A CANTERBURY TALE Town: Thomas a Becket was killed in the cathedral, and Geoffrey Chaucer related the tales of those who came on pilgrimage to the site. Now it is a tourist attraction, where modern hype and history meet.


You get off the coach from London in Canterbury's modest little bus station, trot down Gravel Walk past a parking lot and come face to face with the Marlowe Arcade.

The Marlowe Arcade? As in Christopher Marlowe? This is appalling. A shopping center named for the playwright murdered 400 years ago? Shopping bags bearing the name of the pyrotechnic creator of "Dr. Faustus" and "The Jew of Malta"?

If they've done that to Marlowe -- who was only born here in 1564 -- what have they done to Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th-century poet who immortalized the town in "The Canterbury Tales"? What horrors await? Ye Olde Nun's Priest's Tale Booke Shoppe? The Wife of Bath Oil and Salts Nook? The Pardoner's Bail Bond Agency?

Such dreadful temptations have been largely resisted. Yes, there's the Canterbury Heritage Museum & Rupert Bear Gallery, and one of those slightly cheesy mechanical "historical re-creations -- smells and all" -- about Chaucer's "Tales." No doubt during the town's glory years similar "attractions" brightened the days of the faithful who had fulfilled their mission at the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

For Canterbury has been a tourist destination for 800 years. After Jerusalem and Rome, it was a premier center for that great medieval religious undertaking, the pilgrimage. Christ Church Cathedral had been, since the days of William the Conqueror, the seat of the Primate of All England.

The town was also the site of the first English monastery. A Benedictine house, it was founded by St. Augustine soon after he was sent to England in 597 to convert the kingdoms of Britain.

Through the centuries, other orders built near the cathedral: the Carmelite White Friars, the Franciscan Grey Friars, the Dominican Black Friars. Like many an English town, Canterbury thrived with the fortunes of these religious houses, which were also well-managed farms, wool producers and schools.

On Dec. 29, 1170, occurred the shocking crime that was the worst and best thing that ever happened to Canterbury: The bitter power struggle between King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas a Becket climaxed in Becket's murder in the northwest transept of the cathedral by four knights who answered Henry's raging rhetorical question: "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"

Within days the first miracles were reported; in February 1173 Becket was canonized. In July 1174, Henry II submitted to a flogging at Becket's tomb. A few months later half the 100-year-old Norman church was ravaged by fire. The new archbishop seized the opportunity to build a fitting shrine, starting with gorgeous honey-colored Caen stone imported from Normandy.

Floods of pilgrims came. Their donations made possible ever more elaborate fittings; in a splendid upward spiral, the elegance of the cathedral drew more pilgrims as the fame of the shrine grew.

In 1220 Becket's body was moved into Trinity Chapel and set in a prodigiously bejeweled and gilded monument that could be raised to reveal the coffin itself.

Chaucer's journeys

In the 1370s Chaucer began traveling the old Kent Road from London to Dover on his way to Europe on King Edward III's diplomatic business. In those dangerous days, he would have journeyed with groups on the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury -- and have heard the kinds of stories that strangers thrown together in tour groups tell to pass the time.

He would have known the beauties awaiting them at the cathedral: mosaic floors, soaring arches, astonishingly vibrant stained-glass "miracle" windows telling the story of Becket's martyrdom. Perhaps he would even have climbed the long stairs in the south aisle -- on his knees, too -- helping to wear the stone into the deep hollows visible today.

Becket's shrine is gone now, its site marked by a candle on the floor. King Henry VIII began dissolving the monasteries in 1536, after breaking with the Church of Rome over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Canterbury surrendered in 1540, after its treasures had been plundered. Not one to forgive even an ancient slight to royal dignity, Henry VIII declared Becket a traitor and had his bones destroyed.

Shrines all over England were ripped apart. The destruction of more than 800 religious houses brought to a crashing halt the beloved practice of pilgrimages. It sliced right through the structure of English society, in many ways ending medieval life itself.

Time stands still

Somehow Canterbury survived this blow, although the old town center looks as if time stopped when the money did, a few decades after the dissolution.

Now, in no small part because of a carefully cultivated "time capsule" aura, Canterbury and its cathedral remain destinations for latter-day pilgrims. At the height of the tourist season in July and August, 15,000 people may pass through the cathedral each day. Two million people a year walk the carless streets in the heart of this town of 35,000 -- soaking in the Roman, Saxon and Norman past.

And this is a beguiling place. Half-timbered buildings of the 15th and 16th centuries list against one another along Mercery Lane and St. Margaret's Street. The ancient Buttermarket just outside the lovely Christ Church Gate into the cathedral close is where merchants hawked souvenir pilgrims' badges.

Stone buildings like the 14th-century Poor Priests' Hospital by Greyfriars that houses the heritage center or the 12th-century Eastbridge Hospital on the High Street recall the monasteries' obligation to shelter travelers ("hospital" and "hostel" are from the same Latin root).

When you are in these old buildings, so small and bleak and dark, you understand the true genius of the medieval church architects. Their great structures rose effortlessly to stunning heights and drew in God's light through brilliant windows that were miracles of art and craft. How awesome they must have been -- and are.

Of course, we see the old domestic buildings without their true fittings. Tapestries or murals on the walls, rushes on the floors, cushions on stone benches, braziers in the corners, candles and rush lights -- all would have warmed and comforted.

Canterbury honors this past, even back to the bustling settlement the Romans called Durovernum Cantiacorum and the Saxons named Cantwarabyrig. St. Martin's Church, east of St. Augustine's ruins, may be the oldest parish church in England. Roman bricks were certainly used in its walls, and St. Augustine's first convert, King Ethelbert, was said to have been christened in it.

A theater in the street called the Friars (another reminder of all those monasteries destroyed 450 years ago) is named for that prodigal Christopher Marlowe, a cobbler's son who left King's School for Cambridge University and then electrified London's theater before his murder at 29.

For all its charms, all its precious relics, the town has the feel of deliberate management and ruthlessly attuned atmosphere. Even its sanctification of Chaucer is a bit hollow: His "Tales" are not even about Canterbury.

Good business

The town learned, centuries ago, how to attract and please. The respect it shows for its heritage is very good business. All that good business (and the help of Rupert bears) makes possible the salvation and preservation of 14th-century stone buildings and 800-year-old stained glass.

When I visited Canterbury it was the off-season. I was alone with the guide on a tour of the cathedral, and the tiny shops -- among them a bookstore named for Chaucer -- were almost empty.

Later, after hours on my feet, I wanted food and drink and a good sit. Queen Elizabeth's Guest Chamber, formerly the cathedral guest house and now a tea room, was being redecorated. Farther along, just as the High Street turns into St. Peter's Street, was a restaurant adjoining the Weavers' Houses. In these Tudor buildings along the little River Stour that runs through the heart of town, Huguenot refugees set up their silk looms in the 17th century.

But I sat ignored as waiters lounged around. After half an hour -- a good sit, at least -- I left. I should return -- to the restaurant and the town -- when I am less rushed and not so shocked by the Marlowe Arcade (although that's still reprehensible). I should be more forgiving, less critical. Perhaps then this customer will be more satisfied.

If you go

Getting there: Canterbury is about 60 miles east of London in Kent. From London, trains run from Victoria and Charing Cross to one of the town's two stations. Coaches from Victoria Coach Station also serve the town. Unless you're doing a driving tour of Kent and the Cinque Ports, don't rent a car. Driving is prohibited within the old city walls. Parking is ample on the fringes of the city, and walking is really the only way to see and sense the sights.

A helpful place: The Visitor Information Center in St. Margaret's VTC Street is in a building that once housed the White Hart inn. Hours are 9: 30 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Maps for walking and biking tours of the town are available. Two old hotels in the center of town -- the Cathedral Gate adjoining the cathedral grounds and the County on High Street -- are 400 years old or more. Numerous less atmospheric but comfortable hotels and B&Bs; dot the area. The standard guidebooks all list good lodgings.

The main attraction: The cathedral is open daily in the summer from 8: 45 a.m. to 7 p.m.; off-season, it is open until 5 p.m. Admission is about $3 for adults, $1.50 for children and seniors. Guided tours are offered for about $4; a tour tape costs about $3.

Information: To request more information, call the U.S. office of the British Tourist Authority at (800) 462-2748. To call the Canterbury Visitor Information Center from the United States, dial 011-44-1227-766567.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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