Thursday, 11 June 2009
Canterbury Cathedral is so famous that anything I could write about it has been written by others, no doubt. We spent half a day wandering round the building and could probably have spent longer, except that we became dazzled by all the monuments, pillars, carvings, ironwork and of course the vast quantities of medieval stained glass. I know that Canterbury did not escape the vandalism of Cromwell and his un-merry men, so I have yet to learn why so much glass has survived.
It was a surprise to me that the glass was so elegant, framed as it was in subtly varied shapes and with such harmonious colours and carefully judged layout. No reason why they shouldn't have been able to do such a good job, yet I had imagined that stained glass of that period would seem primitive. Far from it. You must, of course, imagine these windows as part of a wider scene, with more windows on either side, and very tall....
When there is so much to see, you can get a bit punch-drunk, and then you stop taking in what you're seeing, and need to have a rest. It was great having a precinct pass - we got it because we were staying at the Cathedral lodgings - so we could come and go without paying the charge to enter the Cathedral grounds.
Canterbury's only a small town, not unlike Oxford or Cambridge, with big castle-like fortified gates. Many unusual old buildings, including this shop
which makes me feel a little less bothered about the tilting floors in our own old house.
Our route down the Kent coast zigzagged around via Whitstable, Dymchurch (sometimes known as Grimchurch, so someone kindly told me - after we'd booked to stay there) and Dungeness.
The coast in that part of Kent is not improved by being built up for miles with ribbon-development. I think of the houses as ugly modern bungalows, but perhaps to their owners they are dream homes by the sea - a wind-lashed sea, hidden in many places behind a large grassy dyke.
Whitstable, famous for its oysters, is quite charming once you get through the dreary suburbs. We had a bite to eat in the Tudor Tea Rooms. There was a fashion for Tudor tea rooms in the 1920s, although it's a mystery why that should be, since tea itself was not introduced into England until many years after the Tudors. It's a cavernous, genuinely very old building with some fascinating items inside, and a kind of vintage 20s charm, now, too. It also has a sunny back garden - hard to find in Whitstable teashops - which they hardly advertise. If it looks rather empty, it's because it was nearly closing time.
We cycled between Canterbury and Whitstable on the Crab and Winkle Line. The start of the line is marked with a handsome mosaic plaque on a wall in Whitstable This claims to be the first proper passenger steam railway line in the world, although this is sometimes disputed. It's a very early one, anyhow, and opened in 1830.
There are no rails left, and it's now a very pleasant cycle route that runs mostly through woodland. You can stop at something called the "winding pool", a round pond which provided water for the steam engine that "wound" the carriages up gradients that were too steep for the primitive locomotives of the time. Now, it's rural and overgrown and popular with picknickers.
The coast around Hythe and Dymchurch doesn't look promising at first. The towns themselves tend to be on the dispiriting side. They're not too bad architecturally, but sport lots of charity shops and a kind of listless air as though nobody's got around to improving much since about 1980. Grimchurch is indeed worse than Hythe, yet we found all kinds of curious corners there. Not necessarily appealing, but curious. More about those later...
Of course a big pleasure is the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, a miniature train which runs a proper service through several of these coastal places, and little carriages pulled either by steam or diesel engines.