Our modern day pilgrimage to Canterbury begins early at Victoria coach station rather than joining some jolly 14th Century procession from a Southwark tavern.
Giristroula talks sorely of having to study the Canterbury Tales back at university in her home country. Pretty tricky 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, 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 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 with his mouth hanging open.
Medieval Britain remains.
Canterbury, once out of the obligatory depressing shopping precinct where the bus pulls up, is old and British and just that little bit twee, just that little bit overcrowded, Medieval and modern. Unique and commonplace. It seems the right place to start our journey.
The timbered Huguenot houses lean genially over the still river in the centre. But the High Street is lined with rows and rows of chain shops. Shops humming with business, selling scented candles and other empty, inessential items.
A girl is being taken bra shopping by her mother. A spotty kid is looking for something to buy with a book token in WH Smiths. A middle aged man 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 on the pedestrianised high street.
It’s a familiar British high street scene, played out in pretty much every town in the country.
We are plagued here 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, beaming into our faces, not letting 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 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, a stronger held view by my fellow countrymen to many things which I always, faintly, believed or thought to be true 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 are left with only a hurried view of Canterbury’s towering glory. And at least that part of the great British tapestry – the role of officious mean-spiritedness – was carried out to perfection.
We meet a couple of friends of ours who live out this way. 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 was a good idea to get out of the London. They seem bored and listless with their lives now. Clutching little stalks of regret. We pile into their car to drive out into the Kent countryside.
Nobody can think of where to go, but I suggest Whitstable as I’m sure I’ve heard people say it’s a special place.
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? So, with Giristroula’s suspicions about me already 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.
We drive along the wide A roads, past dirty roadside food caravans or large Tudorbethan cafes called things like The Merrie Stoppe.
It takes an hour to find a parking space in the town.
Whitstable, so lauded by the London fashionable elite, 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 well-healed crowds here 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 opposite 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’d been told so often. The (real) Tudor buildings sit over the cobble stones. A smell of roses floats over everything. It’s all as lovely as a photograph. So, of course, I look for a perfect photo opportunities for us, and point out small windy street and higgildy old houses with vivid flowers preened in boxes outside, and hopefully nudge at the Greek.
“This is England, eh?”
But I wonder if maybe the true image we will find on this trip is the squat white pub – even in this picturesque old town – with its falling down plasticky Sky Sports banner, and loud, red faced, men spilling lager on each others’ trainers outside.
I spot, as we walk around, a fish and chip shop called ‘Catcher In Rye’. This seems perfectly British to me at least. Agonising over the pun in your businesses’ name. On the tour 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 happen here. 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 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 happy family of picnicking Indians.
We had looked out towards mainland Europe – my future new home – with Kent lying behind us, and 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 read:
‘Many are drawn to the White Cliffs.
It marks the end of a journey. Or the beginning.’