March 25th, 2005


Back in the day- when going on pilgrimage was the most fun you could have with your tabard on- Canterbury cathedral was England’s grandest theme park and money making machine. Then Henry VIII destroyed the shrine of Thomas Becket- which was the heart of the enterprise- and it was as like kicking the Mouse out of Disneyland. Before the Reformation Canterbury was one of the capital cities of the Christian imagination and afterwards it was just a provincial town with a big jagged building at its centre for storing battle-flags and burying soldiers in.

There’s a ghostliness about the cathedral, an emptiness. A guide who looked like a gentler, kinder Peter O’Toole latched onto me and told me a couple of the miracles of Thomas Becket. How a blinded thief got his sight back and changed his life, how a woman came all the way from Cologne to be cured of insanity. These stories, once compelling, have become quaint. According to the leaflet we were handed at the door it costs £9000 a day to maintain the building. Only our will sustains it. If we stopped finding it interesting, if the visitors stopped coming, it would crumble- settle like a cloud of suspended dust- and after a couple of hundred years there’d be nothing left but a clutch of broken pillars.