Sunday, August 3, 2008
Saint Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury
Early Sunday morning, a car will be delivered to our London hotel—we have been promised 7:00 a.m. delivery of a brand-new Peugeot station wagon, a good-sized vehicle, happily, since we will require a car that accommodates, comfortably, six persons for the next sixteen days—and we will set out for Canterbury.
The station wagon features 2-3-2 seating. We have already decided how we will occupy the car: my brother will drive and Josh’s sister will sit in the front passenger seat so that she has a prime view of everything we pass; my parents will occupy the middle seat, where they will be most comfortable; and Josh and I will sit in the rear compartment, facing backward. This will be the best arrangement for everyone, I believe.
We should arrive in Canterbury around 9:00 a.m. and, first thing, we will park the car for the day and locate a café to have a traditional English breakfast. This will be our first traditional English breakfast of the trip. I wonder whether Josh’s sister will enjoy eating baked beans and fried tomatoes for breakfast, along with her eggs, bacon, sausages, potatoes and toast. I hope she does, because we will have no opportunity for lunch this day, and we may need the traditional English breakfast to get us through the next few hours.
After breakfast, we will walk to the ruins of Saint Augustine’s Abbey, situated a quarter mile from Canterbury Cathedral. We hope to arrive by 10:15 a.m. so that we may devote a couple of hours to exploring the Abbey ruins and the small museum on site.
Saint Augustine’s Abbey was established in 597 A.D., when Pope Gregory The Great sent an Abbott from Rome to England to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. The Abbey was established in Canterbury because Canterbury was at that time the locus of the court of the Anglo-Saxon kings.
Numerous Abbey buildings were erected over the following centuries but, shortly after the 1066 Norman Conquest, the Abbey greatly expanded and rebuilt virtually all of its old Anglo-Saxon buildings in a Romanesque style known as Norman architecture. Construction continued for three hundred years, and Saint Augustine’s Abbey was to rival the greatness, beauty and importance of nearby Canterbury Cathedral for decades. This period ended with Henry VIII’s Dissolution Of The Monasteries, when Saint Augustine’s Abbey was forcibly abandoned. The Abbey fell into disuse and ruin. Stone from the Abbey was borrowed for other construction projects over the next several decades, including a no-longer-extant palace built for Anne Of Cleves.
Today, the foundations of the Abbey remain, a few as much as several stories high. The ruins are a remarkable place to visit.
Foundations, walls, arches, crypts—all in various states of decay—remain visible today. There are numerous ruins to visit: The Church Of Saint Peter And Saint Paul; The Church Of Saint Pancras; the chapel known as The Porticus Of Saint Gregory; The Chapel Of Saint Anne; cloisters; crypts; a multi-story octagonal rotunda; the great gate; the great kitchen; the lavatorium; and numerous courtyards and lodgings.
It will be a real pleasure to spend a couple of hours strolling through the remains of what once was the center of Christianity in Britain.
Early afternoon will be devoted to Canterbury Cathedral.
My brother and I have visited Canterbury Cathedral twice. My parents have visited Canterbury Cathedral on one occasion, many, many years ago. Josh and Josh’s sister have never visited Canterbury Cathedral.
Canterbury Cathedral is only open to the public from 12:30 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. Further, on Sunday, August 3, the Cathedral will close two hours early, at 2:30 p.m.
Consequently, we will only have two hours to tour the great complex, beginning with the great arched entry that admits visitors onto the sacred grounds. There will be just enough time for us to see the entire exterior and interior of the Cathedral, and everything else we want to see, but we will not have the luxury of lingering.
We will have time to visit the main church interior, and The Chapter House, and the crypt, and a few other nooks and crannies of the Cathedral.
Canterbury Cathedral, from a purely architectural view, is unremarkable. The Cathedral has been in various stages of construction and destruction for over 1400 years, and its extended history is reflected in its hodgepodge of architectural styles and interior decorations. The building is partly Anglo-Saxon, largely Romanesque, partly Gothic, partly English Perpendicular, partly Neo-Classical, and partly Victorian Neo-Gothic. The building has suffered damage during various upheavals over the last 1400 years, from The Norman Conquest to The Dissolution Of The Monasteries to The Civil War to World War II.
Natural causes have played their parts, too—there have been several Cathedral fires, and one of the Cathedral towers on the verge of collapse was torn down in the 18th Century and rebuilt in a style completely different from the original tower.
As an historic site, Canterbury Cathedral is one of the great attractions in all of Britain. As an aesthetic experience, it does not live up to its billing, except for its stained glass.
And the stained glass is the most remarkable artistic glory of Canterbury Cathedral. It contains some of the most rare and most beautiful stained glass to be seen anywhere. Much of the stained glass was created in the 12th and 13th Centuries, when glassmaking as an art and as a science had reached a peak of perfection. Almost all of the stained glass in the Cathedral pre-dates 1500, a remarkable fact, given that so much stained glass throughout England was destroyed during The Dissolution Of The Monasteries and, barely one hundred years later, during The Civil War. Indeed, some of the stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral WAS destroyed during those periods of turmoil, and it is miraculous that such a substantial portion of its ancient glass survived, remaining on view today, centuries after its creation.
Some of the glass is modern, dating from times as recent as the 1950’s, but it is the ancient glass that is extraordinary. The ancient glass at Canterbury is breathtaking. Large, complex scenes, from the bible and from history, are portrayed in giant windows of startling imagination, color and artistry, created by the greatest stained-glass artists from all over Europe during the era in which glassmaking had reached its highest level of accomplishment. A couple of the giant windows at Canterbury Cathedral are among my favorite windows anywhere. Happily, because the Cathedral is so large, there are many, many giant windows to view and admire. In all, there are over 1100 square meters of stained glass in the giant Cathedral.
Several of the windows commemorate Thomas Becket, slain in the Cathedral in 1170. These windows were created in the centuries immediately following his murder.
We will devote as much time as possible to the windows, which will not be easy, given the time constraints under which our visit will operate.
When Canterbury Cathedral closes at 2:30 p.m., we will walk toward the center of the town of Canterbury and walk around for an hour, and get a sandwich somewhere.
Other than the ruins of Saint Augustine’s Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, there is very little worth visiting in Canterbury. The only other attraction in Canterbury we wanted to visit, Saint Martin’s Church, one of the oldest churches in Britain, is closed on Sundays. The couple of small museums in town have no appeal for us, nor does the commercial “Canterbury Tales” attraction.
Canterbury used to be filled with medieval buildings of the greatest interest. For centuries, Canterbury offered ample rewards to pilgrims in addition to the Abbey and the Cathedral.
World War II ended that. Much of the town was destroyed during the War, including most of the town center. Canterbury was on the Luftwaffe’s direct route to London, and the Luftwaffe took advantage of that, bombing Canterbury repeatedly.
Canterbury Cathedral was specifically targeted by the Luftwaffe, but only one large bomb ever struck the Cathedral. That bomb destroyed the Cathedral library, a Neo-Gothic creation from the 19th Century, but it did not strike the heart of the structure.
Small incendiary devices struck the Cathedral numerous times—such devices were dropped everywhere in Canterbury—but brave men were stationed on the Cathedral rooftop during bombing raids, armed with fire hoses to put out blazes started by incendiary devices. Because of the bravery of the Canterbury fire squads, and because of luck, the Cathedral emerged relatively unscathed from the War.
The town, alas, did not. Whatever remarkable buildings Canterbury had before the War were destroyed, and the town was rebuilt after the War in a most unpleasant, undistinguished fashion.
We picked a bad day to visit Canterbury, alas, but geography and the calendar prevented us from rearranging our schedule so as to visit Canterbury on a weekday.
Our alternatives were to substitute another nearby town—such as Dover—for Canterbury, or to omit Canterbury and environs from our itinerary altogether. We did not want to do that. We very much wanted to visit the ruins of Saint Augustine’s Abbey and we very much wanted to visit Canterbury Cathedral, even if we had to restrict our enjoyment of the Cathedral to two hours. We will make the best of the situation.
Once we have completed seeing whatever we want to see in Canterbury, we will leave Canterbury and drive to Rye, one hour away, where we will spend the next two nights.
In Rye, after we check into our hotel, we will have plenty of time to walk around this charming town for an hour or two before dinner.
My brother and I have visited Rye on two previous occasions. My parents visited Rye for a few days many, many years ago, but this will be their first return visit.
That previous visit was their honeymoon.
We will make a point of having dinner at an especially nice restaurant this evening.