May 13, 2007

Canterbury and Dover

We woke to blue skies, puffy clouds, and only a breeze for wind, so we decided to spend the day indoors. Makes utter sense, no? After a breakfast of weak coffee, crispy croissants and cough syrup, we headed next door to our main destination for the trip: Canterbury Cathedral, site of the murder of Thomas Becket. And, it turns out, site of the desecration and obliteration of his grave by none other than Henry VIII. This trip was, for me, to chase the ghost of my childhood obsession. As I would discover in the next few days, much like all the men I dedicate my time and efforts to, Henry was a dick. Of the highest order even! Not only did he order the destruction of Becket’s shrine (some 500 years after the murder) he also ordered his body to be removed and hidden. It has never been found, which of course means a meaty stew of rumor and myth abounds to this day. Shot out of a cannon, burned, buried in an unmarked location on cathedral grounds… Given Henry’s proclivity toward beheading, I would tend to say parts of Mr. Beckett lie scattered all around the most unholy places of Mid-evil England. Not one to rest on is excommunicated laurels, Henry ordered the dissolution, sacking and pillaging of all the monasteries, which was the other big site of our morning: St Augustine’s Abbey. St. Augustine arrived from Italy in some ridiculous year like 597 AD and founded a monastery, in which monks could live and worship. It was built and expanded upon and remodeled and famed and celebrated across the Christian world until the Mid to late 1560’s when our boy Henry, bloated beyond the strength of most horses, suffering from gout, over-eating and syphilis, decided he needed more money and preferred to see ruins across his fair kingdom rather than grand buildings of such an offensive and Catholic nature. Most were destroyed to beyond habitation, Canterbury included, but a special treat for the Augustine’s was in store. As a gift for his wife Anne of Cleaves, who I believe was unlucky #5 (beheaded) he requisitioned part of the abbey and had it reappointed as chambers for her crossings to France. (Canterbury being halfway between London and Dover) So now his fourth illegitimate wife is being housed in the church that threw him out because he wanted to divorce his first wife and they said no. And why did he want so many wives? Because none of them could give him a male heir. Plenty of girls, no healthy boys (save one who died at the age of 15 anyway and paved the way for Elizabeth I) It’s the hallmark of syphilis, which he got from fucking around with any woman he could get his grubby hands on. Delightful little tale, isn’t it? I discovered it when I was 10 but I didn’t understand the term for men like that: TOXIC. Henry was a dick. And he was represented at every site we saw on this trip, which I was thrilled to discover before we arrived. You can’t have everything I suppose.

So, Canterbury Cathedral is a gothic cathedral in Southeast England. It is the destination of the Crusades, the cathedral of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, home to Augstine’s ruined Abbey, and a thriving little metropolis. We stayed in a hotel just literally round the corner from the cathedral, on the main square, which was a butter market at some point in history. The city is bustling especially in the historic centre, with both tourist shops and local shops. We managed to find Casey’s Pub one night and decided after meeting the local crew, that we’d make it our local for the duration. It was only on our last night there that I found what made it an Irish pub: on the wall, just outside the restrooms, was a black and white photograph of O’Connell Street. That’s it. The bartender was from Belfast, the name was Irish and they had a photo on the wall. In England, that appears to be enough. No need to serve anything remotely Irish, like say… Guinness. Or Harp. They featured the local ales, which I thoroughly enjoyed but it was quite a shock to discover it was and Irish Pub. Serving British Ales. Odd. Perhaps I should send them shamrocks and a tri-colour… In spite of the lack of Irishness, we enjoyed ourselves there very much and the staff was fantastic fun. It was open mike night our last evening and we watched the last two bands play. One was a guy who sort of modeled himself after the likes of Dave Navarro, except he only wore the eyeliner and had spikey hair. His music was pure whiney-alt-indy. And not even good at that. The next band to play was a group of 3 kids. I say kids, because they looked 14 if a day. I asked the barman if they were even old enough to be in the bar and he reported that he’d personally carded each of them at least four times and could verify they were all 20+. And they totally rocked the pub. One violin, one guitar and one small bongo, they could sing, they wrote their own music, they switched instruments and vocalists... it was entertaining but not nearly as entertaining as Navarro-wanna-be was. He was sitting front and centre, jamming away, beating the back of a chair, clapping his hands, etc… soaking up every second of the music. The most entertaining part? He was off beat the entire time. Made Hippie laaaaaaaugh.

Canterbury is also quite close to Leeds Castle, which is no where near Leeds City, with is halfway between London and Scotland to the north. (and, incidentally, the staging grounds for every major invasion of Scotland in the time of William Wallace, thank you Braveheart for that historical tidbit) We trekked there in the car one blustery and sunny day. When we arrived, we were greeted at the gate by two male peacocks, one traditional blue and one pure white. I’ve never seen a white peacock before and I was quite taken with it. I stalked him until he finally opened his tail feathers so I could see them. Just a magnificent display of snowy, downey white. I’m still a little blown away by him. We started the walk up to the castle, over the grounds, by the bird pond, and then thru a little bit of the woods surrounding the castle. The grounds are a bird sanctuary so everywhere we walked, there were flying creatures, ducks, geese, swans, every type of bird imaginable, including macaws in the aviary. Leeds is a proper castle, there is no getting away from the fact that it served as a royal residence and no a minor royal or lord with a wanting to show off his wads of money. We started at the old mill, then over the drawbridge, into the courtyard for the guided tour and then began in the dungeon. Well, not exactly a dungeon, like in the Princess Bride, but in the basement that became the wine cellar. Ok, not a dungeon at all but basement just doesn’t sound castle-like! So we started in the wine cellar and the proceeded up, thru a vast majority of the rooms listening to the history of the castle. The second room we entered was the hall of history, where they showed the coats of arms from the previous owners and then portraits and brief histories of each of them. Henry VIII was there, and the dining room is in existence because of him. Therefore, his portrait hangs, nay, dominates from over the fireplace.

What I recall most about the castle, other than being the most majestic tour I’d ever been on, were the flowers. Every room was filled with fresh flowers. Hundreds of bouquets nestled every place. By the time we got to the dining room, it was explained that the flowers were courtesy of the nearby floral studios. These were the student projects, which explained the Kate Spade handbag made out of Gerber Daisies. It certainly lent the rooms a glorious fragrance and Melanie and I had a discussion about how such a small thing could make such a large difference in a room. I’d like to say I’ve taken my weekly flower habit back up, inspired as I was, but our vase remains empty because I am lazy.

After the castle tour, we walked up to the hedge maze. I’ve never been in a proper maze before and Hippie wanted to see if it would try and swallow us like it did in Harry Potter. I’m sad to report there were no evil shrubs, no one disappeared inside an out of control rootball and neither green nor red sparks were reported in the air directly above. It did take a bit of time however. Average time for solving the maze is 30 minutes. We are sadly, slower than average. Melanie was the first to solve it, taking approximately 40 minutes. Hippie was next by 4 minutes with me bringing up the rear at 46 minutes. As we stood on top of the maze, the groundskeeper showed us the maze is actually cut into the coat of arms for the Queen who had it commissioned. The then showed us the exit which was thru the grotto. And it was a proper grotto at that. I’ve been in several of them in Italy, it was they who invented the concept of garden grottos, and since then grotto has become synonymous with water feature. It does feature water but there is a lot more to it. Grottos are actually caves, carved out of rock, with water, dedicated to pagan worship. This grotto didn’t disappoint. It was decorated with seashells and had a ceiling that domed upward to the oculus (recalling very much the interior of the Pantheon in Rome) decorated with panels of black and white swans, which is the symbol of Leeds Castle. When we left, we realized the exit from the grotto was just next to the entrance to the maze, a stairway Hippie tried to take when we first walked up. So really, he solved the maze in 1 minute without knowing it.

The best part of this part of the trip for me was absolutely the Cliffs of Dover. We drove down to see them after exploring Canterbury and unfortunately, we didn’t leave ourselves enough time. When we drove past Dover Castle we all regretted the time we spent walking the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey. The castle (Melanie has a thing for castles so this was her Castle Tour) was amazing. Another proper Castle and it was closed for the day. Augh… so we had to drive by it again in order to get to the cliff walk, a move I felt was just rubbing our noses in it.

It must be said here, that this is the first time while driving on the British side of the road made me positively nervous. The road to the cliff walk is a typical English county road; narrow, windy, impossible to see around bends, narrow. And we were driving a car I believe to be the biggest thing I’ve been in since I arrived in Ireland: a Volkswagon Passat. The thing was huuuuuuge! For most of the trip, we were on the motorways so it wasn’t a problem but now, going to the cliffs, it just freaked me out. Espeically after that classic Jaguar tailgated me, then passed me on a stretch of road I’d have deemed unsuitable for passing since neither he nor I could see round the corner. I was so thankful to get into the parking lot.

The thing that stuck me most about the cliffs was the fact that its farm land on top of them. Pasture, grazing, sheep friendly farm land followed by deep ravines, one of which we decided to cross in order to short circuit the hike to the cliffs by about an hour. It’s quite a long walk from the visitors centre to the first cliff. As we were standing at the top of the ravine, I expressed a bit of doubt, to which Hippie replied: you’ve hiked an active volcano, you can do this. Yeah, I succumbed to peer pressure and a not so veiled appeal to my ego. We took off down the ravine and up the other side without incident. I was proud of myself and we continued along the hike. The first few were sort of nice, I had the impression of ‘all the way here for this?’ until we hiked to the fourth cliff and that’s where they finally got spectacular. White they are indeed and set against the green of the grass and the blue of the sky and sea the white is even whiter. Up close, however the cliffs are faintly beige, sort of like a very milky tea, not white. So to recap, White Cliffs of Dover are actually Milky Tea Beige Cliffs of Dover but that’s hard to fit into a WW11 ballad. Also, the beach at the base of the cliffs is pitch black. The rocks, the rubble, the sand, all black. Either the chalk dissolves into a haze of black when it hits the water or there’s a nasty oil spill off the coast of Dover that no one’s talking about. As unusual and unexpected as it was, it still wasn’t enough motivation to join Hippie and Melanie on their trek down to the beach. Mostly because trekking down meant trekking back up and the ravine was more than enough lung exercise for me in one day. I’m a lazy hiker. I decided to go to the end of the cliffs, to see the lighthouse and the chapel but when I realized, after 40 minutes, that the lighthouse was exactly the same size, it was better to head back to the visitors centre. I was weighing my options on going the long way round versus cutting along the cliffs which mean more ravines when I heard Hippie’s voice again, assuring me I could take the ravine. True to form, I took one step down the ravine, lost my footing and toppled straight over my ankle. I slid a bit down the ravine before I stopped and when I did, I stood up, took account (nothing broken, camera still in tact) and let out one wallop of a laugh! I’m a girly girl, no matter how much I try and fight it, and hiking is something that doesn’t come naturally to a girly girl. I solidered on, after noting that I’d twisted my ankle and pulled the muscle running down the front of my thigh and managed the rest of the ravines, and the very steep incline back up to the visitors centre without incident. When I managed to find the road again, I’d passed the visitors centre by about a quarter of a mile and had to hike back to it, to find Melanie and Hippie waiting for me in the cafĂ©. We piled into the car and headed off into the sunset toward London and the last few days of our trip.

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