Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the first substantial work of literature in English, although most speakers of English today need a translation or paraphrase to understand it. Written late in the 14th century, it was immediately popular. One hundred years after it was written it was among the very first works to be mass-produced (on a modest scale) using the new technology of printing. It has remained a widely-read classic of English literature into the present. Basically it is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims as they travel the Pilgrims Way from London to the holy tomb of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral about 90 kilometres to the south east.
The prologue to the Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrims as they assemble at the Tabard Inn in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames near London Bridge. More than 600 years later, on August 22nd 2015, Emmy and I dismounted from our donkeys in front of a smoke-filled hostelry in Southwark near London Bridge. The innkeeper appeared in the doorway accompanied by a mouth-watering aroma of roast goose and barley ale. I greeted him politely.
“I bid thee good morrow, master,” I said doffing my cap and bowing low as Emmy modestly primped her wimple.
Hmmm… let me rewrite that.
Emmy and I disembarked from a train at London Bridge tube station and made the short walk to our rented apartment in Southwark, just minutes from London Bridge and the high-tech landmark of The Shard. Graham, the owner, greeted us and explained the 100-channel TV set and the high-speed Wi-Fi. He recommended some nearby Spanish and Italian restaurants and listed the supermarkets where we could buy pre-cooked, plastic-wrapped meals.
A week later, having been catapulted out of London by train, we stood in a narrow lane in the village of Cuxton, six kilometres west of the regional centre of Rochester. We were facing the very modest entrance to the eastern half of the North Downs Way, a path that would partly piggy-back on the Pilgrims Way and take us to Thomas Becket’s holy tomb.
The pilgrim road to Canterbury fell into disuse after King Henry VIII launched an assault on the Catholic Church, its monasteries and its pilgrimage traditions in 1537. But it didn’t disappear altogether. Much of it was taken over for general transport purposes and later became asphalt highway. That’s why it is no longer possible to walk the entire length of the pilgrim path. It is simply too dangerous for pedestrians to mix it with modern traffic. Where possible the North Downs Way follows the old pilgrim path (or certain threads of the path), but whenever the path becomes highway walkers have to veer away from it and tramp over other ancient public trails and footpaths that lie like a cobweb over the rural landscape of England.
After an hour’s walking through open fields and canyons of woodland under a warm overcast sky we drew breath at the enormous, multi-lane complex of four bridges that span the Medway River at Rochester. Chaucer’s pilgrims would have crossed the Medway at this point too, possibly spurring their frightened horses over the stone bridge that was completed there in 1391.
From the Medway Bridge we set sail across the gently surging hills of Kent. Near the village of Blue Bell Hill, southeast of Rochester, we connected for the first time with the Pilgrims Way. Its broad flat surface offered welcome relief from the narrow track we had been treading. We stepped on and off the Way repeatedly as we headed towards Canterbury.
Everywhere there were reminders of the region’s pilgrim history. Some trackside icons pointing the way to Canterbury depicted a pilgrim wearing a cassock and brandishing a walking staff. Near the village of Harrietsham we came across a whimsical, life-size wooden carving of a pilgrim monk resting thoughtfully on a bench at the trackside. Medieval pilgrimage was a motif at the Black Horse Inn, our accommodation for the night in the hamlet of Thurnham about twenty-two kilometres from Cuxton. The inn’s cramped central room with its low ceilings, open fire-place, awkward nooks and crannies and crooked age-blackened beams was built in the thirteenth century. Dense strings of dried hops hung from the ceiling, a traditional decoration that is renewed from year to year. Perhaps medieval pilgrims in their grimy cassocks and straw-padded sandals had ducked their heads beneath this same bushy canopy.
As I tucked in to my tasty dinner of slow-cooked lamb shank and minty mashed potatoes an unwelcome echo from The Canterbury Tales turned up in my head. It came from the knight’s tale.
“The world is nothing but a thoroughfare of woe down which we all pass as pilgrims…” said the Knight.
“That’s why we are all here,” said the Franklin, interrupting the knight.
“The whole world is an inn,” our Host said. “And the end of the journey is always the same.”
“God give us grace and a good death.” This was the Reeve, crossing himself.
“Amen to that,” the Knight replied.
I didn’t echo the Amen. Rather I turned my attention to the dessert of sticky date pudding and whipped cream. Too much reading can make you gloomy.
The following morning dawned dim and rainy. I tried to be cheerful. Again my mind darted back to The Canterbury Tales. I recalled its upbeat opening lines…
“When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. […] This is the season for travellers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage. They journey to strange shores and cities, seeking solace among the shrines of the saints. Here in England many make their way to Canterbury and the tomb of the holy blissful martyr Thomas.”
An hour later I was cursing Geoffrey Chaucer, the madness of religious pilgrimage and the sheer unpleasantness of walking in Britain’s summer. I skidded down a mud-lubricated trough that someone – probably a bright-eyed hiking fanatic – had labelled a “path”. A path? It was a water-filled rut. Thick slimy hamburger-patties of dirt stuck themselves to the bottom of my boots as the “path” made vertical zig-zags over steep rain-sodden ridges. I looked at Emmy and noticed a film of mud creeping up her water-proof leggings. I was no better. An unscheduled wallow in a mini-bog had left dirt all over my leggings, backpack, and even through my hair. Already I sensed I was in for one of the most trying days of walking I would ever experience.
As the morning passed the rain thickened. Mist crowded in on us. Kent’s fabled “outstanding natural beauty” retreated, became blurred, and eventually disappeared altogether behind a veil of mist. At times we were walking through a grey-white tunnel where the only reality was foot before foot, plus ghostly branches and the struggle to stay upright. A break for lunch brought little relief. Somehow the rainproof cover over my backpack had disappeared, probably torn off by branches during a stooping detour around a mud hole. My backpack was limp with water and my sandwiches were too. But I ate them and felt better. The walk was indeed (as Chaucer’s knight put it) “a thoroughfare of woe” but after sandwiches and a mouthful of chocolate the woe was pretty bearable. And the rain had started to ease.
Nevertheless it was a long, tough day. As we trudged into the Bowl Hill Inn outside the town of Charing more than six hours had passed with just seventeen kilometres to show for it. In the bar the day’s newspaper lay draped across a stool. A jumbo-size headline on the front page proclaimed “Twenty minute walk each day adds seven years to your life.”
“Yes,” I thought, “and six hours on England’s Camino – if it’s raining – can dramatically reduce your interest in that extra seven years.”
** The quotes from The Canterbury Tales come (with a few tweaks) from Peter Ackroyd’s wonderful prose paraphrase The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer translated and adapted (Penguin 2009).