To Kill a Swan

What inspires or forces people to do something that they would not ordinarily do – or even to make the choice to do it? 

This was the thought that occurred to me, just when I had thought that the blogging side to my journey down that Canterbury road had ended, and as I found myself (physically) back along what now seems to be the quiet and peaceful end of the road – namely the one where I first followed those modern day mystics to, on the road to “Camelot”.

The question occurred to me after a discussion over breakfast with a young couple staying at the same B & B as me in Over Stowey, Somerset, over the August 2011 bank holiday weekend.

The conversation began, as many do, through asking about what work each of us do.  She is an aspiring jazz singer and he is a young doctor assisting in liver transplant surgery.

Somehow we came to talking about doing things that might perhaps seem out of character and/or we may not otherwise have done, if it were not for something that has happened in our life to make us consider changing tack. 

Of course, that included talking about me taking this road to Canterbury out of curiousity to see what I may have missed in my first ever trip here in the UK, and sharing  some of the quirky things discovered along the way that has echoes even now in the modern day from the English culture and heritage of medieval times (such as similarities between The Peasant’s Revolt and the recent London and Birmingham riots).

The expression “to kill a swan” came up as a way I could describe taking a radical step that might put one’s whole life on the line in making radical changes from taking a new path. Laura, the aspiring jazz singer, made me realise this through mentioning about an ancient law that made it an act of treason to kill a swan here in England (and I later found that while that law was made in 1186, it was only just repealed in 1998!). Indeed, it is still necessary to ask the Queen’s  permission to kill a swan  

Swan on East Looe River, Cornwall, July 2011

Interestingly, her doctor husband Mark’s work has led him to considering something like that, as he faces a decision over life or death every week in considering the potential injustice of who is next on the list to receive a liver transplant. The ethical dilemma is that he is not able to choose between someone next on the list, who perhaps has not taken care of themselves and their liver and so will need another transplant again in a few years, over someone not receiving one who perhaps does deserve it due to being otherwise healthy and having the ability, as much as a right, to live a longer and happier life from receiving it.

So where is the right or statute to save that “swan” over the perhaps perennial “ugly duckling”? 

Still, the fact that you can have a law preventing the killing of swans and not one to be fair in saving the lives of people, who perhaps deserve to be saved – but not for the stroke of a bureacrat’s pen, is just one of the many quirks you discover about the English culture.

Whatever your view on it why that is – such as it possibly being tied up with a disaffected nostalgia for its laws of old in the absence of a constitution – it is the sort of thing you will most likely only learn if you take the time to stop and talk to those you meet along the roads who have the knowledge of such things and are prepared to share it.

A good British B & B  still seems to be one of the good types of places left where you can meet such good people, as Chaucer did all those centuries ago in coaching inns, and have these sorts of chats – and happily it can be experienced at both ends of the road as I have discovered this time around on the road from Camelot to Canterbury and back.

Doorway to The Secret Garden, at the B & B in Somerset

B & B and garden

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The Truth Be Told

The drive for me to write Matt’s tale essentially began on 7/7/2005 when the bombs went off around London, which led to a chance encounter and a discussion about appreciating others and being able to enjoy a good conversation – and perhaps how much value can be gained for building a good relationship from simply sharing a story to entertain as much as inform or educate.

This was in stark contrast to the disastrous events of that day – but then maybe not, given those events occurred due to a few people having so little care at all for others that they felt they could take their lives without any understanding whatsoever about what their victims believed in – including whether those innocents might have had some sympathy for their cause, if only they were given a chance to hear about it and discuss why there is a need for violence against them in order to be heard.

So it is perhaps poignant that this penultimate blog post of Matt’s Tale is written and published on 9th September, 2011 – the tenth anniversary of “9/11” – when ordinary people were united, in adversity, in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania as a result of a horrific catastrophe arising from a group’s desire to take not only their own lives but thousands of others in the name of a cause that many will never understand or appreciate.  

The stories told of the heroism on that day, from the firefighters on the ground in New York to the passengers on the flight that overcame the hijackers, are what I believe help us to cope with the enormity of the horror of it – and tell us about how we should feel and respond to such terror. Saying nothing at all, and seeking to take violent revenge against people who most likely have had nothing to do with any wrongs done – perceived or otherwise – can never be accepted, as that is what I believe makes for the DNA of a terrorist or vigilante.

Although it is only one man who was a victim of such terror, there is perhaps a similar connection with the people coming together on the pilgrimages to Canterbury, in recognising how unfair it was for anyone – let alone knights of the realm – to take a man’s life for simply standing up for his beliefs, and irrespective of whether the knights’ cause in supporting the king and his constitution was right or not in seeking to exert one rule of law across the land. At least in medieval times, the king was ultimately made to feel remorse for what happened there in Canterbury Cathedral that day in 1170, where Thomas a Beckett was murdered for refusing to concede to the king’s cause.

However such remorse is not shown today, where the leaders of the Al Qaeda cause that drove their followers to undertake such barbaric acts, showed none whatsoever for all of the innocent lives being taken. It is also perverse that their idea of a martyr is/was one who takes the lives of others,  instead of being one prepared to give up their life – without harming others – so that others can live in freedom from hunger, poverty or oppression.   

So let’s hope in the wake of such oppressors and their horrors, including what we have just experienced in London, Birmingham and elsewhere in the UK with the riots, that we can find a way to reach a greater understanding and respect for one another, as well as rise above these acts of terror and violence to find ways to mete out justice rather than vengeance. At the very least, we need to let people not be afraid to tell their stories or otherwise listen with care and respect to the stories of others. 

Certainly I am grateful now for having taken this road at the start of June for helping to appreciate such things (even if it is only in reading up and writing up afterwards). It is this that has helped me to understand and cope with not only living through the London riots that have followed, and awareness of the possible effects of another recession even worse than the first one, but also understand and care about what I am hearing and experiencing about how some people are being treated in the workplace now that is not right or fair – and perhaps may need to told and talked about soon before it is too late for them and the businesses themselves that are being adversely impacted by it.

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Coming to Canterbury

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

So, as I passed through that hole in the Canterbury city wall, which is barely high enough to let a big bus through (and perhaps not unlike the one that camels had difficulty with in that gateway to Jerusalem) , I realised a lot about truths I had learned in twenty years of going away and coming back again to finally take this road. 
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

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A Little Less Conversation?

It seems to me, from my return to these English roads less travelled, that there are less and less places where you can meet  travellers.

The charm for me, back in the day, was in being able to compare notes on a place, have a good conversation, and perhaps even hook up to go see a few things together.  

If anything, we are ever more reliant on the Internet to discover who to go with, as much as where to go – however the often impersonal structure of the sites to do that, and the difference between the online and the actual persona of the people you meet on there, does not always guarantee a match-up to what and who you are seeking (but, hey, now we are getting into a discussion which ties in with my day job in challenging that – and ideally seeking to improve the experience of it).   

It’s more than just use of the Internet that is putting a stop to travellers meeting and conversing in person though, as I discovered when I headed down to The Rochester Bar to watch the young locals mixing.

I was heading to The Rochester to get an idea of what the Royal Victoria and Bull would have been like, as mentioned in my previous blog post, as it is supposedly connected with it from the sign on the door of the old hotel. 

The first thing that struck me, as I got in the door, was that the pub was playing current pop numbers too loud for anyone to speak, let alone be heard.  This probably explains why there was a lot of people milling around, either texting on their Blackberries or iPhones – despite being amongst a group of people, or showing others what they had texted as a way of sharing something that could not otherwise be spoken.

It was also curious to note that, apart from the greeting when they recognise someone they know, there was hardly any chat going on at all anyway.  It seems that it is more  just a question of coming in and sitting down (or hanging around the bar), and hoping to be seen by somebody – with drinks being bought and passed around.

There was something about the way that the crowd behaved at this place that reminded me of a “Life on Earth” episode on TV  where Sir David Attenborough observes the culture and behaviour of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.  Indeed, in close approximation to that at one stage, an incident broke out where the security guys chased one guy out who had challenged the equivalent of the dominant silverback there with his ladies. The pack leader had pushed the guy away from foisting his attentions on one of the girls – and then the incident happened when the jilted guy took a swing at him, and was fended off, which eventually led to him pulling a knife to get back at him. It was at this point that the security guys got involved and succeeded in chasing the offender out of the club.

The interesting thing was that, when it quietened down later (as when they were about to close, they turned the music off), I remarked to the young twenty something door supervisor (aka “bouncer”) about the nature of the incident – and this led on to a discussion about the general lack of conversation I’d noted, as well as how a good chat – and hearing a good story – used to be a large part of what I liked about going into pubs around England.  I also gave him an idea of some of the people I’d met through those chats, and where they had led me to in discovering the country and its culture – as well as now to an interest in writing about it.  

The guy said he would like to see something said and written about how simply to get young guys to even chat at all nowadays, rather than fight – even if it is like how they now have rap contests in some places to fend off aggression rather than play it out.

We probably chatted for no more than 15 minutes or so, but the guy was nice enough to say that the conversation we had just had was really good  – and the first decent one he had had like that in his four years working there. If his comment is genuine, then how sad is that?

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A Right Royal Mess

In search of what, I was no longer sure, but before leaving Rochester, I had one stop-off to check out. That was to compare the coaching inn there that shares the same name as the one in Dartford (The Royal Victoria and Bull), so I could see if there are any parallels that could be drawn between them in terms of visitors stopping off there on the way to Canterbury – or simply people meeting to share and compare stories, let alone tales. 

The Royal Victoria and Bull, Rochester

Is it irrational, or could it genuinely be a hunch, but I felt I had to see this other place that had been renamed after a visit by Queen Victoria – as she had reputedly stayed in both places, one of them in the year before her coronation and one in the year after – and they had changed their names as a result of each respective visit. Yet I’ve not been able to find a reason why she went to either place as yet (but wouldn’t it be great if it was something to do with making a Royal pilgrimage to Canterbury?)

It seems that the council had got there to see the one in Rochester first, however, as the hotel was shut down – and a mix of reports I’ve found on Trip Advisor fairly much confirms why:  too much noise at night, a smell of dank/stale air, lack of cleanliness of the rooms and generally poor customer service that couldn’t care less.

The telltale sign on the door of the hotel

For a city that takes other aspects of its heritage seriously with support for Charles Dickens and his stories, I was surprised that this heritage listed building has been left to go to rack and ruin – especially given its connection to the monarch of the period that Dickens wrote in, and which the city had just feted.

Added to that, Swank, the new night club that they had put in next door to it, seems to not fit at all with the spirit of the place. 

Indeed, there seems to be a few ironic parallels in this discovery in line with happened to the Youth Hostel at the Old Mill in Winchester, where I had first met the travellers heading in either direction in 1991, as I found that one end of that had been turned into a Pizza Hut and the character-filled Youth Hostel is no longer there when I returned in 2006.  That said, some of Winchester’s tenuous links to Camelot have since been dispelled as romantic fiction tied up with Sir Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’arthur” – and not the real legend – and so there’s less to attract people to the poorly constructed mock-up of The Great Hall and Round Table there.

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Caught Out In Getting To Canterbury

Computer says “No”, was pretty much the answer that I got from the Tourist Information Centre at Rochester about buses that go from there to Canterbury.  They couldn’t even tell me where to connect at all to get there. 

I am glad that I never tried this self-same road back in 1991 then, as I would have been stuck – but then I never had the idea to try and travel anywhere and everywhere by bus back then either.  So it was thanks to a very helpful lady in reception at The Gordon Hotel, who seemed keen to test out the powers of the Internet there with me, that we managed to figure a way out.

For the record – in case anyone else is keen to try this way (although perhaps wait until the book and I will let you into Chaucer’s little secrets on the genuine way to go, as well as telling you why they were possibly secrets too) – the way to get to Canterbury by bus from Rochester is as follows:

  • No. 41 Arriva bus to Chatham, then go to Bay 17 
  • No 101 to Maidstone. Then, once at Maidstone, go to Bay H3 and take
  • No.  333 to Faversham
  • At Faversham you can pick up Stagecoach buses that will then take you on to Canterbury, but bear in mind that they are back around the corner, next to the supermarket, from where the Arriva bus drops you off

    The Medieval Market at Faversham, across from where the bus picks up to go to Canterbury

The South East services section of the Arriva web-site is the one to look at. The following search helped me find the places to get to: 

The Stagecoach Bus site is a little more straightforward to follow in being able to pick destinations, however it is critical to make sure that it is not a timetable for a school bus and that the timetable actually includes both Faversham and Canterbury on its routes.

I managed to get a bus that got me to Chatham at 1pm and then one to Maidstone at 1.35pm.  However there was quite a wait for buses to get me from Faversham to Canterbury – enough to explore Faversham though. There I found a coaching inn, and one that confirmed what I had discovered about Henry VIII clearing the route up for the Royal way to Canterbury as well as to his fleet and Medway ports in general. It was written on the sign over the door.

Coaching Inn at Faversham

So, taking the detour to Rochester is certainly not the route to follow if wanting to stay true to how Chaucer’s pilgrims would have got there – nor any other for that matter (which is what I will explore more in the book) – but the key thing is to know what or who you might be looking and hoping to meet or find along the way, as much as what you will discover when you get there. 

From taking the Canterbury road of the present day (largely driven by King Henry VIII), I was getting an insight into politics of the Middle Ages as well as Tudor periods and how they, as much as the Kings and Bishops that came later, shaped England before it became part of the United Kingdom under James I.   

One thing I will say, from a pure municipal perspective, is that I found it interesting how services to support “Medway towns” are quite distinct from that of other parts of Kent. There are also several signposts along the way, the moment you leave Maidstone, that indicate you are in a completely different part of Kent from that associated with port towns tied in with The Medway.  

However this is something I had discovered when I got to Dartford too, and tied in with what I had already suspected as shying away from the Monarch’s Road to Canterbury – down to there being suspiciously two Royal Victoria and Bull coaching inns, with one at Dartford and one at Rochester (and possibly much like the shell game of old, leaving the chooser to try and figure out which one is real).  Yet only one of those is the real McCoy as far as having the feeling of a place where pilgrims might meet, and it became very clear to me which one it was from the late night out in Rochester.

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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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