Travel writer… It is an enticing image. There you are, lying on a chaise longue on a white-sand beach by an aquamarine ocean, describing how the palm trees rustle in the salt-tinged breeze…
Here I am, sitting on a train on a dull day, passing buddleia-bullied railway tracks, describing how the traffic streams slowly up the humped back of the Dartford Crossing.
It’s mid-morning and the first 30,000 or so cars of the day must already have made their ways over – 160,000 will have crossed by the end of the day, 58 million by new year’s eve and 1.34 billion since it was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991.
From atop the bridge, HRH bids us safe passage into the land that lies beyond the orbit of the M25. For only now, as we drop further south-east, between two rivers, have we left the authority of Greater London – 9 million souls squeezed into 600 square miles; 17% of Englanders in 1% of England.
The QE2 road bridge is a formidable structure, but I admit to expecting a bit more from Kent.
Where are the flaxen-clothed peasants in straw hats, the orchards bursting with apples and cherries, the fields full of hops? Denied of these stereotypes to dress with sundry adjectives, what kind of travel writer am I to be?
The train continues to track its well-scored path towards the coast as I return to my book, The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. It’s just one of a number of recent acquisitions I hope to employ to help me think around how to tease the Knave and his travels into a shape and style of their own.
George Orwell has also been called upon – why not learn from one of the very best essayists, after all? – as has Bill Bryson, of whose particular brand of informative and well-wrought travel-farce the Knave is a dedicated fan.
It’s not long until we bridge the Medway and ease into Rochester. I catch a glimpse of a tower to my right before it disappears behind the backs of high street shops. To my left, on the northeastern tip of the triangular peninsula upon which the town is built, a patch of dusty scrubland emerges, pointing towards the Medway City Industrial Estate across the river.
Keen now for something a little easier on the eye I alight into the sunshine and head off to find the church beneath that tower. Within a minute I am upon a sign to the cathedral, directly opposite a bargain boozer.
The building towards which I’m headed has had its roots in this town for 1400 years, since Bishop Justus first founded the diocese of Rochester in 604.
These were the very early days of Christianity in England when wars were commonplace and churches were afforded little veneration by unconverted Anglo-Saxon warriors. It’s justus well, then, that the original church was a modest one for, in 676, under Bishop Putta, it was severely damaged by King Aethelred of Mercia and his marauding army. The gravity of the damage putta strain too great to bear on the aging bishop – heartbroken, he resigned his post. In the few centuries following this trauma, the church endured more testing times until, in the year 1077, Gundulf was appointed the first Norman Bishop of Rochester. As if by magic, a cathedral appeared where once stood a church. The tower I spied from the train window earlier stands above me now, bearing his name – testament to his wizardry.
Entering the cathedral through a typically assuring Norman doorway, I barely have a chance to take in the space before I’m greeted by Margaret, a weekend volunteer. She hands me an information leaflet, also volunteering the information that her second grandson has just got in to grammar school on appeal.
“He’s terribly clever, just not particularly good in exams! His coursework! You should have seen his coursework!”
We get back on topic and, having cottoned on to the fact that I actually know a fair bit about Rochester already (my apologies, Reader, for not betraying much of this to you!), Margaret pulls out her party tricks… In a whirlwind first 10 minutes, she marches me the length of the church, hauls back a 15ft square rug and reveals a large scale Victorian zodiac mosaic; points out the deliberate tiling anomalies on the floor of the choir, “symbolizing man’s imperfection in the eyes of God”; introduces me to the first “iMat” I have ever seen, acquaints me with the tomb of a martyred baker and arranges for the Verger to show me one of oldest extant wooden doors in the country, its timbers pre-dating even Gundulf’s stones.
I’m grateful for Margaret’s attentions but I’m keen to take some time to myself, too, and the crackle of speakers signaling midday prayer provides me with this opportunity.
Taking a seat in the nave, I hear the familiar opening to that most famous of divine imprecations.
My knees do not bend, my lips do not move, but I am struck entirely by the affinity that this voice has with those oft-rehearsed words. Although known to many as a lumbering routine, she reads The Lord’s Prayer as if it were a holy poem. There is a rhythm to her reading and a tenderness that I admire; the tone is soft, the cadence smooth – these words mean something to her, she connects with them, but there is no improper zeal, it seems; no desire to impress this connection upon others.
Midday prayer over, I take the time to simply soak up the atmosphere here. Considering that this is the second oldest diocese in the country and that the church was actually built on a cathedralesque scale from the outset, this is a humble, rather small space. The only remaining Norman influence is the nave where I sit, of course… The rest is mostly Early English with the notable exception of the quite sensationally carved door to the Chapter Room, which is Decorated Gothic.
There’s something about Rochester, though, that perhaps stems from its being neither a grand, extended erection like St Alban’s nor a promoted parish church with an inferiority complex.
Its proportions please and the atmosphere here is one of calm, steady assurance. A quality I admire, want. I soak up as much of it as I can before espying the Chaplain. “I very much enjoyed listening to your midday prayers. You have a beautiful voice.” She’s touched and slightly taken aback, so I tell her a little about the Knave and she smiles and welcomes me warmly to the cathedral. “You must also have a look at the garden, it’s perfect for meditating”, she pauses, before adding, politely “…or just relaxing”.
Walking out into the small square garden, I head for a bench beneath an arbor of honeysuckle hanging from a high wall at the far corner.
I take a seat and my eyes are drawn to my right along a line of peach-coloured roses running the length of the old cloister wall and connecting with the south transept; then up to Gundulf’s magic tower (only now do I cotton on to the triangular, wizard-like ‘hat’ atop it!) and back down to a magnolia grandiflora. The grand feature, the tree is both formidable and discreet. Like so much else about this special place, it works in harmony with the garden’s other elements.
Beneath the magnolia’s branches, a statue of a mother and her son. She sits, serene; the toddler perches, atop her right thigh, naturally. He is still yet poised to move: his left hand is placed, delicately, below her left knee, upward pointing; the fingers of hers are softly splayed across his arm and shoulder. The longer I look the closer they appear: their right arms are also connected; her cheek, his ear; her right leg, his foot, forward-facing.
Theirs is a sempiternal affinity, physical at first, then forever existing in the middle distance that their gazes occupy; the middle distance that they have so easily drawn me into.
My thoughts turn to my own mother. I’m suddenly certain hers are with me.