Canterbury does not end at the Precincts wall. Nor does anyone in that enchanted world wish it did. As its civic officials rightly insist, Canterbury town would be there anyway. Its location on what is still a major route from Europe to central England would assure that.
But Canterbury was and is a pilgrim town. Its two-and-a-half-million annual visitors are pilgrims of a sort. Like their predecessors of Chaucer’s day they pray in the cathedral, buy souvenirs in the shops, and explore the winding ways. I followed this time-honored pattern with Frank Higenbottam, a gentle, warmhearted man, full of wit and wisdom, who had just retired from 35 years as chief of the city library.
We wandered around West Gate, a twin-towered entry through the western wall of the town where buses came in with millimeters to spare. Near there the River Stour splits in two to flow around and through the town, and peaceful old buildings of hand-knapped flint stand along its banks.
The overhanging houses seem too picturesquely timbered and plastered to be real, but they are as real as they were when Charles Dickens saw and wrote of them, and they were old then. Some were homes of Walloons and Huguenots who brought weaving to the city in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they sought sanctuary from religious persecution in their own countries. Outside the walls modest little Saint Martin’s broods away the centuries among gnarled yew trees; the least pretentious and, at some 1,400 years, probably the oldest church in all England.
Cathedral Casts a Special Spell
Frank drove to his snug home on the edge of town. Furniture bulked large and cushiony in the little rooms, but the place held a sense of serenity as dwellings of kind and happy folk often do. His wife, Phyll, made beautiful sandwiches and put me at ease with her selfless good nature. Frank proudly displayed his new study, built out back, full of books and windows and pleasant pipe smells.
“I’m well set up here,” he said. “Quiet. No comings and goings. Down across the meadow there is the Stour, where we bathe in the summer and fish too. Oh my, yes. Big sea trout come up here. And if I’m lonely I’ve only got to go down to the corner. That’s my pub there, and there’ll be a few of the old boys for a pint or a game or a natter. Or all three. You know, really, a man can’t ask for much more, can he?”
No, he can’t. At a certain time in any human being’s life, serenity becomes the most precious of conditions. And, just as Frank’s cozy home gives him that priceless satisfaction of spirit, so does Christ Church bestow its special blessing on those who come to it in sadness or despair.
The cathedral is old and worn, some of its once-glorious windows now blind and gray. It is imperfect, for the mind of man, whose creative genius brought it into being, is imperfect. But it is all the more lovable for that. It is not soul-chilling in superhuman size and symmetry, but warm, attempting the best of beauty. It is forever a medieval cathedral. And the medieval cathedral is the greatest communal work of art that ever existed, because it is the most inspired.
Canterbury Cathedral was made and remade to the glory of God by inspired men. The old rain-melted walls still stand in their miraculous configuration, a heart-lifting song in stone for those who will listen—who try to hear. Those who do come swiftly and with an intensity that is overwhelming to the soul-stirring realization that God hears too—that “Surely the Lord is in this place.”