Some months ago I started a series of posts on my travels around Great Britain and Europe while I was studying as an exchange student in London. I started with Oxford, my first foray out of London—but have since neglected to continue the series. That changes today.
On my second jaunt out of London, I visited the White Cliffs of Dover and Canterbury on a one-day round trip. Again, I made the trip with the two of my new acquaintances who would become my fastest friends for the rest of my time in London. As someone who has done a great deal of both solo travel and travelling with others, I much prefer having company when I travel. I think the experience of travel is invariably made even better and more memorable by sharing it.
Our first stop was the White Cliffs of Dover. It was still early February, the depths of winter, and it was freezing. All the more so because the cliffs, being on the coast, bear the full brunt of the icy sea winds. Pity me, a poor Australian traveller who almost never has to endure temperatures lower than 10°C where I come from. I think my friends got sick of my incessant complaining about the cold after a while, and were sorely tempted to throw me off those cliffs.
The first challenge that faces visitors to the White Cliffs is actually getting down to them. This endeavour requires an arduous trek over mud-strewn country that will leave your shoes caked in wet earth, and the rest of you, too, if you’re unlucky enough to slip over in the very slippery mud. I didn’t slip, unlike some unfortunate members of our party (we came on a student coach trip), but I don’t think my poor Converses ever forgave me for what I put them through that day. It wouldn’t surprise me if many mud-soaked visitors to the cliffs don’t give up and turn back without ever catching a glimpse of them.
The second challenge is actually catching a glimpse of them. It’s not easy finding a good view of something you’re clambering around on top of, no matter how close to the edge you stand. Eventually we managed to find a good vantage point by performing some particularly daring feats of cross-country that, I think, deterred many of the others. Have a look:
What cliffs, eh? What marvellous cliffs. To use any adjective less superlative than “majestic” in connection with the White Cliffs of Dover, I think, would be to do them an injustice. They really are a sight, once you actually get to see them.
And yes, in that photo above, I am sitting about one metre away from falling to my death. I did it for the ‘gram. Sorry, mum.
Was it worth it? Was it worth drenching every part of me from my knees down in muck and fighting my way through furlongs of hostile countryside? To see some cliffs? Oh yes. But I wonder if I hadn’t had friends to share the experience with, my answer would have been “no”. Wading through mud in the biting cold is certainly less irksome when you’re laughing with equally mud-soaked friends all the way. What might not have been a very enjoyable trip, apart from a glimpse at some—admittedly breathtaking—cliffs, was turned into one of my most memorable experiences from my 6 months’ abroad by the presence of great company.
Next we went to Canterbury, site of the eponymous Tales and charming medieval town par excellence. The rain had really set in by the time we arrived, and our experience of Canterbury was a wet and gloomy Canterbury. “Don’t worry,” a local told us cheerily, “it’s always like this!”
Gloomy and rain-sodden though it was, it was hard not to appreciate the charm of the studiously-preserved medieval town. Cobbled streets, beamed houses and Gothic spires abound in Canterbury. Maybe cobbled streets are a bit passé for Britons and Europeans whose countries have cobbles coming out of their ears—but, for this Australian, walking down Canterbury’s cute old lanes was like walking through Diagon Alley.
Soon we settled down for lunch. Skipping the tourist-infested pub on the high street, we found ourselves in a smaller, more out-of-the-way pub packed with cackling locals. As I watched them drinking and laughing I thought of Anglo-Saxons in their mead hall, and it struck me that, in some ways, not much had changed since Hengist and Horsa had arrived on the shores of Kent, not far from that pub, sixteen hundred years ago. Even my pub lunch of a steak and kidney pie and warm Kentish ale was probably not so different from what those pub-goers’ Saxon ancestors ate and drank all those centuries ago.
After lunch we swung ’round Canterbury Cathedral, seat of England’s top archbishop. Again, the Gothic cathedral and its grounds reminded me, an Australian Millennial whose only reference point is Harry Potter, strongly of Hogwarts. But, to be fair, all centuries-old Gothic cathedrals do. What made this one special was its historical significance as the site of one of the most famous murders in history, that of Thomas Becket. Here you can see me roleplaying the “turbulent priest”, about to be struck down by four of Henry II’s dagger-happy knights, at the very spot it happened:
Yes, my friends gave me very strange looks when I told them I wanted a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered. But what matters is that I got a picture kneeling on the spot a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was gruesomely murdered.
Don’t worry, I did my penance by buying two postcards sporting Justin Welby’s face—Thomas Becket’s current successor in the See of Canterbury—in the cathedral gift shop on my way out. I got strange looks for that, too.