Our modern day pilgrimage to Canterbury begins early at Victoria coach station rather than joining a jolly 14th Century procession from a Southwark tavern.
Passepartout winces at the memory of studying the Canterbury Tales at university and I think how dealing with the Olde English was onerous enough for me, let alone doing it in a completely different language, but we soon have our own tales to deal with anyway, as we cross the bridge over the Medway, separating the towns of Chatham and Rochester.
A group over the aisle loudly discuss last night’s exploits with one proudly announcing how his mother had been carried out, unconscious, for fighting in a bar and throwing up her Jaggerbombs over the bouncer. All gave the mother’s antics a post-bender approving cheer. Medieval Britain remains.
Canterbury, once out of the obligatory depressing shopping precinct, is suitably charming and old and British and seems the perfect way to start our journey.
The timbered Huguenot houses lean genially over the still river in the centre. There are shops selling scented candles and all those other sort of empty, inessential items.
A homeless busker in a plastic Viking helmet plays us a tune through a traffic cone on the pedestrianised high street.
It used to be said of course that there could hardly be a town in the South of England where you couldn’t throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop.
It’s probably said about a Polish plumber now – or maybe a Greek English teacher. All part of Britain’s great, changing tapestry.
Or maybe I’m wrong? Maybe I’ll I find a different attitude, a stronger held idea by my fellow countrymen, to what I, faintly, believe or thought to be true in many things on this tour?
We are told that we are not even permitted to look into the Cathedral courtyard.
“Can we just take a quick picture here?” I ask the guard.
Unsmiling, heavy booted – as courteous as a Cossack – she stands over us, arms folded, preventing any sudden movements as we take a snap and leave.
As she stood guard over us I watched behind as sneaky opportunists filed through her, now abandoned, post into the Cathedral for free.
If she knew, it didn’t seem to trouble her unduly. But we were left with only a hurried view of Canterbury’s towering glory, so at least that part of the great British tapestry – the role of officious mean-spiritedness – was carried out to perfection.
We meet friends in a café in the centre of Canterbury’s old creaking, packed, wooden buildings, and pile into their car to drive out into Kent. We can’t think of where to go, but I suggest Whitstable. I’m sure I’ve heard people say it’s great.
We drive through the Kent countryside, me pointing out oast houses and then realising I have no real idea what they are and finding myself unable to add anything further than something, perhaps, about drying hops?
With Passepartout’s suspicions about me already raised so early on the tour, I try to recover lost ground and ramble on vaguely about Kent and Gardens of England and Darling Buds and Dickens and Fighting Them On The Beaches and Battles of Britain and so on.
It takes an hour and a half to find a parking space in the town.
Whitstable, so lauded from what I’d heard, by the London metropolitan elite, feels overcrowded and, despite the pretty weatherboard houses and its firm beach sitting under a shifting sky – black breakwaters reaching out into a blue metallic sea – I struggle to really feel the elixir that draws the well-healed crowds here in such, pleased-with-themselves, numbers.
The upmarket fish and chips – served in faux newspaper – are quite good though and I sit and nosh on an artful distressed restaurant bench by the front, next to a man eating his locally-sourced, organic, artisanal lobster and his foraged chips.
For different reasons Rye slightly disappoints too.
Quiet to the point of necrosis in the late afternoon, the town, while undeniably attractive isn’t the beauty-like-no-other town I had been told so often.
I look for photo opportunities, and point out small windy street and higgildy old houses with vivid flowers preened in boxes outside, and hopefully nudge the Greek. “This is England, eh?”
But wonder if maybe the true image of England we will find on this trip is the pub – even in this picturesque old town – with its falling down plasticky Sky Sports banner, and its loud, red faced, men spilling lager on each others’ trainers outside.
We had found a peace earlier. High on top of the White Cliffs at Dover.
And also, as will become a strangely recurring image throughout this British Isles trip, a family of picnicking Indians.
We had looked out towards mainland Europe – my future new home – with Kent lying behind us, and watched the swan-like ferries, stuck in the late afternoon, leaving a slow rip of white on the sea.
On this, the first of many days on the road, leading who knows where, we ambled over to the sign put up for Channel gazers like us and read:
‘Many are drawn to the White Cliffs.
It marks the end of a journey. Or the beginning.’