Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday

This was the first of three full days in Canterbury. Our hotel is a good hike – probably a mile – from the ancient city wall. We gathered at 9 AM, and made the trek, ending up at the striking Christchurch gate to the cathedral precincts. We were met by a guy, who promptly handed us off to another guy, who walked us out the opposite city wall from the one we had entered, passed the ruins of the once great St. Augustine's Abbey, and onto the parish church of St. Martin. This is, quite simply, the oldest Christian church in the British Isles. It was originally a Roman building, which was given to the Christian Frenchwoman Bertha, when she married to Saxon king of Kent, Ethelbert, in the late sixth century. When Pope Gregory's emissary, Augustine, arrived in England in 597 A.D., this building was Bertha's church. It has been enlarged and altered many times over the last 1400 years, but, amazingly, it remains a functioning parish church, with regular worship and a stable congregation. What an experience it was to touch those walls.

We then retraced our steps back to the ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey. Only the foundations, and part of one wall, of what was once an impressive collection of buildings, remain to be seen and explored. The audio tour is exceptionally informative and well-done. We were then turned loose to find lunch on our own in the bustling ancient city center.

At 2 PM, we reconnected with our original tour guide, led us around the exterior of the cathedral, through the cloister and parts of the old monastery. In a rather dramatic fashion, she recounted to us the relationship between King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket, including his assassination in 1170. Immediately after that, we walked about 50 feet through the cathedral towards into the very place of that martyrdom. She then led us around the rest of the interior of the cathedral, including the historic crypt, which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. At about 330, she turned us loose to explore on our own. Some remained in the building for a bit, but most seemed intent on checking off some items on their gift shopping list.

We gathered next at 5:15, and entered the choir of the cathedral, where a block of seats was reserved for us for choral evensong. The choir of men and boys was spectacular, and, appropriately enough, given all the history we have been absorbing, the music was mostly from the 16th century Tudor era. Our prearranged dinner was just across the street at an Italian restaurant. After eating, we hiked back to our hotel, grateful for the long-lasting daylight at this time of year.

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