|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XXI NUMBER 3 Spring 2006|
Quiet English Treasures
A few blocks away from the bustle of international visitors to the cathedral in Canterbury, England, sits the unpretentious little church of St. Martin's. Most visitors to Canterbury seldom find this tiny church, but it has an impressive history. I entered it again last summer, with the same awe I always feel, with my daughter and a couple of fellow travelers from KSC's CALL. An acronym for the Cheshire Academy of Lifelong Learning, CALL is an Elderhostel-affiliated program run by the College to benefit seniors in the Monadnock region.
It's true that Canterbury Cathedral has a legitimate claim on our attention. It was the site of Thomas Becket's martyrdom; it became the major cathedral in Catholic England and seat of the archbishop, the head of the English Catholic Church, and later of the Anglican archbishop, who headed the reformed church begun under Henry VIII. It was the destination of Chaucer's pilgrims in the fourteenth century and the terminus of many pilgrims since, religious and otherwise, including literary ones like me. It is a beautiful, high-Gothic building with centuries-old stained glass depicting Becket's martyrdom and the religious pilgrims visiting his shrine. Its magnificence still moves me, even though I now have to pay an admission fee.
But just a short distance away, through the back streets of the city, you can find St. Martin's, a church used by St. Augustine and his companions after they arrived in Kent in A.D. 597 on a mission from Pope Gregory to convert the English to Christianity. The unconverted King of Kent, Ethelbert, allowed Augustine to set up shop outside the city walls in this small church where Ethelbert's queen, Bertha, a Christian Frank, had been worshipping since about 580. The church was the presumed site of Ethelbert's baptism and became the locus of the new religion. Ethelbert later allowed Augustine to build an abbey and to begin building a new church (which eventually became the cathedral) within the city walls.
St. Martin's today offers a calm respite from the press of tourists, a place of quietude where one can commune with the generations of people who have worshipped here for more than 1400 years. The courses of thin red Roman brick mixed in its walls with the native flint of Kent reveal its connection to the earlier Roman occupation of Canterbury. You can also see in its walls where a small opening once allowed lepers, who were exiled to the exterior of the church, to hear Mass.
St. Martin's is just one of many serendipitous discoveries I have made over my several visits to the UK and which I enjoy sharing with any traveling companions. Last summer, I was joined by my daughter, Kristen, on her fourth trip with me to the UK (I have created an Anglophilic monster!) and six people from the CALL program. Unfortunately, our trip was marred by the shortcomings of our tour company, which changed our departure date, cancelled some excursions, and booked us into a rather shabby hotel in London. However, since Kristen and I are well-traveled in the UK, we were able to offer some of our own options to our companions.
One day some of us set out to find the excavation site of the Rose Theatre (the theatre portrayed in Shakespeare in Love). I couldn't find it, even though I had stumbled upon it on an earlier trip: it is apparently being excavated further and, therefore, not currently open to the public. So, instead, we set out to find the George Inn, an inn with an enclosed courtyard where plays on temporary stages were performed in Shakespeare's time when the theatres were not open. The George Inn may well have served as a model for "playhouses" (as Shakespeare called them) like the Globe and the Rose. We not only found it but had a lovely lunch in the courtyard.
On the way back, we went in search of Southwark Cathedral, which in Chaucer's day was an Augustinian Priory Church and in Shakespeare's day an Anglican Church. I wanted to see Southwark because it stood near the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer's pilgrims would have stayed before going to Canterbury.