The Spiritual Healer’s Tale

So, in swinging into the spirit of the occasion of The Dickens Festival, I stayed at The Gordon Hotel, right on the main drag of Rochester where the Dickens parade takes place on the Saturday morning.

Parade of Period Costumes at The Dickens Festival in Rochester

The evening before the parade, while dining in the very Victorian-like setting of the hotel lounge bar with its ornate leather chairs, I happened to look up and see what looked like two ghosts haunting the establishment.

For there across from me were two ladies dressed up in full flowing skirts and frills that fit with the times that Dickens himself haunted with his tales like “A Christmas Carol” and “Pickwick Papers”.

The Ladies in The Lounge at The Gordon Hotel, Rochester

Sandra and Audrey were there for the parade and had taken part in promenades along the road that Friday. 

It was one of those things that sometimes happens, when you meet people and quickly establish rapport, that you find yourself  discussing things that lead to you believing you can solve the world’s problems.

That was the sort of conversation I had with these two amazing ladies over the course of a few hours, and covering subjects ranging from independence and evolution to past lives and spiritual healing.

It began with Sandra, the teacher/librarian, and her concern that the kids of today have no incentive to learn as there are no jobs to go to, yet so many fascinating things to be learned – such as the relationship between algae and plankton as well as why certain whales have only evolved to eat those and not big fish, as well as knowing anything more about The Titanic than it “being a big boat that sank” – but somehow needing the motivation to learn these things.

It ended with Audrey, the spiritual healer, helping people interprete dreams about running away from a vacuum cleaner and how incredible it was that there were (and perhaps still are) cultures that believed/believe that the Earth stood on four elephants – yet digressing into telling me about two past lives I have had, and being reluctant to come back into this one.

Interestingly enough though, without knowing too much about what I am trying to write about, Audrey told me how in one of my past lives I held an important place at court – though was not a leading figure….

It was at that point I wondered whether anyone else could see the two ladies I was now chatting to in the corner – or whether I was now just the crazy man in the lounge bar talking to himself after three double shots of Jamieson’s whiskey.  Spirits like that can raise or erase the spirits – just like I found they did with my stay at the start of the journey.

However, once again, I noted that it is only when I have accidentally found my way OFF the beaten track that I meet these colourful characters.  For it turned out, as I left the next day, that there was good reason why pilgrims would not have come to Rochester – and why it may now be hard to get away from there to Canterbury in the present day as a result of that history.

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The Historical Entertainers’ Tale

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

As You Like It Act 2, scene 7, 139–143
By William Shakespeare

So it was a write old Victorian time when I arrived in Rochester.

Fortunately there were a few trappings of modern times to keep me in check from launching into polite and soft flowery prose, however I discovered that certainly did not stop those in their best Dickensian clothes….

Bemused, Bewitched and Bewildered
For there I met, or should I really say “encountered”,  this little troupe of historical entertainers, who would regale the passers-by at the drop of a hat. 
Historical Entertainers at Rochester

They claimed they had “performed to as few as a stone and a crow, and at the end the crow had stayed”

 
I spoke to one of them afterwards (David Byrne) and he told me how they were two couples with families, based at Oxford and Cambridge, who had been playing up and down the country like this all their life.
 
David had wanted his 4 children to go into entertainment, but in the end only one did 
 
For me it was a revelation that there are sufficient pageants going on around England over spring and summer that allow people to earn a living like this, loving what they do so much that they will share their art and their wisdom with all. 
 
I learned a lot about the different works of Dickens from their short performances of various snippets. In particular I realised how much I had picked up on the characters and plot-lines of Oliver Twist from this little game show they do where they get the audience to guess which character they are  – and the audience respond in a way that mimics the very best in pantomime.  Clearly the characters of The Artful Dodger, Fagan, Bill Sykes and Nancy had got through to me over those early years watching the film of Oliver on TV, generally at Christmas or Easter time.
 
From them and the ladies I met next, and pilgrimages aside, it seems like the spirit of Charles Dickens is very much alive and kicking in Rochester!! 
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The Writer of Rochester

The term “main drag” took on a whole new significance as I rode (the bus) into Rochester, and finally found my way into the main town through a side entrance of the town’s brick walls, through the middle of a cafe and out into the main street.

The non-descript walls, where the bus stops, that hide the main entrance to the otherwise beautiful little town of Rochester

There I was confronted by men in what looked like tights and/or white stockings with high heels, as well as top hats, frilly shirts and long tail coats. There were a few bearded ladies too (who might well have been men, but I was a little afraid to ask). In my surprise I did not think to take a photo.

As I wandered further down the road, there were better dressed ladies and men – who I realised were all kitted out in period costume, as it turns out that I had stumbled into town at the time of The Dickens Festival.

A Peak at The Periodic Timetable of Rochester - With Lots of Ladies in Waiting

For it turned out that Charles Dickens is one of the celebrated writers of Rochester, and that that whole weekend is a festival –

One of the traditional Victorian fairground attractions

complete with costume parade and re-enactments of pieces of his works as well as customary fairground rides, hot dogs and candy floss (plus good real ales, mind you – which go well with the dogs but so good with the floss).

It seemed like all the good folk of the region turn out to take part, and some would do old Dickens himself proud with the characters they portray (as next two blogs will tell). With the mighty backdrop of the Rochester Cathedral behind them, it certainly made me feel like I had walked back in time! 

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Many Roads to take and A River to Cross

From what I discovered on my day trip to Dartford, I was no longer sure of the road I wanted to take in leaving there.  

Bridge across The Medway

Plus there was a question of how best to get across the River Medway using the mode of transport I’d decided to choose, yet still stay true to the spirit of the journey to follow in the footsteps (sorry, that should be hoof prints) of Chaucer’s pilgrims.  This song “Many Rivers to Cross“, which has very apt lyrics in the circumstances (even down to location mentioned in it), comes to mind as I think of it now. Just click on the link to have a listen to my favourite version of it, as sung by Toni Childs, and you’ll hopefully get a feel for what I mean.

Certainly that song seems to be capturing (right now as I write) both the physical and the meta-physical dilemma I have felt in determining which way to take this journey and story – and, indeed, life in general since deciding to take the whole writing lark more seriously in publicising research and discovery of the ideas for my first book online like this. However ain’t the way that relevant songs come to mind like that amazing sometimes? (No? Well maybe it’s just for me then!)

As it was, before I took the trip, I’d found out that there were many roads taken by pilgrims in the Dark and early Middle Ages here in Britain, although ironically only a few are written about in any detail.

Clearly the best known, although even then only alluded to, is that of the road from Southwark in London to Canterbury Cathedral as referred to in The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer – however even that, for some unknown reason, only hints at places that the pilgrims stopped off at along the way.  Apart from The Tabard in Southwark, that is.

The nearest I can get to a photo that shows what The Tabard would have looked like - using the bar at The Royal Victoria and Bull in Dartford

The start to the Canterbury road though, as I found when I went back down to Winchester in 2006, begins there and is known (or perhaps just marketed for touristic purposes) as “The Pilgrim’s Way“.

In fact, as the Tourist Information Centre people in Winchester kindly showed me in a special tourists’ map, the first main site of pilgrimage in Great Britain was to Winchester under the Saxons’ rule and was tied in with honouring the good works of St. Swithun – so, if anything, all roads led to Winchester.

It was only some time after the Normans’ conquest, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, that Canterbury became the main centre of religious attraction in England.

All that began supposedly, along with the first inklings of Anglicanism,  following the murder of Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral – for the reasons explained in my previous blog post.  

Following his sainthood, and in posthumous appreciation for his martyrdom by the Pope, pilgrimages to Canterbury began as a way to show respect to St. Thomas and his remains. These took over from those to see St. Swithun.  In a way, we perhaps ought to be thankful to this pilgrimage for providing the basis for the flowering of English literature, as a result of the good Sir Geoff writing about his and his fellow travellers’ tales told on the way there some time in the late fourteenth century

The fact is though, there is always a prophet or saint involved somewhere in all of the pilgrimages I’ve now analysed – and, from all the paraphernalia sold along the ways related to it, possibly a goodly as much as a godly profit to be made too!! 

I finally made up my mind to head to Rochester – and more to dispel theories that Chaucer’s pilgrims went that way (or any way for that matter, as I was starting to see the point that where one gets to on the physical road taken means less than the value of what is discovered at any point along it – which might explain why The Canterbury Tales were incomplete in not having the full set of tales told by each traveller on the way out, as well as no indication of any ones told on the way back). 

Rochester Cathedral

So perhaps it was poignant that, with only a single thread of spiritual cred left for the final destination still in mind, the only available bus to get me along to the next point in the journey was a red single decker, the number 428 to Bluewater.

Still, when I got to Bluewater (which is a massive shopping centre) I found (much to my delight) that I could take the next step of the journey on a double decker to Rochester – however the bus was no longer rosy red any more.

So, it was on a number 700 (and realising that that number represents seven centuries, if you want to see any numerological significance in taking this journey) that I headed down and across The Medway to Rochester. 

Blue Double Decker from Bluewater to Rochester

Postscript

I hope you appreciate the little nuances of coincidence in this post hinting at the possibility of a higher journey being taken beyond the physical one. Still, if you really want to, you can actually call on spirits that help you to see significance in almost anything – as the good ladies I subsequently met in Rochester endeavoured to prove to me…

Posted in Canterbury, Canterbury, Chaucer, Dartford, Pilgrimages, Publishing, Rochester, Winchester | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sad and Sorry End to English Pilgrimages

Following on from my post on the Yard Foreman’s Tale, it would not just have been the romance of the coach and horses being the mode of transport, but also the interesting people one would have met on their way to pay their spiritual dues to someone who had inspired them, in some way or other, to take a journey of several days, if not one hundred miles or more.

I could almost have begun and ended my journey at Dartford, just over the border into Kent and only just a short way down the Canterbury road from London, following the signs I saw there that uncovered about the last dark days of pilgrimages to Canterbury. 

The Royal Victoria and Bull, Dartford

For Dartford was seen as a convenient one day’s ride from London in King Henry VIII’s day, less than two hundred years after The Canterbury Tales were written (and fifty from when they were first printed and published by Caxton, as well as being one of the first texts in English), as I learned from what I read about the history of The Manor Gatehouse.

The Manor Gatehouse is an old heritage building down Priory Road, and just off the circular sweep that traffic now takes as it arrives into Dartford. It is the building at the entrance to what is left of the estate that King Henry VIII gave to Anne of Cleves, one of his many wives, as part of his divorce settlement from her.

The Manor Gatehouse - the entrance to where Anne of Cleves lived

How this place and its history ties in with pilgrimages to Canterbury, and a possible end to them, is as follows.

Unlike his five other wives, Henry married Anne of Cleves more out of pursuit of political stability, rather than through lust and seeking an heir.  It was largely thanks to him seeing a flattering painting by Holbein that the marriage happened at all (and, indeed shortly after meeting her, he compared her to “a Flanders mare”), but he was not able to get out of the marriage treaty – which allowed England to have an ally to balance the combined might of Spain,  Italy and other parts of Western Europe that had been brought together as the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V.

The interesting adjunct to this history and estate, is that just down the road stands the Royal Victoria and Bull, one of the last remaining coaching inns – and a place where pilgrims to Canterbury would have met and chattered, as much as chatted, about who as much as what they saw and knew along the way. 

The Bar at The Royal Victoria and Bull

Just from what the stories in The Canterbury Tales tell, such as that of the Wife of Bath who conveniently changes husbands like others change dresses, you can bet good old King Henry would have been the subject of much gossip back then with one of his (not-so) merry wives installed just down the road.

Whether or not that was the case, or merely to limit any ongoing allegiance to the Papists, it was Henry’s rage against the marriage machine of the time and his perception of the idolatry of saints (and especially one that would have further highlighted the sin of kings) that led him to ordering destruction of the shrine of Thomas a Beckett and, as a result, bringing an end to pilgrimages to Canterbury.

Indeed, that also seemed to be the end (as far as I can tell so far) to pilgrimages per se in England.  Unless what I found with those travellers taking the Pilgrim’s Way back in 1991 was a sign to any such faith and spirituality having been driven underground?  Then again, maybe those people I met back then just enjoyed having a final destination to get to, as well as a good pub at the end of each day, as they trudged along what is also known as the North Downs Way – but maybe that’s another trail to follow, and a story in itself, though…

In any case, it was the rise of the Anglican church – and an ever-increasing division in Christian faith between Protestants and Catholics – which ultimately led to the uprisings in Northern Ireland that have only ended in recent times. 

Perhaps if people had been allowed to travel and talk freely, in line with seeking some higher spiritual purpose in life (no matter what form that took), then maybe things would have been different.  Whatever the case may be, spirituality would have been seen to be heavily entwined with politics and religion – and perhaps something best kept in private, if one wanted to keep one’s head safe from being chopped off by either side.

Ornate pictures and hangings in The Royal Victoria and Bull's function room - a sign of more regal, if not better times

After all, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition“, as the Monty Python team jokingly said – and so, perhaps sadly with spirituality here in England from King Henry VIII’s time forth, such things are better off unsaid, rather than risk losing one’s head….

Stately function rooms at The Royal Victoria and Bull

Posted in Canterbury, Canterbury, Caxton, Dartford, Kent, Printing, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Dark and Desperate Debt-driven Days

It is perhaps poignant that I am writing the blog about my arriving in Dartford back in March, following the aftermath of the London and England-wide riots in August, or perhaps in the lull in between them with the impending Notting Hill Carnival, as Dartford was the place that I first learned about The Peasant’s Revolt when I lived there back in 1992 – and there are perhaps some interesting parallels between the riots of then and now.

The Quiet Dartford High Street of the Modern Day

The Peasant’s Revolt was a time of civil unrest that occurred in the same time period when the pilgrimages to Canterbury were taking place that serve as the backdrop to The Canterbury Tales.

The evident link to the riots is through a pub in Dartford that is named after the leader of The Peasant’s Revolt, one Wat Tyler, and ceremoniously has a plaque on the side of it that refers to him.  

The riots were against Richard II’s poll tax in 1381, which was levied to cover the costs of wars with France – much like how a significant proportion of taxes paid has presumably gone to fund costs of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places nowadays.

An interesting parallel between The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and the riots that have “kicked off” now, is how the ones in the fourteenth century supposedly began as the result of a civil incident, much like the ones have done now with the police shooting Mark Duggan.

There probably is more of a clear-cut case of civil impropriety, however, with the cause of the riots back in 1381. The ones  back then reputedly began as a result of how the daughter of John Tyler (who may or may not have been the same person as Wat Tyler) was indecently assaulted by a tax assessor when he aimed to prove that Tyler’s daughter was old enough for tax to be paid for her, but in an inappropriate way.  Wat Tyler was alerted to this, from where he was working locally, by hearing (or hearing about) the screams of his wife and daughter. He, literally, then came back and beat the brains of the inspector out with a tiling hammer.

In a way, perhaps not unlike that depicted in the movie “Braveheart”, this vigilante act led to Wat Tyler somehow coming to lead the rebels (although there are many other accounts that list others who were perhaps just as active and righteous, but possibly with less cause?) – but it also led to a widespread rampage against civil authority that went from Essex and Kent to London, resulting in the killing of many officials as well as sacking of both Canterbury and Rochester, and even to the rebels taking The Tower of London.  It only ended when the king agreed to meet the leaders of the revolt at Smithfield. outside the walls of the city. This was where Wat Tyler was murdered (by no less than the Lord Mayor of London himself) and the crowds were able to be dispersed in the ensuing confusion (presumably by soldiers, although some accounts I’ve now read say by the young 14 year old king himself). 

Interestingly, Richard II did declare a general amnesty six months later, on 14 December 1381, for all those who had taken part in the revolt  – by which time all ring-leaders had been rounded up and either hanged or imprisoned. The poll tax was also withdrawn, however in many cases peasants lost the rights they had won from the Lords of the Manor. These rights had been won since the time of the Black Death reduced the labour force available to the Lords, much as World War I and II did with available working population of healthy males in the twentieth century, and so the Lords had been compelled then to start paying peasants to work their land, as well as grant them plots or allotments of their own in a few cases in lieu of payment.  However the labour shortage in the fourteenth century was still such that many peasants did manage to regain or retain their new-found rights to ownership and financial independence over subsequent years.  

Now this is not necessarily the same background to the riots we have just had here in 2011, nor circumstances with how the protests against the shooting of Mark Duggan have led to the recent riots in Tottenham, Croydon and elsewhere around London, Birmingham as well as other cities in England – however there are interesting links when you start to look at the crisis that the country was in at the time back in 1380 – and why Richard II chose to levy a poll tax for covering the cost of wars, let alone other national debts, but was unsuccessful in doing so.  

After all, the common person had just started to gain a taste for the opportunity to acquire little luxuries for themselves – and so had started to enjoy independence that they had never had before. Freedom, in other words….

So this poll tax would have been seen as a threat to those peasants who had only just been granted opportunity to acquire as well as work their own land from the Church or the Lords of The Manor – which is perhaps analogous to people nowadays being accepted for a place to live in a Council Estate if on the lowest wage level (or even benefits), or those being accepted for a mortgage to buy their own place who have become better off (and the latter, as I understand it, was only something worked out in only relatively recent times under Margaret Thatcher’s Government). 

Then there were those who were now (in the fourteenth century) simply just being paid for their work on the Lord’s manor, as a result of The Black Death reducing the fourteenth century English labour force so drastically, but who still had little income yet to spare to pay any additional taxes for war-mongering. Certainly a poll tax wasn’t the answer back then for them, nor for the new class of tenant farmer or the increasingly successful tradespeople like Wat Tyler and others.

So much as it was the same with how a poll tax wasn’t acceptable in Margaret Thatcher’s time either – nor, in case David Cameron and George Osborne might naively be thinking about it now, in my view would it be here now, in current day, twenty first century Britain.

So another both corporate and socially friendly solution must be found for dealing with the mounting debt now before it topples any more businesses, as much as hurt any more citizens of the new, supposedly free world struggling to find their financial independence as well as freedom to choose the lifestyle they want through good honest hard work or smart professional and trade enterprises.

Whatever the economic and political parallels may be between now and then, the wars and riots of the fourteenth century were  happening at the time that Geoffrey Chaucer was either making the pilgrimage to Canterbury, or writing The Canterbury Tales – and so perhaps the tales were as much written by him back then to highlight the need for morality, as well as provide parables that showed more practical consequences for what happens to those who choose to not have any morals (as some of the rioting peasants did in looting in much the same way then, as has been done today).  Certainly they serve to show there are ways other than necessarily relying on vengance being meted out by either The Church or the State as could be expected to happen in those times, as well as actual as much as meta-physical consequences for any bad or negative behaviour or actions.

Still, it is probably even more poignant that The Canterbury Tales were written in the context of travellers telling tales when on a pilgrimage to see the remains of a saint who supposedly inspired them – when that saint himself was one murdered by king’s officials as a result of him resisting the king and then subsequently being canonised by The Pope, essentially for standing up to the king. But then that man was also made a saint (posthumously) by the Pope, like a King knights a lord, as much for validating Papal authority over the State as for self-righteous care for the common people or the common good – so who’s to say that either The Church or The State was right in how they sought to guide or control the common folk on their lands back then, any moreso than they are capable of doing so now under a constitutional monarchy which allows voters a right to choose a philosophical way, rather than a practical means, for how taxes drawn from their hard-earned  income are spent. 

PostScript

Hopefully this year’s Notting Hill Carnival will still be a relatively happy and peaceful celebration of diversity as it has been for the past ten years or more, but also demonstrably  show fairness  of the modern day Civil and Central Government authorities in managing both freedom and security of the common people as well upholding freedoms of speech and expression as well as legitimate rights to protest.

Moreover, while we don’t have The Church to contend with any more in controlling individual rights and freedoms here in the UK (although some religions still endeavour to do that with their congregation), perhaps we can now start to hold on to a general, standard set of morals as well as belief in a greater good, rather than feel any need to descend into looting, muggings and other forms of anarchy at the first opportunity.  If so, then something good will have arisen out of this latest state of civil unrest – and so remove one of the risks likely to return Britain back to being like a fourteenth century feudal state.

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The Yard Foreman’s Tale

What days those must have been, when the coaches with the horses rode into town – with people from far and wide…. 

I had thought that those days were long since gone, until I found my way into Dartford town and arrived at the first and only still truly authentic coaching inn left in the London and Kent region – The Royal Victoria and Bull.

The Royal Victoria and Bull, Dartford

Coz it turned out that there, sitting at the table just across from me, was this little chap happily eating his £3.95 pensioner’s meal, who claimed to remember the days that horses and coaches rode into town on their way to Canterbury and other parts of Kent, or the towns of the Medway.  Whether those people were on a spiritual journey at all or not is another matter, and perhaps subject for another tale – however it was great to meet someone who remember the days of coaches and horses being used for public transport here in England.

The Yard Foreman

As for me, I had just arrived there from where I’d being staying in Charlton staying in the house run by the mystical lady lawyer (as mentioned in Raising and Erasing Spirits), by way of taking the 422 bus to Bexley Heath Bus Garage , just North-East of Greenwich, and then the No. 96 from Bexley Heath shopping centre into Dartford.  It was nowhere near as romantic, from the sounds of it, as those horse and coach journeys of old like this sparkling-eyed old chap fondly regaled to me – but it was still fun in being able to stay as true as possible to taking double deckers all the way to Canterbury, in true Cliff Richard and Young Ones style.

It was also nowhere near as smelly either, from all accounts, as the old man said that not only would he and other young lads run after the coaches and horses as they came into town in the early nineteen thirties – but had to be careful where they ran due to the shit left by the horses.

What’s more, the horses themselves would actually have been in the inn itself – just as much as the people staying there, as the inns were built around a space that the horses and coaches rode into. 

The Bar Area - where once the horse and coaches would have been

The old man told me his name was Charlie Olsen, and he was there at the pub that day with his grandson-in-law having just come back from Cyprus where his grandson-in-law’s sister had just got married – and clearly wanting that classic English meal of fish and chips.  He was just the sort of person I was looking for to tell me the history of what had gone before:  from days when the last horses and carts came into town when he was but a lad, to his days working in the local lead works as a yard foreman and coming into the pub for a drink afterwards.

Charlie Olsen and his grandson-in-law

“I was married for 48.5 years”, he told me, “and my wife passed away 5.5 years ago.  I was born in Erith, but have been coming into Dartford all my life. I can still remember days from when the horse and carts came in before the war to the Royal Victoria and Bull.  – and, in my teen years, earning a few pence from cleaning up the shit from the horses on their way to the inn.”

So, a valuable snippet, learned from that was that The Canterbury Tales would have had quite a ripe, as much as a merry, air to them. Perhaps even one that helped inspire some of the bawdiness of the tales, and a few other expressions besides….

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The Old Coach Road

It’s funny how something – even a little thing – will either remind you of something you had to do, or spark a memory of a bygone time in your life that you had forgotten, without you necessarily knowing why or what for until you follow up on it. 

I had both in one brief moment on Monday of this past week, while out for a very nice dinner for my birthday.  

All set for Dinner down at Looe

It was sparked by seeing the name “Old Coach Road“, as just one of the many choices of wine, and one from Nelson, a favourite part of my native country of New Zealand.

At first I saw it as a reminder that I really ought to get back to completing the story of my recent three nights’ and four days’ journey by bus down t’auld Canterbury Road – that road I did not take twenty years earlier on first arrival here in 1991.

Then I realised how much of that journey has been about trying to echo, as much as possible in the modern day, the experience that those first English (yes, English) pilgrims might have had in taking their coaches and horses along what had essentially been an old coach road up to five hundred and fifty something years before. 

The main difference with recreating that journey was that horses and coaches would have not travelled that road – or so I thought – for a goodly hundred years or more. So the nearest I thought I could come to doing it in the same way as them was by using the horseless coach of the modern day, that is to travel by bus – and ideally, for nostalgic reasons of my own, by a double decker one.

However, I also realised a very personal and perhaps subliminal reference from the name of that wine back to a very nice time in my teenage years, and early twenties, to when I lived both by the sea and on the verge of a road by the very same name. 

The Old Coach Road was the name of a former road that ran along the lower coastline of the North Island of New Zealand, and part of it bordered a dilapidated beach property that my parents had bought back in my pre-teen years, at a place called Paraparaumu.

Like so much of that coastline of my youth, the road and many of the houses along it have been washed into the seas of The Pacific Ocean by ever-increasing high spring tides and storms. It is hard to say whether this erosion is due to global warming or not, however I do have fond memories of my father acting like a modern day King Cnut in working out a way to reclaim his property back from the sea using natural rather than man-made means.

My Dad was also a natural raconteur too, and one who would have happily joined in with sharing his tales with those of the many who are met along the way of an old coach road.

So it is in memory of my Dad, who sadly passed away 7 years ago, that I will shortly recount my next tale of a man I met on my journey who is still alive and remembers the last days of horses coming into a coaching inn.

Posted in Nelson, New Zealand, Paraparaumu | Tagged | 2 Comments

Shades of the pub that Mitre Bin a Chaucer Coaching Inn

The spirit world entered again into my next stop along the road, although in a more typically Western way with being told by Kyle, a South African bar manager,  of two ghosts – going by the name of George and Henry – who haunt the little establishment he manages known as The Mitre, a former coaching inn that is on the road that comes in to Greenwich from Deptford.

The Mitre Inn, Greenwich

 My theory in coming here, as part of my three days out taking this road before the start of my new job, is that this could have been the next place, after The Tabard in Southwark, where those travellers in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales might well have stopped off to tell their next batch of tales on the second day of their pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral back in 1388 (or thereabouts).

Locals Inn at The Mitre

Certainly both Deptford and Greenwich are referred to in the prologue to The Reeve’s Tale.  

An interesting fact from what I’ve picked up online from the words in the original text saying:  “Lo Greenwich, there many a shrewe is inne“, is that there is a theory that Chaucer wrote many of the tales in Greenwich in 1391 – and that the “inn of shrews” refers to the place where he stayed following his wife dying and being sued for debt, and even possibly questioning life as a consequence of that. Of course, the “inns of shrews” could also relate to experience from his work in looking after The Thames Wall, from Woolwich to Greenwich, in his role as Commissioner of Walls and Ditches – a job he managed to pick up to save himself from the good or bad graces following the end of his days at court.  Certainly no love was lost for the place!!

At the very least, the best validity of this being a site for telling of the tales there comes from the book I have for it – which is a beautifully illustrated modern translation of The Canterbury Tales from the Old into Modern English by Nevill Coghill. In that there is a reference to time getting on, perhaps following the jollity of the night before, arising from the tale told by “the drunken Miller we’ve had so much drool of“, as well as reference to needing the next two tales to be told at Greenwich and Deptford, when the Host – he being the Landlord of The Tabard who has now decided to come on the road with them as a judge of their tales – states:

Why, look! Here’s Deptford and it’s nine o’clock
And Greenwich too, with many a blackguard in it
High time to tell your story, so begin it”  

So ’twas to Greenwich, on the road in from Deptford, that I went to find The Mitre, the pub nearest enough to that former coaching inn, and equally near to where they might have stopped off for the night to hear The Reeve’s and The Cook’s Tale on that second night on the road.

High Street in Greenwich - no shrews in sight!

Clearly Chaucer held little store for the actual pub settings when it came to writing up the tales as, apart from The Tabard where the travellers started out from (and which the Host owned and regaled them into telling the tales), there is nothing concrete to say exactly where they stopped off each night – or during the day – to tell their tales. Indeed, many of the references refer to telling stories to each other while on horseback.  

Even in my parody of taking this road, geography is not so much a key factor as much as trying to recreate the genial atmosphere that can allow spiritually-aware or minded travellers to have places that they can find one another – and share,  just like I was somehow lucky enough to find on my accidental pilgrimage in 1991.  Of course, I met people and we shared stories on the road in the car too – however there’s something about doing that at a convenient and pleasant stop-off that has a greater charm about it.

From finding that first location down in Winchester – a Youth Hostel on the site of an old mill race that is now closed and converted back into a National Trust site with a Pizza Express restaurant set into it – I first became aware of an under-current in this country between two very different sets of people whose views of life are very different to one another, as are their approaches as a consequence. 

Back in 1991, one of those sets of people seemed very materially oriented to me. They seemed more inclined to take time out to forget about the drudgery of life by embarking on some trail somewhere (as long as it had a decent walking track, along with a few good pubs on it serving good ale or some other beverage to imbibe while chatting about experiences they’d had along the way).

The other, younger set were much less financially and materially aware – and were definitely seeking something higher to uplift their spirits, as well as generally trying to feel good about the world that they were going about in. It was the latter’s road that I followed back in 1991 – whereas it is the former’s that I have taken now.

It is not because I am now either more materially conscious or disaffected with life however. Rather, it was from hearing about The Canterbury Tales back in 2005 – thanks to the BBC presenting a modern retelling of them along with an encouragement to people to read up on them and write – that I gained a different perspective of a subtle morality (and perhaps even spirituality?) of those other people whose road I did not take back then. What helps is that The Tales carry a truth of their own that anyone can relate to, and it’s almost like religion without the dogma and pressure to conform, or perhaps just a whisper of religion mixed in with a pragmatism and realism about life and its rigours. Some might even just call it “British”.  

Finding such places like I did in Winchester, a spiritual crossroads of these two ways of seeing and being, allowed me to discover these two very different (yet interesting) sets of people.

Discovering the actual city, town or village where the juncture of these two very different roads meet has been a stroke of good fortune – Glastonbury, Winchester and Southwark being the main three.

Unfortunately, on retracing my journey back in 2006, I was saddened to find many of the places in Southwark and Winchester have all but disappeared due to financial decline/make-over or spiritual/political review by either the Church or the local Borough Councils.

In a similar vein, there is less of an actual relevant tale to tell about The Mitre in Greenwich – apart from the fact that a coaching inn stood there up until 1827, before being destroyed by fire and then its reconstruction being destroyed by bombs in World War II as well.

Front entrance to t'auld coaching inn

Still, The Mitre retains some of the atmosphere and local characters that I would expect a Chaucerian coaching inn to have, now, in the modern day where travellers can meet up – as much as such a place would had to have had back in the medieval times of Chaucer’s day. The key is that people would have needed to feel free to recount their tales for the amusement of one and all, and without reproach (apart from a little ribbing by their fellow travellers, from all accounts).

As I was saying when we regrouped at The Gardener’s residence at the end of this journey (and see that posting again for some new photos of The Gardener herself and her allotment), the attraction of a couple of ghosts could make The Mitre a good place for us to go back to one night, in the not too distant future, and see if we can see them as well as come up with a few new tales of our own for helping me fulfill the quota of stories I need from retaking this trail now, here in the modern day.

P.S. Kyle (the South African bar manager there), I look forward to getting that next ale on you if we do! 😉

Posted in Canterbury, Chaucer, Greenwich, Pilgrimages, Southwark, Winchester | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Raising and erasing spirits

Seeing as I had not been able to get a booking at my first coaching inn in my last minute decision to follow up on my theory of the three days’ trip to Canterbury, I thought it was just going to be an ordinary “late room” that I was going to be staying in that night in the little village of Charlton slightly further to the east of Greenwich.

Greenland Villa - first stop along The Way. Looked like a regular B & B to start with...

Having found my way there by Matt Nav – which is what I had renamed Google Maps on my iPhone to be in taking a selection of double deckers all the way from West London (and, OK if you really must know, the 36 to New Cross Gate, then the 122 to Greenwich and finally – after experimenting, a less interesting story in itself – the 286 to Charlton), I found myself outside the door of a house that appeared to be a mix of a bed and breakfast (or “B ‘n B” as they shorten it to here) and a small hotel. Maybe that’s why the owner had branded it as being “a villa”.

Still, when I came to knock on the door I immediately recognised a sign that marked it as being something more than that – and more in line with what liked or looked for by the other type of people that I had met back in 1991 on the road to Glastonbury, Tintagel and the site at Cadbury that is believed to possibly be “Camelot”.

Getting ready to knock on Heaven's Door

That sign was a red tassled ornament at the top of the door, one I had seen on the doors of places I had stayed in when travelling through South East Asia in 1993, as well as got to know something about from mystical people I came to know when I finally got back in 1995 to what may now be my second home of Sydney, Australia.  

An feng shui ornament that says: "Evil Spirits beware - do not enter here!"

The next marker to it being no ordinary UK establishment was the display of different shrines in the reception area

First Shrine along The Way

 The third thing was the good lady owner herself, who immediately regaled me about having just had a Tarot card reading by her housekeeper as a way to gauge whether her fortune, in dealing with a difficult law suit, was likely to change.  For it turned out that besides being the landlady of the establishment, Leeli is a lawyer – as well as an ex-model to boot. 

Leeli, the lawyer and landlady, on the lounge suite in the reception at Greenland Villa

Now I wonder what Chaucer would have made of such a woman back in his time, 700 years ago, on the same road to Canterbury. 

One interesting thing I’ve discovered so far – in seeing how The Canterbury Tales relate in today’s world – is that, in medieval times, women were not denoted by their professions but largely by their marital status.  That is, they were either single (known then as a spinster), married or a widow.  The only exception is if they took holy orders and so became a nun, prioress or other holy profession – and, indeed, Chaucer has samples from these good ladies in The Tales.

Yet the tale told by the Wife of Bath shows how a woman could still manage to rise above her station in having independence in what was then solely a man’s world. That is not a problem at all now, of course: women are now largely free to do what they want to do work-wise – but then, 700 years ago, it did not seem to bother Chaucer to relate the story of the Wife of Bath, perhaps even hinting at the scope for more liberal values and ways for women to succeed – despite constraints that a male-dominated medieval society might place on them. 

Certainly there was something very open and independent about Leeli in the evening and morning of the next day when I had the pleasure to talk to her more – but then let’s save that for a short blog later that alludes to The Lawyer’s Tale that I will write in the full book, at some stage in the near future (hopefully). For now, the idea is to find those places on the road, before coming back to find the people on them that help us along the way.

For now, all I will say is that my spirits were immediately raised in meeting someone who I could talk about what might be beyond the road that we immediately see before us – someone believing in the power of something that will help improve our fortunes, outside of our immediate powers of vision and control, but also being someone who still believes, in this modern mechanical, highly scientific and hi-tech day, that evil spirits can still be dispelled through organising one’s home in the right way and protecting them from coming in with the right sign above the door.

Certainly I slept well that night, without the need for the spa bath and the big screen TV to relax me – although it was nice to know they were there if I did need to.

The spa bath I never took - but maybe one day?

     

The bed that I did sleep well in

Posted in Camelot, Canterbury, Chaucer, Greenwich, Pilgrimages | Tagged , , | 3 Comments