Our modern day pilgrimage down to Canterbury begins early at Victoria coach station, rather than joining some jolly 14th Century procession from a Southwark tavern. Giristroula reflects miserably on when she had to study the Canterbury Tales back at university in Greece – pretty hard dealing with the Olde English inside an already completely different language, I’d imagine. But we soon have our own tales to deal with anyway, here on the coach, as we cross the bridge over the Medway separating the towns of Chatham and Rochester. A group over the aisle are loudly discuss last night’s exploits: one of them proudly announcing his mother had been thrown out, unconscious, for fighting in a bar and throwing up her Jaggerbombs all over the bouncer. Everyone gives the mother’s antics a post-bender approving cheer, banging on the headrests. “Ledge…” one of the gargoyle-faced teenagers says, shaking his head in awe. They then gather round and study a video on one of their phones of one of their dogs attacking another dog in a park. “Ledge…” the gargoyle repeats to himself, quietly, as he stares at the screen. Medieval Britain remains.
Canterbury, once out of the obligatory depressing shopping precinct where the bus rolls up, is old and British and just that little bit cloying, just that little bit overcrowded. Unique and commonplace. It seems just the right place to start our journey. The timbered Huguenot houses lean genially over the still river in the centre. Cute, dark, hugger-mugger lanes lead off down towards the cathedral, but the High Street is bland and lined with rows and rows of chain cafes, Shoezones and shops humming with business selling scented candles and all those other inessential sort of items. A girl is being taken bra shopping by her mother. A spotty kid looking for something to buy with a book token in WH Smiths. A middle aged man is taken in and out of the shops by his wife with all the speed and enthusiasm of an old dog being taken to the vets. A homeless busker in a plastic Viking helmet sits on the kerb and plays us a tune through a traffic cone. It’s a familiar British high street scene, played out in pretty much every town in the country.We are plagued here in Canterbury though by nauseatingly cheerful girls in red sweatshirts planting leaflets in our hands for Hop On/Hop Off bus tours round Kent, or ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ museums. They dance backwards down the road, keeping pace with us, chatting inanely, beaming into our faces, not letting us get away. Won’t someone rid me of these meddlesome tour guide hawkers…?
I note many of the families we pass are not speaking English. 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 even a Greek English teacher. All part of Britain’s great, changing, tapestry I always like to think. But maybe I’m wrong? Maybe I’ll I find a different attitude on this tour, a stronger held view by my fellow countrymen to this and many other things which I always felt to be sort of intrinsically true?
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 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’ve arranged to see a couple of friends of ours who live out this way in the southern countryside. We meet them in a new café in the centre of Canterbury’s old creaking, packed, wooden buildings. A few years ago they thought it would be a good idea to move out of the London, they boasted about leaving of the rat-race, getting into rural life. They now seem utterly bored and listless with their lives, clutching little stalks of regret. We pile into their car to drive out into the Kent countryside. But nobody can think of where to go, so I suggest Whitstable as I’m sure I’ve heard people say it’s a great place. So we drive through the Kent fields – me pointing out oast houses to Giristroula 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 Giristroula’s suspicions about me now raised so early on the tour I try to recover lost ground and ramble on about Gardens of England and Darling Buds and Fighting Them On The Beaches and Battles of Britain and so on. She remains unconvinced. Kent flies pass outside the car windows as we drive along wide A roads, past dirty roadside food caravans and large Tudorbethan cafes called things like ‘The Merrie Stoppe’. It takes an hour to find a parking space in Whistable town.
Whitstable feels hugely overcrowded. Despite the pretty weatherboard houses and its firm beach sitting under the shifting sky – black breakwaters reaching out into a blue metallic sea – I struggle to really feel the elixir that draws the metropolitan well-healed crowds down here from London in such numbers. The upmarket fish and chips – served in faux newspaper – are quite good though, and I sit and nosh on an artfully distressed restaurant bench by the sea front next to a man eating his locally-sourced, organic, artisanal lobster and foraged chips off a thick square slate.
For other reasons Rye slightly disappoints too. We find it quiet and closed-up in the late afternoon sun, twee coffee shops with their flowery signs turned round. The town, while undeniably attractive – looking as if it’s been peeled of the top of a box of Fudge Fancies – isn’t quite the beauty-like-no-other town I’d been told so often. Snooty ladies pass, on their way home to serve up a Lobster à la Riseholme, no doubt. There are (real) Tudor buildings sitting over the cobble stones, a smell of roses floats over everything, and it’s all as lovely as a photograph so, of course, I try and look for the perfect photo opportunity: posing Giristroula here and there, pointing out all the small windy street and higgildy old houses with vivid flowers preened in boxes outside, hopefully nudging at her with a “This is England eh?” But I wonder if maybe the true image we will find on this trip, as we round the corner, is the squat white pub with its falling down plasticky Sky Sports banner, and loud red faced men outside spilling lager on each others’ white trainers.
I spot, as we walk around, a fish and chip shop called ‘Catcher In Rye’ and think how this also seems perfectly British to me too. Agonising over the pun in your businesses’ name. On this tour ahead we will see many other ‘Hair To Eternity’ hairdressers, ‘Woofs A Daisy’ pet shops, ‘You Rang A Tan?’ mobile spray tanning service. This must only be a British thing though, surely. I can’t imagine that I’ll find them in my new country.
“Do your shops in Greece have funny names?” I ask Giristroula.
I’m not sure she understands the question.
“Your shops…” I say, trying to explain. “…Tell me, what’s your local shop called?”
She looks at me as if I’m mad. “Spiros’ Mega-Market.”
We had found a good contemplative place of peace earlier, high on top of the White Cliffs at Dover. And also, as will become a strangely recurring image throughout this trip through Britain, a happy-looking family of picnicking Indians. Giristroula and I had looked out towards mainland Europe – my future new home – with Kent lying behind us, we watched the swan-like ferries, stuck in the late afternoon, leaving a slow rip of white behind them on the sea and on this, the first of many days on the road, leading us who-knows-where, we ambled over to the sign put up for Channel gazers like us and peered at the aphorism written down on the angled board.
‘Many are drawn to the White Cliffs…’ it said.
It marks the end of a journey. Or the beginning…’