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 tough with the Olde English inside an already completely different language, I’d imagine – but we soon have our own tales to deal with here on the coach anyway. As we cross the bridge over the Medway past the towns of Chatham and Rochester, a group down the aisle are loudly discuss last night’s exploits. One of them proudly announcing how his mother had been thrown out, unconscious, for fighting in a bar and throwing up her Jägerbombs all over the bouncers. Everyone gives the mother an approving cheer, banging on the headrests. “Ledge…” one of the gargoyle-faced teenagers says. They then gather round to study a video on a phone of one of their dogs attacking another dog in a park. “Ledge…” the gargoyle repeats to himself, quietly, slack-jawed 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 English and just that little bit cloying and twee. Beautiful but commonplace. It seems 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 lined with rows and rows of chain coffee shops, Shoezones, shops full of people buying scented candles. A girl being taken bra shopping by her mother; a spotty kid looking for something to buy with an unwanted book token in WH Smiths. I watch as a middle aged man is taken in and out of Next 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 I imagine. 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 and ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ museum special offers. They dance backwards down the road, keeping pace with us, 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 on this tour I’ll find a different attitude held by my fellow countrymen to this and all the other things which I always felt – safely, smugly – to be intrinsically true and that we all pretty much agreed on?
We are told that we are not even permitted to have a 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. The sun flares a halo over her head as she stands in shadowed silhouette. I watched behind her as sneaky opportunists filed through her now abandoned post into the Cathedral for free. If she knew, it didn’t seem to trouble her much. But we were left with only a hurried, snatched, view of Canterbury’s towering glory so at least that central part of British life – the role of officious mean-spiritedness – was carried out to perfection.
We’ve arranged to meet a couple of friends of ours who live out this way in the southern England countryside. We find them in a café wedged into 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 London. They boasted about leaving the rat-race, getting into rural life, raising rabbits on a farm. They now seem to me utterly bored 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. I suggest Whitstable as I’m sure I’ve heard people saying how it’s a wonderful place to visit.
We drive through the Kent fields – I point out oast houses to Giristroula but then realise I have no real idea what they are and so am 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. She remains unconvinced as Kent flies pass outside the car windows, along wide A roads, past dirty roadside food caravans and large Tudorbethan cafes called things like ‘The Merrie Stoppe’. Billboards standing in quiet desolation in empty fields with nothing on them apart from the offer to ‘Advertise Here’ and a mobile phone number.
It takes over an hour to find a parking space in Whistable town. Despite the pretty weatherboard houses and the firm beach sitting under the shifting sky – black breakwaters reaching out into a blue metallic sea – Whitstable feels hugely overcrowded and I struggle to really feel the elixir that draws the metropolitan crowds down here from London in such numbers. The gastro fish and chips, served in faux newspaper, are good though. I sit and nosh on an artfully distressed restaurant bench by dark wooden fishermen’s sheds on the sea front, and watch a man on one of the tables eating his locally-sourced, organically fished fish and foraged artisanal chips off a thick square slate.
Rye in the late-afternoon sun slightly disappoints too. We had cut through the Weald of Kent, the little wagging tail of Britain, through a district of nuts and hops, apples and cherries, into Sussex to find Rye all quiet closed-up. Quaint little coffee shops with their flowery signs on the door all turned round with their backs to us as if in disapproval at our arrival. The town, while undeniably attractive – looking as if it had just been peeled straight off the top of an old box of Fudge Fancies – still isn’t quite the beauty-like-no-other I’d been told so often. Snooty ladies pass us – 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 pretty as a photograph. So of course I try and look for the perfect photo opportunities: posing Giristroula here and there, pointing out all the small windy streets and higgildy old houses with vivid flowers preened in boxes. I 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 a corner, is the squat pub with its falling down plasticky Sky Sports banner and loud red faced men spilling lager on each others’ white trainers outside.
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,” she says.
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 around Britain, a happy-looking family of picnicking Indians sat down on a colourful sewn-panelled rug enjoying a feast of samosas and sag aloos. 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. 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 Dover District Council penned aphorism written down on the angled board.
‘Many are drawn to the White Cliffs,’ it read.
‘It marks the end of a journey.
Or the beginning…’