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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

25 September 2020

Continuing his pilgrimage, Malcolm Guite sets off on the old road to Canterbury

AFTER our encounter with the half-remembered saints of Rochester (Poet’s Corner, 18 September), my friend and I, pilgrims on the Augustine Camino, set off on the old road to Canterbury.

We were accompanied by Hilaire Belloc: not in person, which might have been more than we could manage, but through his classic book The Old Road, which is an account of the Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury, and is full of Belloc’s pungent and partisan sense of the continuities and fissures of history, the persistence and the fracture of memory. Indeed, the book starts with an encomium of the road itself as an ancient thing still living: “Of these primal things the least obvious but the most important is The Road.

“It does not strike the sense as do those others I have mentioned; we are slow to feel its influence. We take it so much for granted that its original meaning escapes us. Men, indeed, whose pleasure it is perpetually to explore even their own country on foot, and to whom its every phase of climate is delightful . . . feel a meaning in it. . . it gives a unity to all that has arisen along its way. . . it is the humblest and the most subtle, but, as I have said, the greatest and the most original of the spells which we inherit from the earliest pioneers of our race.”

Later in the book, Belloc gives an account of the road at the height of the Canterbury pilgrimages, and then, layered over it, an account of the terrible havoc and destruction wrought on the monasteries, the hospitals, and hostels, on that road — and, finally, on the shrine at Canterbury itself — by the commissioners of Henry VIII.

Belloc writes both about survival and destruction, but it seemed to me, as I walked, that a great deal has survived. The Kentish vineyards through which we walked would have warmed the heart of any Roman legionary, and the fruit of its vines would certainly have kept Chaucer’s pilgrims merry and garrulous. The Kentish ale that we quaffed after skirting round the hop fields, and the wine hat we savoured after passing through the vineyards, are also among “those original spells we inherit from the earliest pioneers of our race”.

So, on we walked, and it was a thrilling moment when, descending from a patch of woodland on the brow of a hill, we first saw the cathedral. On this occasion, Belloc’s words certainly spoke for us: “I stood considering the city and the vast building and especially the immensity of the tower. Even from a long way off it had made a pivot for all we saw; here closer by it appalled the senses. Save perhaps once at Beauvais, I had never known such a magic of great height and darkness. It was as though a shaft of influence had risen enormous above the shrine: the last of all the emanations which the sacred city cast outwards just as its sanctity died.”

Those words spoke for us, with one exception: Belloc, alas, in the absence of the shrine, thought that the sanctity had indeed died, and said that he found in the cathedral “only stones”. It was not so with us: we found a warm welcome, an invitation to share prayer and poetry in the sanctuary, and, afterwards, the grace and beauty of evensong, with the choir, singing together again for the first time since Covid.

For all of us, the Covid road will be long and hard, but the long continuities and recoveries of Canterbury gave me hope.

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