Here We Go Again by John Rayburn
Our peripatetic tendencies take us this time into Kent County in southeastern England and the places we visit will multiply and include Britain’s home front during WWII, amazing countryside, Winston Churchill’s beloved home and gardens, and the charming city of Canterbury with its famed cathedral.
Our first stop comes at a location dating back to 570 AD. That’s when Pope Gregory the Great sent a missionary into Canterbury. It was Augustine (later canonized as St. Augustine of Canterbury) who got the job and he settled on Canterbury for his Cathedra, or seat of operations. Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in all of England.
Much of what history has learned about the site came from The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer way back yonder at the end of the 14th century. That was when the Hundred Years’ War took place, actually running from 1337 to 1453 because powers-that-be in England and France got their noses out of joint. It began when Edward III had a duchy in France confiscated by King Phillip VI. So, Edward challenged Phillip’s right to the French throne and the squabble outlasted them both.
Actually, the most notorious event at Canterbury came in 1170 When King Henry II got ticked off at his former buddy, Archbishop Thomas Becket, and finally yelled out, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four knights figured they could score some “brownie” points, headed for Canterbury and wound up whacking away at Becket with their swords, splitting his skull.
We moved on across the area called The Weald, which stretches out through such counties as Sussex, Surrey and Kent. Since there was once a vast forest area thereabouts the name is apropos since in Old English it signifies woodland.
That’s among the reasons that attracted Winston Churchill to what became his personal paradise at Chartwell in Kent. When things got tough the property served as a kind of harbor for him. He worked there on both his books and speeches, did much painting (quite good), and even used some of his more-or-less down time laying bricks on various projects, especially the wall around his garden. We took a lovely photo of an arched-brick entry to the garden.
On one of our first visits to Chartwell, it was a treat to see some beautiful black swans, the first of which were given to Churchill as a gift in 1927. We were saddened on a later visit to see only one black swan, with the others having been killed by a severe winter in the 1970s. Happily, they have since been reintroduced.
One room looking out over a large expanse of lawn and the gardens is where Churchill spent much of his time. We were told he liked to do much of his writing standing up and were shown a wooden lectern that was built up against a wall. In reality, it was a copy of one he had built himself and was given to him by his children.
It’s only a little more than an hour’s drive from Westerham (closest town to Chartwell) to Dover, our next destination. That’s where we first visited Dover Castle which has a tremendously eventful history. There had been fortifications there in use by Anglo-Saxons and King Henry II did some rebuilding and expansion and got underway on the stone castle in the 1160s. Military garrisons were there right on up to 1958 and that, folks, means the nine-century span has no other equals in England other than Windsor castle and the Tower of London. It’s said to be the largest castle in the whole country and wandering in and around it quickly provides verification. It’s a whopper!
Our main focus was on the underground tunnels. There was a wide variety of uses for them going back to the turn of the 17th century and 2,000 troops lived there during the Napoleonic Wars with our basic interest being use during World War II.
At one time or another in that period they were air raid shelters, and later a command center for military operations that included a large telephone set-up to reach vessels along the English Channel coast. Even more fascinating was the amazing hospital facility where wounded and dying military personnel were treated. With sound and visual effects it was eerie enough to make you feel you were there during the hostilities. The almost unreal atmosphere offers the audio story of a fight for life by an injured pilot adding to the near reality.
You also get the story of the Dunkirk evacuation in May of 1940, that perilous period when the U.S. still had not entered the war. The evacuation of around 340,000 troops was masterminded from those tunnels. Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay and his fellow men had very little in the way of resources and no technology to speak of, but they got it done. You hear explosions of anti-aircraft guns, RAF Spitfires screeching through the skies and it brings to vivid life the danger, desperation and horrors. The getaway from Dunkirk just has to be listed as the greatest rescue in all history.
It all helped lead to eventual victory, a result that had been predicted in a different sort of way by one of England’s best singers. Speaking of those super-useful chalk cliffs, Vera Lynn sang:
“There’ll be bluebirds over
The white liffs of Dover
Just you wait and see.”
And that came to be, making possible our visit to a place where there have been historically threatened invasions and a place where lovely white cliffs have served as a symbolic guard. The face of the cliff goes up only 350 feet but the chalk and streaks of black flint make it far more spectacular than mere size. It’s an imposing location where Great Britain is the closest to Continental Europe. If you haven’t been there and the chance ever arises to go, don’t wait, do it!