Unexpected day off

Bank holidays in the UK have a delightful way of sneaking up on an expat and leaving him with an unexpected day off. When I realized that I didn’t need to go in to work on Monday, I cracked open my Rick Steves and Lonely Planet and looked for an easy last minute day trip. Here’s what I came up with: 

First thing this morning I went to St Pancras International train station and bought a ticket to Canterbury, the famous cathedral town in southeast England. It’s where in the late 12the century Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered after the King asked (apparently not rhetorically) “Will someone not rid me of this turbulent priest?” Becket was later sainted and the cathedral became one of the major pilgrimage sites in Europe, as every English major who has read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales well knows.

Canterbury is only an hours trsin ride from London. The town itself is charming and small and lively (albeit touristy) on this holiday.

As for the cathedral, it wasn’t what I had expected. Old, yes. Historically significant, yes. But architecturally? Unusual, in that it had several level internally, where most (all?) other churches I’ve seen have been on a single level. But in terms of beauty, let’s just say that so far I haven’t seen a church in England that inspires the way some of the fine French cathedrals do.

The candle on the floor is where the shrine to Thomas Becket stood from 1220 until Henry VIII ordered it removed in the 1500s

After seeing the cathedral and getting lunch in the town center, went to Canterbury’s other train station and bought a ticket to Dover–yes, of white cliffs fame. 

Dover wasn’t at all what I had expected. I had imagined it would be like Calais, which is just across the channel and sits flat on a low plain with the chalky cliffs rising at the outskirts. Not so Dover. Here the land was very hilly, with the town nestled in the ravines and along the waterfront at the base of the hills. 

And on top of the hills was a massive castle. Which frankly was the reason for my trip. I had recently watched a documentary about the castle and wanted to see it for myself. 

The hill has been fortified for thousands of years. The Romans built a lighthouse on it; the Saxons built a church. After the Norman conquest in the 11th Century, the main part of the castle was built, and over the successive centuries it has continually been expanded and fortified, with major recent additions during the Napoleonic wars and Workd War II (it was bizarre to see anti-aircraft guns sitting on ramparts that had been built in the Middle Ages!). 

The tower is the Ronan lighthouse, and the church was built by the Saxons in AD 1000.

After seeing the castle I had intended to go into town and explore. Only Dover was not in a mood to be explored. The place was dead. No one about, no restaurants open, and not enough architectural charm to make it worth a stroll. In despair, I grabbed a quick and revolting dinner at McDonalds (the only place I could find open) and went back to the train station to wait for the next train home. 

I’ll have to give Dover another try on a non-holiday weekend — and maybe hop on a ferry to France . . . 

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