The Walls Around Canterbury - Last stretch of The Road
It was with mixed feelings that I finally found my way to Canterbury, following a double decker in, and rather than on one.
Still, I had managed to move on from the quirky romance of only going by double decker bus, as providing an irregular and low cost way to go on a three day literary retreat (of sorts), to the realisation of it being a chance to discover something more about the cultural roots of this country I now live in, through the unique people I have chanced to meet along the way in such a short space of time as well as from those I’ve met in the lead-up to the trip.
I think it restored my faith somewhat, as perhaps it did for Geoffrey Chaucer too – way back in the fourteenth century, to realise that what you learn on a journey like this, or indeed a pilgrimage, does not have to be based on getting to the destination, nor necessarily involve you knowing everything in detail about the saint whose remains you are going to visit at the end of it (as my next, and possibly last blog post of Matt’s Tale, will tell about).
Rather, it is the value of the truth you gain from the people you meet along the way (or even the coincidence of who you meet once you have it in mind to take the journey), and what those truths or people help you to realise about yourself. This can teach you as much about how to live better somewhere, as well as generally how or what to live for, without any religion or politics necessarily being needed at all.
The Hole in The Wall - Entering Canterbury
The one that stands out is that “an embarrassment of riches cannot help you over the value of having a few good friends to confide in and hear your tales of good fortune as much as your ones of woe” – although, sadly, how or who I know this truth from, I cannot say (and I tried googling it to no avail). Yet that truth seemed to now be the one that called out and meant the most to me, as I left that bus behind me and headed down to the last stop on my little tour.
Also, as I was starting to realise about whether that is the quintessential truth from five years of wondering about who as well as what’s important to me, and wandering to find out about that (which would be called “going walkabout” in Australia), I also started to realise what had brought me back – not just to this place – but to England itself.
Last Bus Stop and Last Bus, a mix of blue and red, on The Road to Canterbury
It has not been just coming back to discover my roots, as some are wont and keen to do, nor simply to have another working holiday overseas (like I first did back in 1991 to ’93), but to truly discover something about this place that has had so much to do with the establishment of not only the country I was originally born in (New Zealand), but also my newly adopted home of Australia too.
For this country, England – whether I choose to love it or hate it – is what has provided the connection in common with people I have met on the bigger and longer roads I have taken later too, and so allowed me to be united in a common culture (of sorts) with people in Africa, America, Canada, the Middle East, Pakistan, South Africa and parts of South East Asia.
Yet the irony, I guess, is how little is really known about the English “people” themselves – despite it/them having been renowned throughout recent history to want to know so much about everyone and everywhere else as part of either exploring or building The Empire (and, latterly, Commonwealth) – and even daring to seek to classify “us”, as if we are so different to “them”, as Africans, Americans, Asians and Antipodeans.
The Miller's Arms, my last stop along the road to Canterbury
So there was a certain poignancy with choice of my final meeting place, and the person I was to meet there. It is called The Miller’s Arms, where each room has a name connected with The Canterbury Tales (as well as the pub’s name even being seen to be tentatively connected with one of the best known tales) – and so the first book printed in English – as well as, moreover, it being a former coaching inn.
Perhaps most important though, was that it was Dave I had arranged to meet. He being the British person I’d first met at a conference on that fateful day, 7/07/2005, when unable to escape the Isle of Dogs due to terrorists’ bombs having gone off around London – and so had had to stay there, leading to the conversation about the connection between meeting good people through telling stories with English popular culture and history. This included acknowledging how nice – if not important – such storytelling can be, over either a nice cake and a cuppa tea, or perhaps something a little stronger (except having the latter, just a little later in the day).
Watch out for the old Mill race!!
Yet, perhaps ironically, even Dave himself is not fully “English” – as his mother is Welsh, and so perhaps “British” is best to describe him. Few of the people I met along this road were, as quite a few clearly had roots elsewhere or a mixed heritage (just from the look of them, or sound of their accent). Indeed, along this and the alternative “Camelot” road, I was left with the question of exactly how to collectively define who I had met along this road – or many of the roads that I travelled along in Southern England for that matter, be it people interested in the mystical road to Camelot, or this one, the very physical and recognisable destination of Canterbury.
Then again, knowing people’s nationality or origin was not one of the things that first occurred to me when I met them – as much as what had brought them to be there, in that same place, like me. That always seemed to be the start to a good conversation and, more often than not, a new friendship or two too.
Punting on the Old Millstream