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Quiet English Treasures
An insider's tour of England finds lesser-known treasures in the shadow of more crowded sites

Photo: The cloister of Canterbury Cathedral. The doorway is where Thomas Becket was slain.

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.

'I wanted to see Southwark because it stood near the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer's pilgrims would have stayed before going to Canterbury.' 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.

Photo: St. Martin's Church, built in about A.D. 580 outside the walls of Canterbury

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.

Another day trip took us to Hampton Court Palace, one of Henry VIII's many residences, this one taken from Cardinal Wolsey after his fall from grace. Here we saw kitchens that had prepared meals for Henry's large retinue of hangers-on, marvelous gardens, one of the few remaining old-style indoor tennis courts (where – in Henry's time and today – the ball is played off the wall as in squash or racquetball), and a rehearsal for the Hampton Court Music Festival. All of us attended a production of The Winter's Tale at the Globe.

Although our trip did not go completely as planned, we recovered nicely from our tour company's failings and had a pleasant and educational excursion with a few last-minute adventures. We were back home before the terrorist attacks on the London subways. I can't help but think of trips we had taken on the same lines, but I will not let the terrorists win, any more than Londoners will. There is simply too much I still want to see, including things I don't even yet know about, to keep me from returning to England.

Michael Haines, former dean of Arts and Humanities at KSC (1989-2001), is the founder and original director of CALL, now run through the College's Continuing Education Office. He teaches in the College's English Department and frequently in CALL courses. His specialties are medieval literature, including Chaucer and medieval drama, and the Bible as literature.

CALL Program
The Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning (CALL) provides educational opportunities for seniors. An affiliate of the Elderhostel Institute Network, CALL traditionally offers non-residential programs on an eight-week schedule (with courses meeting once a week, usually on Friday) in the fall and in late spring. CALL, which in any given term has up to 150 "members," offers six to 12 courses each term. The low-cost program is currently $60 per term, for which members can enroll in any of the courses offered. Courses are noncredit and ungraded. There are usually no additional costs, although sometimes books are recommended or materials required.

Recent courses offered by CALL include Medieval Epic and Romance, Science in the Service of Humanity, Knitting for All Levels, The Political Economy of Money, Painting Workshop, Personal Computer Applications, and a strength and balance exercise program for seniors. For more information or to be put on CALL's mailing list, contact the Office of Continuing Education at Keene State, 603-358-2290.