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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

18 September 2020

At the start of a pilgrimage, Malcolm Guite experiences revelations in Rochester

I HAVE been enjoying a series of revelations in Rochester. I was there to begin a pilgrimage on the Augustine Camino, walking from Rochester to Ramsgate via Canterbury, and had come down by train from London Bridge after a lunch in the George in Southwark with an old friend and fellow pilgrim.

We had savoured the George’s many Chaucerian, Shakespearean, and Dickensian associations, and so I was prepared for the Dickensian flavours of Rochester. Indeed, there was scarcely a tea room or souvenir shop on its bijou high street that didn’t trade on Dickens in one way or another: Pip’s of Rochester, the Dickens Café, and Mrs Bumbles and Tiny Tim’s Tea Room, all competing with one another for custom.

But, behind the Dickensian façade, it was a far more ancient Rochester that proved such a revelation. The cathedral was officially closed by the time we arrived, but we were nevertheless met by the kind Canon Precentor, who knew that we were coming and who opened the north door and ushered us in to give us pilgrims a blessing for the start of our journey.

He also gave us a little tour. I had no idea how beautiful and ancient this place was, eclipsed as it has been by the primacy of its mother house. But it was founded in 604, England’s second oldest cathedral, and, since Canterbury was built up from the already existing base of Ethelbert’s Palace, Rochester could claim to be the first newly built cathedral in England.

But the revelations did not stop with beauty and antiquity: as we walked in the sanctuary, we marked the places where the medieval shrines had been — shrines to saints whom we have forgotten, such as William of Perth, a Scottish baker who was especially popular with pilgrims, as he had been a pilgrim himself (though also, perhaps, because he was a baker: pilgrims have good appetites).

Another shrine had been to St Ithamar, the first bishop in England to be a native Anglo-Saxon, and not one of the visiting Italian or Frankish missionaries from Rome. This is hugely significant, and gave me one of those sudden jolts of fresh perspective which history so often administers.

The English were, of course, natives in a former colony, being evangelised by foreign missionaries from the ex-colonial power; but, with Ithamar, the missionaries had finally recognised that the Church belonged to the converts and not the converters, and that they needed to consecrate “native” bishops who could then go on to baptise and ordain their own people. I thought of how much longer it took the Anglican missionaries of the 19th century to come to the same conclusion.

And so we stepped out from the doors of Rochester Cathedral, and our proper pilgrimage began.

In one sense, we had been travelling backwards through time, back towards our sources, even in the journey from Southwark: from Dickens back to Shakespeare, from Shakespeare back to Chaucer, and, with the stories of Augustine’s mission, from Chaucer back to Bede, and through Bede’s narrative to Augustine himself.

And now our walking pilgrimage was also a journey back to the source, starting at Rochester, the second cathedral, and walking to Canterbury, the first to be founded, but then on from Canterbury to Ramsgate, near to the place where Augustine landed.

It is a journey from the west to the east, and its narrative, like the whole Christian journey, is not of sunset and decline, but of sunrise and renewal.

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