the wall, “but when it was built nearly two thousand years ago, Hadrian’s Wall would have been a huge, hulking sign of Roman imperial strength.”
Looking north from behind the wall, we could see all the way to Scotland.
The captain and the count
In Middlesbrough we found the home of friends Pete and Doreen. I met Pete seven years ago at the Edinburgh Art Festival, where he was performing at a folk club. He and Doreen were eager to give us a tour of North Yorkshire.
Our first stop was Saltburn-by-the-Sea, a Victorian spa town. The community sits on a cliff overlooking a broad, sandy beach, popular with surfers and dog-walkers. A funicular, the Saltburn Cliff Lift, runs up and down the face of the seawall.
During the late 1870s, the actress Lillie Langtry and Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), conducted their affair at a cliffside cottage in Saltburn. The cottage is known as Teddy’s Nook.
Down the coast is the port town of Whitby, where James Cook learned to sail. Cook was born in 1728 in the village of Marton–in-Cleveland, now a suburb of Pete and Doreen’s town. While a teenager, Cook moved to Whitby and eventually joined the Royal Navy. En route to Quebec during the Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War in North America), he made detailed maps of the Saint Lawrence Gulf.
This earned him a commission as commander of HMS Endeavor. Between 1768 and 1779, he sailed three times to the Pacific Ocean, surveying and mapping coastlines not previously explored by European mariners, including those of Australia and New Zealand.
During his third Pacific voyage, Cook was killed in a dispute with the chief of Hawaii. His house in Whitby is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum.
We walked along West Cliff, where a statue of Cook overlooks Whitby Harbor. Below us, the Pier Road was lined with carnival amusements, pubs, and hotels. Shops sell jewelry made from Whitby jet, a type of coal. Jet was popular among the Romans and fashionable again during the reign of Queen Victoria. She wore jet-black jewelry while mourning the death of Prince Albert.
We crossed the swing bridge over the River Esk, walked through the crowded market, and climbed the 199 steps to the Church of Saint Mary and the ruins of Whitby Abbey.
The first monastery was founded in 657 CE. In the 800s it was abandoned due to Viking raids. The current ruins are from an abbey built in the 1200s.
Saint Mary’s creepy graveyard was the setting of a scene in Bram Stoker’s horror novel, Dracula. Stoker lived in Whitby from 1890 to 1896. In the novel, Count Dracula shape-shifts into a large dog, leaves a ship in the harbor, and runs up the steps to the graveyard.
For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church . . . Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the abbey coming into view, and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible . . . it seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.
Many of the gravestones in the churchyard are blank, as the engraved epitaphs have worn away.
A sign on the church door reads, “Please do not ask staff where Dracula’s grave is, as there isn’t one.”
Recent landslides have disturbed the graveyard and added to the horror. Human remains have fallen onto the street and buildings at the foot of the cliff.
Somewhere in England
During 1944, nearly five hundred thousand American men and women with the US Army Air Forces were based in three counties near Cambridge. Craig’s father was one of them. Airfield locations were kept secret and usually described as “somewhere in England.”
Craig suspects his father may have visited Duxford Airfield. These days, Duxford’s hangers house a huge collection of vintage warplanes, most of them from World War I and II.
On display was an engine once fitted to the Fokker Dr.I triplane flown by Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron. Richtofen was the most successful ace of WWI with eighty victories.
He was eventually shot down and killed in April 1918. In another hangar we took a walking tour through the Concorde.
On display at the American Air Museum is a B-17 Flying Fortress, the plane most associated with the bombing of Germany. It held a crew of ten, including a navigator, the position of Craig’s father.
The B-17’s range was two thousand miles. It carried thirteen machine guns and an average bomb load of up to five thousand pounds.
Another location Craig’s dad may have visited is the Eagle. The Eagle opened as a coach stop in Cambridge in 1667.
During World War II, Allied airmen, including Americans, gathered at the Eagle and used lighters and candles to write their names and squadron numbers onto the ceiling of the rear bar. The graffiti were rediscovered and preserved during the early 1990s.
Three days before his flight home, Craig took his online COVID-19 test in our hotel room. The result was negative.
Once back in London, he headed for the airport. The next day Leslie arrived.
For several days, Leslie and I strolled around walkable London, exploring different neighborhoods. We stopped by many popular sights—Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, Churchill’s War Rooms, and the Tower of London. I covered some of these attractions in a previous post “Remembrance.”
In London, history is everywhere and often commemorated with circular blue plaques, England’s version of historical markers. Plaques are installed in places where famous people lived or worked, or noteworthy events took place.
The former London residences of Charlie Chaplin, Mahatma Gandi, Alfred Hitchcock, and Benjamin Franklin all display blue plaques.
There is one in Oxford at the track where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. In Liverpool a plaque hangs over the doorway of John Lennon’s childhood home.
We spotted several on the street where our B&B was located, including the previous residences of Ian Fleming, Alfred Tennyson, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart supposedly composed his first symphony on the street in 1764 at the age of eight.
Along the River Thames we found Cleopatra’s Needle, a pillar covered in hieroglyphics. The Egyptian obelisk was originally erected in Egypt around 1450 BCE. In 1819 the ruler of Egypt and Sudan gave it to the UK. It’s 3,471 years old!
On South Bank we passed the Clink, a prison which operated from the 1100s to the 1700s.
One prisoner was William Mullins, who was most likely locked up for his religious beliefs. He eventually made his way to America as a Pilgrim aboard the Mayflower. The Clink’s name became the slang term for a jail cell. Now it’s a haunted house for tourists.
Nearby is a replica of the Golden Hind, a Spanish galleon captained by Sir Francis Drake during his circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580. The reconstruction is full-sized and ready to sail.
In the Southwark neighborhood we discovered the crowded, sprawling, noisy Borough Market tucked into the arches under a railway viaduct.
The market is one of the largest and oldest food markets in London, dating back to at least the 1100s and perhaps much earlier. Today it features food stalls of every ethnicity, and assorted bakeries, butcher shops, greengrocers, and cheesemongers.
Around the corner from 10 Downing Street is the Red Lion. We stopped for pints and learned many of the UK’s prime ministers had done the same. Charles Dickens was a regular.
Where London swung
In the morning we went for a run around Hyde Park. There were swimmers in the Serpentine and riders on the bridle path. The park was established by King Henry VIII in 1536 for hunting deer. In the 1600s it was a location favored by dueling noblemen for shooting at each other. More recently, the park has become a venue for concerts.
Kensington Gardens adjoins Hyde Park. Combined, the two are three-fourths of the size of New York City’s Central Park. Just three months ago, princes William and Harry reunited to unveil a statue of their mother at the Princess Diana Memorial Garden in the park behind Kensington Palace, her former residence.
London’s entertainment district is Soho, packed with theaters, film studios, media offices, and Chinatown restaurants.
During the mid to late 1960s, Soho was the center of a cultural revolution, an era dubbed Swinging London. Protesters decried nuclear weapons. Pirate radio stations played rock and roll. Mary Quant introduced the miniskirt. Twiggy ruled the runway. The Marquee Club hosted the Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and AC/DC.
On three-block-long Carnaby Street, mod was the style. Members of British-invasion bands, such as the Yardbirds and the Small Faces, were measured for tailor-made suits and frilly shirts.
The street was referenced by the Kinks in their 1966 hit, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.”
Soho is still lively, especially at night when the theatergoers swarm the streets and fill the restaurants, but sadly Carnaby Street is now a pedestrian mall full of chain stores.
A few years later, another London neighborhood became a cultural crucible—Camden Town. In the 1800s, Camden was home to distilleries and warehouses. In the early 1970s, artists and craftspeople began using the abandoned buildings as work spaces.
Camden Market grew to become the source for counterculture music, art, and fashion, forms of expression that seem inextricably linked.
Pop-up stalls sold handmade art and crafts. Shops featured punk and hippie fashions, including ripped jeans, band T-shirts, junk jewelry, and battered Dr. Martens boots.
Today Camden Market, a conglomeration of six different markets with over a thousand merchants, is the largest market in London.
Upon arrival at Camden Town Station, Leslie and I stepped onto a crowded street lined with colorful shops selling bohemian clothes, vintage shoes, handmade leather goods, used books and records, Cuban cigars, Middle Eastern carpets, and tattoos.
And we weren’t yet to the market.
We continued down High Street and crossed Regent’s Canal into Camden Lock Market, a courtyard of shops jammed with dozens of ethnic food stalls.
Beyond the courtyard, is the Stables, a marketplace for handmade furniture, goth clothing, astrology, antiques and collectibles, loose tea, corsets, and Japanese manga. The shops are packed into arches beneath a railway viaduct.
One of the warehouses on Regent’s Canal opened as Dingwalls Dance Hall and became a famous punk-rock venue. The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones all played its stage. The bass players of the Stranglers and the Clash once engaged in a fistfight outside of Dingwalls, an altercation that made headlines.
In 1978, Dingwalls hosted Blondie’s debut in the UK. More recently, Noel Gallagher, the Foo Fighters, the Strokes, and Mumford & Sons have performed at the club.
A Canterbury tale
In 595 CE a Roman monk named Augustine was appointed by the pope to go to England and christianize the king of the county of Kent, the most powerful ruler on the island.
Augustine succeeded and was named archbishop. The cathedral at Canterbury has been the seat of the leader of the Church of England ever since.
One of Canterbury’s subsequent archbishops was Thomas Becket.
When Becket was confirmed in 1162, King Henry II hoped Becket would continue the practice of putting state ahead of church.
Becket had other ideas. This led to a series of conflicts, which caused the king to exclaim in frustration, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”
Four of the king’s knights picked up on the hint.
On December 29, 1170, as Becket was preparing for an evening service, the knights burst into the chapel and murdered him in front of the altar.
Beckett’s remains were relocated multiple times. What is left of him may reside as relics in five different churches, none of which are the cathedral.
As the oldest cathedral in England, Canterbury was already a shrine for pilgrims, but Becket’s martyrdom boosted attendance. One of the traditional pilgrimage routes from London, called Becket Way, used to take eleven days. Leslie and I made it by train in an hour.
One of the attractions in the cathedral is the tomb of Edward, Prince of Wales, known as the Black Prince. On top of his vault Edward is portrayed in a lifelike bronze effigy in full armor with helmet, spurs, and a dog at his feet. His epitaph reads:
Such as thou art, sometime was I. Such as I am, such shalt thou be. I thought little on th'our of Death So long as I enjoyed breath. On earth I had great riches Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold. But now a wretched captive am I, Deep in the ground, lo here I lie. My beauty great, is all quite gone, My flesh is wasted to the bone.
The journey by pilgrims to Becket’s shrine was the basis for Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic, The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s. In the Tales, each of twenty-four fictional pilgrims relates a story, attempting to one-up the others.
The most-read tale, at least by high-school and college students, is likely the Miller’s Tale, a bawdy story of lust and infidelity. Through his characters, Chaucer criticized society and the church.
While on their journey, Chaucer’s pilgrims might have had a global pandemic on their minds. During the 1300s the bubonic plague killed half of the people in Europe. Travel, however, was seemingly unrestricted.
Back at the B&B in London, Leslie and I broke out our COVID-19 rapid-antigen test kits.
We joined Zoom meetings between certified guides and our nostrils. We were supervised as we swabbed. Fifteen minutes later we received negative results.
With digital passes in hand, our pilgrimage continued.