For the next 3 days we wandered around London at our leisure. We brunched at the delightful Ropewalk Markets, which was close to our hotel in Bermandsey. Strangely, although Bermandsey itself was full of quaint bars and restaurants we never drank or ate there. Instead we enjoyed the nearby Ropewalk Market; a small food and antique market very nearby.
Citroen H coffee van
National Portrait Gallery
We wandered across Tower Bridge to the Tower of London, visited Kensington Gardens and Palace, where we had high tea at the Orangerie. It was a little disappointing and nothing compared to the high tea at the Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Colombia. Museums we visited included the Tate Britain, to see the collection of Turner paintings; the Albert and Victoria Museum, and the Tate Modern.
Victoria and Albert Museum
We took the train down to Greenwich and visited the Cutty Sark museum. The Cutty Sark was a tea clipper built in 1869. For a few years she worked the tea run to China before she moved to the wool route to Australia. It was during this time that she set a speed record of 73 days from London to Sydney in 1877. The ship was eventually retired, becoming a naval accommodation ship in 1938 before she was given over for restoration in 1953. During a renovation in 2007 the ship caught fire and was burnt down to the waterline. Fortunately, most of her timbers had been dismantled for restoration and the ship was able to be rebuilt. It is now displayed in a museum that encompasses the dry dock, which allows you to walk right under the ship (there is a café under the ship’s stern). Shelly didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be first of MANY ships we were to visit on this trip.
After four days in London it was time to hit the road. We picked up a hire car at Gatwick Airport. We’d wanted specifically ordered a Mini Cooper because we were interested in test driving that car, but to our great disappointment we were presented not with a sporty little car but with the dumpy Mini Forrester wagon. What a miserable vehicle!
Heading south we drove to Rye a little port town on the south-east coast (well, it’s a little inland on a river). We visited a little castle on the way. Lonely Planet described Rye as one of the most beautiful in England, which I think was something of an overstatement. The town was quiet and pleasant. We walked up Mermaid Street, notable for its mediaeval houses still known by their amusingly quaint names, such as ‘The House with the Bench’, ‘The House with the Red Door’, and ‘The House across the Street.’ England is full of quaint little throwbacks. At the top of the town we climbed to the top of the church tower for a view over the town. For a port town Rye is pretty far from the sea these days. After wandering through the antique stores we decided not to stay and pressed on to the cathedral city of Canterbury.
Cantebury in Kent is the religious heart of England. Originally a Celtic settlement, it became an important city under the Romans until it fell into ruin after the Anglo-Saxon conquest in the 5th century. In 597AD Pope Gregory sent Bishop Augustine to England to convert the Angles to Christianity and he set up his seat in the old Roman city, which was conveniently close to the continent and on the road to London. The city remained an important religious and pilgrimage centre but really kicked off after Archbishop Thomas Beckett was murdered in the cathedral in 1170AD.
Few men have less deserved the title of Saint than Thomas Beckett. He had been a friend of King Henry II, who, seeking to place an ally in the post of Archbishop, promoted him to the post uncanonically. Once ensconced in his seat Beckett let the power go to his head and became Henry’s arch enemy, resulting in years of ecclesiastic chaos and strife. Things got so bad that Beckett was eventually forced into exile in France and the Pope had to intervene and mediate a settlement between the two. The Pope came down on Henry’s side, forcing Beckett to relent, apologise to Henry and return to England. Beckett however was not a man to forget and forgive and quickly returned to his intractable ways. When Henry called out in frustration, “Will no one spare me of this turbulent priest?” four knights chose to take matters into their own hands. On 29 December 1170 they rode to Canterbury, entered the cathedral and confronted the Archbishop. Beckett knew they were coming but he was not a man to back down and his short, defiant argument with the knights was abruptly terminated when one of the knights unsheathed his sword and struck the top of skull clean off. To make sure of the matter his brain was ripped from skull and smashed on the floor.
The murder of an Archbishop in his own cathedral deeply shocking to Henry, the Pope and all Christendom. Public opinion turned against Henry and he was forced to do penance on the site of Thomas’ murder. He also funded a shrine to his arch-enemy and within a few years there were reports of miracles and visions at Canterbury. Thomas was quickly made a saint alongside his predecessor, the cathedral’s founder, Augustine.
Canterbury cathedral remains a popular tourist attraction and place of pilgrimage. The spot in the chapel where Beckett was murdered is marked with a macabre skull carved into the stone floor. Dozens of volunteers are on hand to escort you around the cathedral and point out its sights. We were helped by at least three docents at various points in the cathedral.
Outside the cathedral the old town is pleasant, old, but not over-restored. It feels like a real, lived in town. The old city walls – a rare survival in an English city – are magnificent and almost fully enclose the old town. We stayed the night in a pleasant bed and breakfast we stumbled upon by accident.
The next day was overcast and rain. We had intended to drive to Margate, the little seaside town at the easternmost edge of England where one of our favourite painters, William H Turner, had spent his summers. His old lodging house is now a museum, but there is little appealing about a seaside town in the rain so we decided against it. I used the opportunity to hijack our itinerary and diverted us to Chatham on the Medway. Chatham had been a Royal Naval shipyard and was where the HMS Victory was built. The Royal Dockyard was now a museum with a fine collection of historic ships.
Thanks to the rain we had the place largely to ourselves. My main interest was in the ironclad cruiser, HMS Gannet, built in 1878. So few ships of this era of maritime innovation have survived. Gannet, like so many obsolete ships of the line had been converted into a training and accommodation ship. She was restored in 1987.
We also visited HMS Cavalier , a World War II era destroyer, one of the many museum halls and the fine lifeboat collection – only a fraction of this expansive museum before we set off in the late afternoon.
On three previous visits to London we had said we would visit Kew Gardens and Hampton Court, but we’d never made it. As the rain made for a good travelling day, we decided to drive from Chatham to Kew, west of London. It was an uneventful drive to Kew but we struggled to find any accommodation. We finally found a room at the Premier Inn in Brentwood on the other side of the Thames. We bought some supplies at a local market and settled in for a quiet night.
Kew Palace and gardens had once been a residence of King George the III. When George began to go mad he retired to Kew where he could rest and recover away from the pressures of London. The palace grounds had been planted with exotic trees and plants and in the 19th century the palace and grounds became a dedicated horticultural reserve. There is several large iron and glass greenhouses containing tropical exotics, but the large conservatory was under restoration when we visited. The small palace where George and his family lived is preserved as a museum and was very interesting. The upper (3rd floor) is unrestored.
After a long, leisurely stroll through the gardens and palace we set off for airport. We were off to Ireland and the next leg of our trip.