I’m an English major. These are the types of references I make.
So obviously, we didn’t go to Dover.
I’m not sure why I kept doing research, but something just kept bugging me. I woke up fairly early this morning – around 4:00, to be precise, it’s important to be accurate – and couldn’t fall back asleep, so I looked up more Dover stuff. And the more I learned, the less inviting it seemed to be. Don’t get me wrong – it appears to be a lovely, picturesque place, and the castle sounds AMAZING. But I had to take into consideration other factors besides beauty and awesome landmarks. For one, to see the Cliffs proper, you either have to hike a ways to them, or take a boat to sail nearby. The latter wouldn’t’ve been impossible, but I was trying not to spend more monies than we needed to. And given how footsore Mom was yesterday, I didn’t think she would find a hike to be all that relaxing. This daytrip was supposed to be a nice, pleasant mini-getaway, just touring one place and enjoying the scenery. I didn’t want a repeat of yesterday’s travel frustrations. Also it seems that Dover isn’t the most tourist-friendly place. I know, Mom, I said I didn’t want anything “touristy”. But there’s a difference between “touristy” and “welcoming to tourists”. The main attractions of Dover are its Cliffs and Castle; otherwise, it’s a working city, filled with normal working people. Again, I of course haven’t visited there, so this is all hearsay, but it was enough to guide me toward looking at other places.
Besides Dover (and Bath), another city that kept popping up was Canterbury. Now, being a good English Lit person, I’ve read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales AND seen A Knight’s Tale. So I knew of the place, and at first, it sorta seemed to fall into my NO-TOURISTY-BLAH rejection pile, but the more I looked into it, the more it seemed to tick every other category. It was open to tourists, had guided river tours, a giant Cathedral, and scenic gardens. I wouldn’t see much of those England mountains green perhaps, but it was a far cry away from the city scene. It was an acceptable compromise, and after looking up train times (YAY TRAIN!), I finally woke up Mom to tell her the good news of the schedule changing again!
As we set out later than planned, we quickly got breakfast at Starbucks, and headed for the Tube. I had to reassure Mom that it was now just past peak hours – 09:00 – so the Underground should be nice and empty.
Luckily for me and my big mouth, it was, and we enjoyed a nice ride to the London St Pancreas train station, where a direct line would take us to Canterbury.
It was all going quite well: we walked through the station (which is ENORMOUS – much larger and fancier than Paddington – probably because of its connection to the Eurostar, the railway connecting to Paris), bought our tickets, and then… Couldn’t find the platform. St Pancreas, again: huge. We wandered around the shops and the toilets and the restaurants (there were no litter bins anywhere, either, it was the strangest thing) before finally finding a sign that pointed upstairs. One escalator ride later, we saw our train! It was 9:42 on the dot, we’d made it!
No, of course we didn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you all this. I went up to the information booth to confirm that this was the train to Canterbury, and was told, “Yes – but it’s closed now. About to leave.” Shocked, I turned to look, and sure enough, it was slowly chugging out of the station.
See, when British time tables list a train departure at 9:42, they don’t mean the train arrives at that time, people board, and it leaves a few minutes later. No, it means that the train will GONE at that time.
Fortunately, British transportation is still vastly superior in almost every way, and there would be another train in an hour. (Given the revelation above, we took that to mean 45 minutes, just in case.)
There was enough to do in the station to warrant an hour’s worth of waiting (or less), but I had noticed on the map another train station nearby, one that was quite familiar to me: King’s Cross.
Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo powder knows this is where the famed Platform 9 3/4 is located, the entrance to its magical railway counterpart that takes students to Hogwarts (though J.K. Rowling had actually been thinking of Euston station when describing it, whoops, and the movie scenes were done at St Pancreas, go figure). Visiting it was somewhere on my London to-do list, but I had thought it was too far out of the way of any significant attractions to justify the trip. But now lo and behold, it was right across the street!
I told Mom I wanted to go have a look, as it shouldn’t take long, and it would also make my Potterhead sister extremely jealous. So we left St Pancreas (carefully noting how far away our platform was to the entrance), and walked over to King’s Cross. Like Paddington, it featured both a railway service and the Underground. And there were still no litter bins. From the side we entered in, near western departures, the famous Platform was right there.
It was actually quite a thrilling sight, seeing what you’d imagined from the books and watched in the movies to be real and right in front of you. I was almost giddy. Perhaps predictably, there was also a lengthy queue, mostly filled with children and their parents. When it’s your turn for the photo, they give you a choice of House scarf to wear, and a wand to hold. As admittedly awesome as it would’ve been to have my picture taken there, not only did we have a train to catch (it was so cool to be able to say that), but I didn’t want to hold up space in line that I felt rightfully belonged to the kids. I snapped a quick pic, and we went back to St Pancreas.
As we had thought, the train came earlier than 10:42, but now we were actually ready. I was pretty excited; the train we had taken from Heathrow had been nice, but this was obviously a cross-country sort of locomotive, with tables and comfy seats and a conductor. This was LEGIT.
It took us a little while to get out of London, but my patience was rewarded with the wide open countryside I had been yearning for.
To be fair to my home state of California, it’s not as though I haven’t seen anything other than cities (the National Redwood Forest is GORGEOUS, btw). SoCal has its fair share of desert, tis true, but also many hills and farmland. But this was England! With its England’s mountains green! (I will repeat that lyric till the end of my days.)
Blame Monty Python.
During the whole hour and 45 minute trip, I gazed out the window, sometimes taking pictures or video, but mostly just looking and looking.
Mom read a book the whole time, and just when I was thinking that I should’ve thought of that, we were pulling into Canterbury station.
And…it wasn’t what I was expecting. The TripAdvisor reviews, the visitor’s site, the blog posts – it had made it seem less…old. And I realize that’s a rather obvious description for such a historic town, and not that kind, especially given how I’ve been raving about how much I love how old London is. But this seemed to be a different kind of old, a sort of run-down old. I was starting to get worried. Not for our safety or anything, but I was afraid I had made a terrible mistake in dragging Mom out here and there was nothing to do or see. It looked like a plain town to me. But to be fair, I didn’t really know what I had wanted in the first place. To see the countryside? I had seen plenty on the way here. What more could I have been thinking I’d want? I had vetoed Dover for its lack of attractions, in favor of Canterbury’s purported tourist draw. There had to be more, I just had to give it a chance.
There was actually a bit of a crowd ahead of us, and we followed them into what was presumably the center of the town. You may notice from the picture that the main difference between here and London is, of course, the lack of skyscrapers and business people. There were shops around, but this part was like, the main street, with its Sainsbury’s and cafes. We then moved into an area that had traffic blocked off, and were in Canterbury proper.
This was more like it (even though I still don’t really know what I had been expecting; blame my overly excitable imagination). It was very obviously a shopping/restaurant/sightseeing plaza. As we learned later, no people actually live in this part of the city, it’s all for tourism and its related businesses. It’s quite a large area, and this main strip was fairly bustling by midday. From a map we acquired, we saw listed a number of museums, a theatre, the cathedral, and loads and loads of restaurants, pubs, and shops. When Mom remarked on how quaint everything was, I started feeling a little less nervous. Maybe this was a good choice after all.
This feeling solidified when she was the one to suggest taking a river tour. We were confronted by a friendly (cute) guy standing near the river that runs through Canterbury, and he handed us a flyer about these boat tours that travel along the river, with a guide giving you information about the city. I had thought we would do this near the end of our day, but Mom was quite keen to do it now. So without even having to pay beforehand, we were told to come back in about 15 minutes when the next boat came round. So we wandered on a bit, and I noticed a pasty shop. I’d always wanted to try an authentic English pasty. Before I could explain its wonderfulness to Mom, it was already time to head back, and with a small group of about eight others, we followed another (cute) guy down to the docking area.
Two more (cute) guys were there, one hauling in a recently-emptied rowboat. I suddenly became aware that I was the youngest person in the group – everybody else was Mom’s age or older. Tongue-tied, I could only nod when our “captain” helped us into the boat. I of course, being polite, had let everyone else go first, and the only seat left was by the front, right near where the guy was to sit as he rowed the boat with his nice muscles and dimpled smile (the latter though probably not quite as helpful).
He told us (I don’t remember his name, sadly) that he and his adorable colleagues were all college students – there are three universities around Canterbury. Many students go home or elsewhere during the summer holidays, but those who stay often get jobs here in the town. These lean young lads opted for the river tours. It’s actually not an easy job; despite his easy grin and lighthearted jokes, rowing a boat full of heavy people who can only sit there is a tough gig. But he performed quite admirably – and I’m not just saying that because he was hot (and sweaty). He provided an excellent, entertaining ream of information about the city, noting its long and involved history.
Witch burnings, Oliver Cromwell-ordained destruction, and its reputation as a home for pilgrims. Yes, legit ones fleeing for their lives, looking for sanctuary and a real home.
It was all absolutely fascinating. And very relaxing, being gently rowed around the river. There were a couple of low bridges, where we had to duck our heads (and the guy joked about a crack at the center of one, saying he had learned that lesson the hard way – cute AND a sense of humor!), and in one instance, he lay on his back at the helm, and “walked” the boat under the bridge, placing his feet on the bricks and taking large steps to pull us along. I wasn’t sure if he was showing off (ha), but he explained that that was how medieval boaters had traversed low tricky bridges.
He asked us where we were all from, and Mom and I were surprisingly not the only Americans. There was a couple from…some place, a different State, and two couples were English and German, and an older woman near me was from East Asia. I had noticed a lot of tourists when we had entered the plaza, but most of them seemed to be English. It seemed to be a go-to weekend getaway place. The guy was just telling us about something, but then we all got distracted as a row of baby ducks swam by.
He was gentle in steering them away from the oncoming boat, but admitted they were a bit of a pest, as they didn’t know yet to avoid the dangerous undercurrent of passing vessels. He resumed his history spiel, and I do wish I could remember more details, but I assure you, it was very interesting. Canterbury was the hub of activity for centuries, and even the Spanish Inquisition had intruded its borders. I commented that that was unexpected, and he looked at me, amused, and correctly responded that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
(A Pythonite! I almost swooned.)
If you read that caption (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t, it’s fairly obvious), you’ll’ve noticed a chair hanging over the river. While we were waiting for our turn to disembark at the dock (yes, the trip was already over, all too soon), one of us pointed out the strange location for such an object. Our guy explained it was left over from medieval days, when husbands would stick their wives in the chair if they became too forceful for them to handle. They would be dunked over and over in the river (which, back then, was a sewer) until they were humbled and obedient. When the ladies in the group made disapproving noises, our guy held up his hands in mock surrender, claiming to be a mere messenger. He then went on to explain that it wasn’t only for women, but also unscrupulous businessmen, who had been discovered of their cheating or otherwise less-than-fair practices, and would be dunked in the water for their crimes. Once this happened, of course, no one would be willing to work with the man again, and his business would go under (this is where that particular expression apparently originates – “under” being in the water).
As he had been a stellar tour guide, I tipped him a few pounds when we docked, and after paying the total fare (you don’t owe anything until it’s over), we walked back to the main street.
Now that we had done the river tour, I wasn’t sure what to do next until I remembered the other main attraction, the Canterbury Cathedral. It took us quite some time to find it, and even though the center streets were filled with people, the alleyways and outskirts were almost completely empty, and it was a little unnerving walking alone. We finally found it, only to be met with stunning disappointment. It was closed.
After the fiasco with Shakespeare’s Globe yesterday, I had made doubly sure to check the website for the closing times, and it was not supposed to close that early, even on a Sunday (when most churches aren’t open at all). But there was some sort of ceremony taking place that afternoon, which meant for an early closure. I was a little upset about it – mainly because I do love walking through these kind of places and learning new things, but also I didn’t know what else to do. I had figured touring the Cathedral would take a couple hours at least. I wasn’t ready to head back yet.
Fortunately, even though the Cathedral itself wasn’t open to the public, the grounds outside were, and we were allowed to wander around and look at the beautiful exterior designs.
Mom and I took turns taking pictures of each other in front of the big (closed) doors before heading to the inner courtyard.
If the photographs online are any indication, the inside is absolutely beautiful, but the outside was quite amazing, as well.
It was a decent-sized area, and though it’s hard to tell in the picture above, the awnings were covered in knightly shields.
I’m not entirely sure if these were actual tombs filled with actual bodies or just memorial plaques, but they were all over the place: the floor and the walls. Most were worn completely away, and like in St Paul’s Cathedral, I found myself wondering who that person had been, and what they had done in their life to warrant their resting place here.
The stone benches all around this grassy courtyard were pleasant to sit on, and I imagined it would be quite lovely to be out there on a nice sunny day with a good book.
The only interior space that was open at all was a little chapel, near the exit.
There was of course no tour guide or anything, so I have no idea what this room is used for other than worship. Despite the number of people inside, it was rather quiet, the tremendously high ceiling naturally contributing to that.
After seeing all that there was to see, we walked back toward the center of town. I was still feeling the disappointment of not being able to go inside the Cathedral proper, and worried that Mom was getting bored.
I really shouldn’t underestimate her, because again, she was the one to suggest that we look at the various shops and such. We were planning on making Monday our shopping day for souvenirs, though we had been picking up little things here and there (mostly tote bags and sweets). Canterbury was full of tourist shops, though, including one that had this little gem:
We took a lengthy route that crossed near the edges of town, and passed by the Marlowe Theatre, an “astonishing new” addition to Canterbury tourist scene.
Our river guide had pointed it during our trip, and mentioned it was a point of contention among residents and tourists. Some argued that it ruined the historic feel of the medieval town (and to be sure, it is the only building of its style in the whole place), while others insisted it was progress, exactly what the city had always stood for. Most of our boat seemed to take the side of the former, and our guy’s only opinion was that, like the other older buildings, it wouldn’t be modern anymore in a couple hundred years.
Across the street, there was the only Canterbury Tales related site I’d seen yet: a Bed and Breakfast called Chaucer House.
Continuing on, we would up back near the river, and I spotted the pasty shop again. When I explained what they were to Mom, she agreed that they sounded divine, and we stopped in for lunch. I opted for the traditional Cornish pasty (and yes, I realize it’s not authentic since we weren’t in Cornwall, but it was still DELICIOUS), and Mom got a Brazilian-inspired one filled with chorizo and other spicy bits.
Even though it was rather chilly, we sat outside to eat and just watched people walking by. There were some foreigners like us, but it mostly seemed to be English families out on holiday. When we’d finished, I finally came up with a suggestion, to visit one of the museums we’d seen.
Which I now know is called the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge. Thanks, Internet!
It seemed small on the outside, but was actually fairly large. I got the impression that much of the contained exhibits were from private collections, as it was quite an eclectic grouping. The layout and interior design were tastefully done, and there were even activities for kids. Cultural appetite sated, I remembered that there was a fashion museum mentioned in the brochure, and I figured Mom would like seeing that. It was just a matter of finding it…
If my writing seems rather loose and leisurely, it’s because that’s how the day was. We weren’t in a rush, everything had a relaxing atmosphere, and it was very nice. And then, as icing on the cake, I spotted a bookstore!
It was the first one I’d seen so far in England, and I raced inside, not even noticing if Mom followed me. I know that English books aren’t that much different than American ones, at least in terms of content (though they will change text to suit our grammar rules, which is just plain silly to me), but most everything has a different cover and is of course priced in pounds. I found some of Michael Palin’s travel books, and bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t buy them all. I also considered the British children’s versions of the Harry Potter books (my sister has the paperback adult versions – no contextual changes, just the covers are more subtle in design), mostly to read it as originally written, but I knew they were coming out with new editions this fall, so I decided to wait. There was also a coffee shop on the third floor, and while I waited for Mom to use the toilets, I noticed that there were little plaques everywhere. This place was obviously more famous than it looked, because one said that J.K. Rowling had been there while writing Chamber of Secrets, Douglas Adams had written “42” on the wall, Tom Baker had told Doctor Who stories to patrons, etc.
Waterstone’s (the name of the shop) was located in a rather more modern part of Canterbury, though it was a little hard to tell just from the outside. Everything was carefully designed to look as old as the brick buildings around it, even if there was a McDonald’s right across the square from a 19th century pub. Stores that relied on visual street attraction were artfully hidden in welcoming alleyways.
We never did find that fashion museum, but there was a big department store that Mom wanted to check out, and while she did so, I retreated to another bookstore nearby, also a Waterstone’s, strangely enough. When we met back up, I saw signs for yet another museum. We went to check it out, again walking through mostly empty streets. The Canterbury Heritage Museum wasn’t free, though, and Mom was getting a little anxious to make sure we were able to catch a train going home (there was one leaving every hour, but we were hoping to get back before dark, despite that – Traveler’s Tip #9 – in summer, England doesn’t get dark until around 22:00, which makes for nice long evening walks, but a little more difficult to adjust to if you’re not used to it).
On the walk back, I asked Mom (a little anxiously) if she had enjoyed herself, and she said yes, it had been a nice relaxing day, and the river tour was definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip for her. I was very glad to hear this, and celebrated by buying a freshly made, piping hot, deliciously delicious cinnamon crepe from a stand, which we ate on the way to the train station.
We got there just in time to catch the next train, and after taking a few more pictures, I dozed off listening to Not the Messiah. Quite apropos, yes? (No, not really.)
After arriving at St Pancreas (and Mom waking me up), we were looking for the Tube to take back to Paddington, when I remembered I had seen people in King’s Cross that morning holding shopping bags that said “Platform 9 3/4” on them. I had pointed them out to Mom, wondering if there had been a Harry Potter shop or something that we hadn’t seen. She said we ought to take a look if we got back from Canterbury in time. Traveler’s Tip #10: As we had learned via one of our Big Bus Tour guides, due to the UK Sunday Trading Act, virtually all businesses in England and Wales are only open for six hours every Sunday, the exceptions including petrol stations, pharmacies, railways, and (as we found out), airport shops. We went back to King’s Cross to find this mysterious shop – and it was right next to the photo op sign. D’oh!
As you can see, it was gloriously designed to look like the movie version, and absolutely stuffed with people.
I wanted EVERYTHING.
I was excited for my own Potterhead reasons, but Mom was, too, because she had finally found the perfect present to bring back for my sister, who had asked us to bring her something “not touristy”. Well, this was the best place in the world, because there was only ONE like it in the world! We got her a shirt that said, “Platform 9 3/4: King’s Cross, London” on it, which I knew she’d adore, and also some buttons of her House (Slytherin, ehehe). I also picked up some buttons for me (Ravenclaw, naturally) and my friends, and there was a little bit of an incident in which they overcharged us for said buttons and we were wondering why it had cost nearly £20 more than we had thought, and I had to go back to sort it all out.
The rest of the evening passed without much event. We took the King’s Cross Underground (after a little flurry of uncertainty, as I had direction from St Pancreas, not here) to Paddington, and returned to our hotel. Despite the filling pasties from earlier, we were feeling a bit peckish, though too tired to do the restaurant scene again. Mom had thought she’d seen a pizza place in the station somewhere, and I went looking for it to no avail. So I picked up some bagel sandwiches instead (as well as some sweets – I shall not be tamed!).
Tonight was the first night that I didn’t have to do that much research for the schedule tomorrow – our last day! – because it was fairly straightforward, and I only had to verify opening/closing times and acquire Tube schedules.
My penultimate night in England was therefore quite restful.