Two years ago, my wife, Nicky, and I took it upon ourselves to walk the Pilgrims’ Way from Sevenoaks to Canterbury. This was as a result of watching A Canterbury Tale one lazy afternoon, a propaganda film shot in Kent ‘in the darkest days of World War Two, when people were searching for certitude’. The directors, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, ‘looked at the English countryside and found something eternal: a nation’s soul’.
The Pilgrims’ Way is another name, and more recent affectation, for the North Downs Way which runs from Winchester, South of London, and on to Dover, with one branch leading to St Thomas Becket’s Shrine at Canterbury.
The film follows three protagonists as they make their way to Canterbury, meeting at the fictitious village of Chillingbourne. What starts as a whodunnit is really a healing process as they discover Kent and its history. In the film the past exists side-by-side with the present which gives it a great sense of continuity.
And indeed, as you make your way along the Old Road, as Hillaire Belloc describes it in his book of the same name, you discover a timeless beauty and serenity that had hitherto remained hidden (to me at least) in our crowded south-east corner of Britain.
In the film, Canterbury Cathedral becomes the focus, and is where each of the protagonists has their epiphany. So, at the end of our 45-mile journey, Nicky and I found ourselves at this ancient Christian structure which has been a place of worship since the year 597.
It is an awe-inspiring place. It demands respect, and even though the Cathedral was packed with visitors, we found ourselves talking in hushed tones, and walking reverently up the aisle towards the quire which is accessed by ascending the great stone steps from the nave to the rood entrance.
I am easily distracted in such a place and I wanted to take in every detail. As such we became separated. It was at this point that fortune took a turn for the worse. My wife, in her eagerness to study the intricacies of the quire screen, tripped on the stone steps and fell forwards, arms flung out, taking the Lord’s name in vain in a loud and vocal manner. And it was in this position, prostrate, face down, and arms stretched out, calling for the Divine, that she found herself the centre of attention of all those within the confines of the building, and who in unison had all turned to stare at the commotion.
A large group of tourists from Arkansas, misconstruing the situation as an act of Christian devotion, burst into song interspersed with shouts of ‘praise the Lord’ and ‘God bless you’, while various dignitaries and officials, dressed in their refinery, rushed to her aid which only added to the sense of occasion and made our Arkansas cousins, who by now were on verse four of ‘onward Christian soldiers’, sing with renewed gusto and vigour.
From nowhere a lady arrived with what appeared to be the Cathedral’s first aid box. However, as she opened it, and as she and the surrounding dignitaries peered into it, one could tell from the profound look of disappointment on all faces that someone had neglected to restock its contents since the time they had tried to patch up poor Thomas Becket in 1170.
It is in such times of emergency that the true human spirit shows itself. From every part of the Cathedral came forward people who thought they might help in the unfolding drama. There was a nurse from Tooting, an interior designer from Newcastle, a photocopier repair man who was on holiday with his wife and children, a nice old lady with some tissues, and fourteen lawyers with so many business cards that we could have had game of bridge, but which would have been difficult because a party of students from Japan insisted on a jamboree of ‘selfies’ while my wife, in much pain and surrounded by men in cassocks, was using some choice words which made the whole spectacle look and sound more and more like an impromptu exorcism.
Now, you might ask, where was her useless husband of 34 years in all this? Well, as I explained later, being the spirited correspondent of the ‘Sedbergh Times’, my job was to observe and report on the pageant, rather than be a part of the proceedings. Such is the strict code of ethics to which I am obliged to subscribe. My wife, bless her, had indeed hurt herself, and we found refuge in a quiet part of the Cathedral taking the opportunity to read about Thomas Becket. And, just as in the film, there was, in that moment, an epiphany.
When you strip away the historic, the Sainthood, and the sands of time, you find in Thomas Becket an extraordinary man, who was quite prepared to change his life and to reinvent himself for the better, and in accordance with the deep convictions that he held. I came to realise that I had spent my life in pursuit of a singular objective and a singular destination. Suddenly I felt permission to take a different course, and it was a realisation that I found truly liberating.
Now, two years later, with the pressures of Covid, and all the restrictions that this brings, many of us are having to re-evaluate our lives, and in some cases reinvent ourselves, just as Thomas Becket did a thousand years ago. In the film, A Canterbury Tale, we are encouraged to believe in the power of the past. I can promise you, in the recesses of time, there is much to learn and much to take comfort from. So, if the future looks uncertain, with Covid, Brexit, and global warming, look to the past. It might surprise you, and more so, it might inspire you and prove to be the very guidance you are searching for.
Have a Merry Christmas,
Jan van der Velde
Chairman, OS Club