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Some places are so dense with history that stories emerge from every stone. Canterbury in Kent, England, is rich with literary and religious history and you can walk in the footsteps of pilgrims who have visited the city for almost a thousand years.
Anna Sayburn Lane is an award-winning short story writer, novelist, and journalist inspired by the history and contemporary life of London. Her latest book is The Crimson Thread, a mystery set in Canterbury, England.
- Literary history of Canterbury
- How Canterbury Cathedral has the history of England written in its stone
- Unusual and beautiful aspects of the cathedral
- Other interesting places in Kent, particularly for book research
- William Blake and his uncompromising artistic passions
- Creating an amateur sleuth who is a walking tour guide and an academic
- Recommended travel books
You can find Anna Sayburn Lane at AnnaSayburnLane.com
My book, Pilgrimage, Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways, which features Canterbury Cathedral, is out now.
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Anna Sayburn Lane is an award-winning short story writer, novelist, and journalist inspired by the history and contemporary life of London. Her latest book is The Crimson Thread, a mystery set in Canterbury, England, which we’re talking about today. Welcome, Anna.
Anna: Thank you very much.
Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show. We met in person at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge last year just after I finished my pilgrimage to Canterbury. And we were both wearing masks because of the pandemic and we briefly said hi.
What drew you to Canterbury, in particular, for researching this book?
Anna: I’ve written about Canterbury to some extent before in my first novel, which I wrote after I’d first walked also from London to Canterbury. So my own pilgrimage ended at Canterbury Cathedral and I felt a bit of unfinished business with Canterbury. It’s such an amazingly rich place as far as literature and history goes. And those are my two big passions.
Also, I moved to Deal in which is about 20 miles south of Canterbury on the seaside a couple of years ago. So I’ve started to spend a lot more time in Canterbury, getting to know it better. And I really like the idea of setting a book entirely in Canterbury and letting my literary sleuth unpack some of the mysteries around Canterbury Cathedral.
Joanna: You mentioned the rich history and literature. Tell us a few of those things that have inspired you.
Anna: Canterbury goes back to Roman times. I think that was when it was first settled as a big place. But then it became very important because of the foundation of Christianity back in Saxon times.
St. Augustine was sent to convert the Southern British or the Southern English to Christianity and founded his cathedral in Canterbury. So it’s been hugely important all down the years.
Of course, The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s amazing epic poem was what was first in my mind when I set off from London to Canterbury. It’s one of those things you study at any level, I’d always liked it. I know a lot of people hated having to learn it, but I rather enjoyed it.
And so that was in my mind when I said, ‘Look, it’d be fun to just do this.’ We were living in London at the time for work. ‘Let’s walk from Southern Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral, and see how it goes.’ On that walk, we kept picking up on other literary themes.
Obviously, there’s Chaucer but there are also people like Christopher Marlowe, who was the Elizabethan playwright who was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s. And what I did know about him was that he died very young, age 29, was stabbed to death in Deptford, just up the road from where I used to live.
There were lots of questions about what had led to his death. What I didn’t know until we arrived in Canterbury was that he was a country boy, he’d been born there. He grew up, he went to the King’s School, which is still going. The King’s School is the Cathedral school. He got a scholarship from there to Cambridge and then became a playwright, a poet, and also probably a spy, which may well have been what led to his untimely death in Deptford.
But it was thinking all of those what-ifs about him that made me start wondering what was it that Christopher Marlowe learned when he was growing up in Canterbury at a time of big religious turmoil? We’d just had the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, and all that. What was it that he might have had learned from one of the monks when he was at the King’s School that perhaps took him into trouble in later life or got him into trouble in later life? So that was the spark of the first book.
There are other literary associations, like Charles Dickens, again, a London and also Kent writer, who had a house at Gads Hill just outside of Rochester, which is also on the route between London and Canterbury. And a lot of Dickens’ work was inspired by Canterbury as well. So I found that really interesting.
Right up to more up-to-date, I suppose T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, which was a fairly obvious inspiration for The Crimson Threads, my latest book.
Joanna: I think there’s a statue to Marlowe, isn’t there, outside the modern theatre.
Anna: That’s right. Yes. Shows how long ago it was that we did this walk, the modern theater wasn’t there when we first went there, but the statue was. And where we were staying, I think it was called the Pilgrims Lodge, right outside there.
I couldn’t quite believe that we arrived in Canterbury and there was Marlowe right outside the door by the theater. That was quite something. And you used to be able to see the house that Marlowe apparently grew up in, but it was bombed during the Second World War. So that’s no longer there, although you can see the church that he was baptized in, it still exists if you go further up the high street.
Joanna: And of course, you did say, though, on your pilgrimage, and we’re not going to get into detail of your pilgrimage, but I find it interesting.
You said there was some unfinished business with Canterbury; what do you mean by that?
Anna: I suppose in the book, the conclusion of the first book, Unlawful Things, there was a lot going on with Canterbury, but for example, I never actually went into the cathedral. And although I’d done quite a careful tour of the cathedral, I’d never actually used any of the things that I’d noticed in the cathedral itself.
I thought it seemed a shame that such an amazing location, that it hadn’t been necessary to take the action into the cathedral in the first book. So I really like the idea of coming back and having another go at Canterbury, and particularly the cathedral itself, which is just such an amazing place.
Joanna: I’m glad you said that because I feel the same way. It was like, okay, I had only really intended to do the walk. And as we said, we met in pandemic times, and it seemed appropriate. But then once you go in there, you just think, ‘Oh, this is right for some murders and mysteries and things.’ So let’s talk about the cathedral in a bit more detail.
What are some of your favorite bits of the cathedral? What stands out in your mind?
Anna: I suppose there are a few things. One of the things that I really love about it is you can really see the history of England, of Britain, almost written in the stones, the architectural styles built literally one on the other.
If you go down to the crypts, you can see Romanesque arches from when it was built in Saxon times, and they would have been made by an ax, for example. So they were carved by ax, the decoration on these arches.
And then there’s literally right next door to, or right next to, one of these Romanesque arches you’ve got a pointy Gothic arch, which would have been carved by a Norman chisel. And it shows the exact point at which you go from one architectural style and one era of history almost into another. I just love seeing little things like that.
Down in the crypt is enormously spooky as I’m sure you remember. When we first arrived in Canterbury, from the early morning service, Matins is held in the crypt. And of course, it’s before it’s open to visitors. So you walk down through the empty nave down the stairs and through the crypts, which is quite dark and spooky to the little chapel where they hold that and that had really stayed with me.
That was something I wanted to recreate was this spooky feeling of walking through this deserted cathedral where you can hear your footsteps echo, and it’s all the darkness of the crypt.
And then, of course, there are some just amazing places like the actual martyrdom site of St. Thomas. I find it quite extraordinary that with a lot of martyred saints, it’s more about the myth than the actual history.
Whereas with Thomas Becket, you not only know what happened because it is in the historical record that he was murdered by these four knights who cut him down with their swords in his own cathedral, you can actually stand on the spot where it happened.
Within a very sacred place, somewhere that’s meant to be completely holy, to know that this really quite brutal murder happened there, it certainly gives me a bit of a chill every time I walk through the Martyrdom transept.
Joanna: And it’s so interesting though because it’s marked with a cross of what looked like swords, I presume they’re not actual swords, but they look like swords. And this is not a Catholic Cathedral anymore, this is an Anglican Cathedral marking the violent death of a Catholic.
I found myself kneeling there looking at it going, ‘Okay, this feels strange and weird,’ that there’s still the honoring of this saint in this place. And then, of course, over the road is the Catholic Church with some of the actual relics of Becket, and it’s this tiny, dark, really small next to this massive cathedral. What are your thoughts on that?
Anna: That’s fascinating, isn’t it? What’s interesting to me as well is what happens to Becket’s shrine because, of course, whilst it was a Catholic Cathedral up until Henry VIII’s day and what the pilgrims came to see was this absolutely magnificent golden tomb, studded with jewels, which the saint’s body was held in, and it was a major tourist place for people to come to see this enormously ornate shrine.
And then when you had the break with Rome, Henry VIII, almost like an early Brexit, wasn’t it? It was about who governs England, much as the quarrel between Henry II and Becket had been back in the Middle Ages. Who’s in charge here, is it the pope or is it the king?
Henry VIII decided that Becket was no longer a saint in the Anglican Church. And in fact, he said he should be treated as a traitor. So he sent in the commissioners, the shrine was broken up, all the gold caskets and everything, all the jewels were loaded into carts and sent back to the Treasury in London. Apparently, there was a beautiful emerald that was part of the decoration of the shrine that Henry had made into a ring, and he wore it on his thumb for the rest of his life.
The really weird thing is that no one actually knows what happened to Becket’s body, which I find just extraordinary. There are lots of different stories, one of the stories is that it was shot out of a cannon so that the bones were scattered and no one could put them back together again. Other stories, perhaps more likely, that it was burnt or that it was buried quietly somewhere in the graveyard outside the church. But there genuinely doesn’t seem to be any idea what actually happened to it, which is a thread that I started to pull on in my first book, and I’m still tugging on that a bit.
But as you say, the little Catholic Church across the road has got a fragment of Becket’s finger. And they got that in 1951. And the reason that there are still Becket’s relics around, despite the fact that his body was destroyed, was that the church used them as little gifts to each other. So they would send a finger bone of Thomas Becket, it might have been sent from the cathedral at Canterbury to one of the cathedrals in Spain or France or somewhere as a bit of a gift, diplomatic kind of offering. And so one of them, I think this one was in Italy, it was sent back as a present to the church in Canterbury.
Joanna: I’m obviously also pulling on the thread of what happened to the bones and the jewels and everything. And there’s a candle, isn’t there, that sits in the area where the shrine would have been originally, which again, is also interesting.
There are the cross swords of the martyrdom site, but then also this candle where the shrine was. So as you walk around the cathedral, there are these different points where you can consider Becket…even when I was over there, oh, you were there too at the same time, there’s this statue by Antony Gormley, which was a figure made of nails from the renovation of the cathedral, which I thought was fascinating. It’s not Christ-like but the body is not here and this is a representative of his body.
Anna: I love that statue, and I love the way it’s hanging as well, suspended from the ceiling in the crypt, isn’t it?
When Becket was first murdered, the monks put his coffin in the crypt and he had a smallish shrine downstairs in the crypt, and that was where that was. So the sculpture is hanging above where Becket’s body originally rested. And it was there for, I don’t know, 100 years or more whilst they built the big chapel upstairs and got it ready for him. So another point at which you think about, about Thomas Becket’s down in the crypt.
Joanna: And then another place that I really like and I might be a bit weird, but I think you’re a bit weird too, which is the cadaver monument of I think it’s Henry Chichele or Chichele.
Anna: It’s Chichele. Yes.
Joanna: Chichele. Yes, he was the archbishop. He died in 1443, I was just checking. And for people listening, the cadaver tomb is basically a dead body that looks like a dead body and this one has the archbishop in full robes on a top-level. It’s like a bunk bed.
And then on the bottom, there’s this cadaver and he’s naked but with a shroud robe over him, but he’s clearly dead, his skin color is gray, and you can see his bones and he’s not a skeleton, he is a cadaver, actual dead body. And he had this built while he was alive and looked at it. There were so few of these, I feel like it’s quite special.
Anna: I absolutely love it. I think it’s amazing. And the double-deckerness of it adds to the weirdness, doesn’t it? Yes, I can’t help thinking about what sort of person would want to go…because this whilst he was still archbishop, wasn’t it, that he had this made.
So for 20 years, he’d go into his daily job, like you and I going into our office or whatever, and see a representation of himself as a corpse. I don’t mind contemplating mortality, but I’m not sure that I fancy that every morning.
Joanna: It’s kind of crazy. But that’s also really what I like about cathedrals, I always come away feeling insignificant in a good way. And when we were, when you were there a second time, obviously, it was being renovated, and a lot of it is covered in cloth. And in a way, I felt disappointed because you couldn’t see, say, the glory of the nave, for example. But equally, you feel like well, they’re fixing this for the next 200, 300 years. The stonemasons, these are men and women who have this connection with the people who built this 1,000 years ago, which is kind of cool.
Anna: That would be such an amazing job. You’d need a head for heights, I think. But yes, that’d be fantastic. I really love as well in the cathedral that you can see the wear of the years.
There are the steps, the pilgrim’s steps, that go up to where the shrine would have been, where the candle is now, and they’re gently, shallowly worn into a curve where the people’s footsteps would have gone. And rather than fixing them, they’ve put a sign up just saying, ‘Be careful, don’t trip,’ because they are worn steps from thousands and thousands of pilgrims. I really like that, the sense of the depth of history it gives you.
Joanna: What about the spiritual aspects and the religious aspects? Do you have a personal sense of God in that space? Just to be clear, I’m not Christian, but I felt as I sat there, during the sung Evensong after my pilgrimage, I felt a very spiritual moment where the voices soared up into that nave. I sat there thinking this is one of the most spiritual moments on my pilgrimage. It was a very special time. I was pretty emotional about it, actually, afterwards.
What are your feelings in what is a very religious but also quite a spiritual place?
Anna: Personally, I was brought up Church of England, stopped having any faith really in early adulthood. I’m very interested in religion, but I don’t have a religious faith. I absolutely respect other people’s, of course. And I find it really interesting to be in religious places, and try to understand a little of how it affects people and, of course, it can’t but affect you when you’re somewhere that is just so beautiful.
I think it’s partly the aesthetics, it’s partly that you’re in this beautiful, beautiful building that was built so many hundreds of years ago by these incredible craftspeople and it is still being cared for and it is still being used for what it was intended to be used for.
It’s not a museum, it’s not a tourist attraction, although it is a bit, but it is a living church and people come and worship there. I think that can’t help but have quite a strong impression on you. And certainly, the singing is just glorious.
In The Crimson Thread, I’ve brought in the choir because I love the idea of having a choir boy as one of my characters. But also, I wanted to think a little bit about what it would be like to actually sing there. I don’t sing, I’m not a singer at all, I don’t have a good voice. But to be able to sing in a space like that must just be a really special, very spiritual experience.
Joanna: Now that you’ve said that, I want to join some choir and just be a choir voice at the back because it was truly amazing. And I think because I was there, I was there for Evensong on a weeknight during the pandemic, and so for about 20 minutes, and I was there beforehand, I got there early, and I was there about 20 minutes during practice.
So it was 9 or 10 men in their robes, all separated up on the steps because they were social distancing while they were singing, obviously. And then there was always just me in the nave while they were practicing. I actually found the practice session was almost more spiritual than the service itself with the more getting up and down and doing the things.
It was a very special moment as you say.
Before we move on to other places, I did want to mention also the Christ Church Gate, which I think is pretty special as well.
Anna: Yes. It’s lovely, isn’t it? Outside where you come in from the butter markets, and there’s big old wooden gates. And the lovely thing, actually, at the time that I met you, we hadn’t actually walked at that time. But we were staying in the Cathedral Lodge, and we’re driven, and we were arriving late at night, which means that you can actually drive through that gate, which is really incredible.
So you rock up in the middle of Canterbury in your car and knock on the gate and the constable opens this big wooden gate and you can just drive in, which really feels very special. It’s an incredible, really old…I don’t know how old the gate is, but it’s so imposing.
When we first walked there, of course, that was where we arrived, and you go into the little side door, I think, which most people would walk in and out of.
Joanna: You mentioned there the constable, and I didn’t know before that trip that they have their own constabulary within the cathedral grounds. They’re called Special Cathedral Constables. So they are police men and women, who were there and they’re there full-time. And when I found that out, I was like, well, that throws a bit of a spanner in the works because if there is a murder or there is something that happens, they’re going to be there pretty quick. How did you deal with that?
Anna: I think I might have cheated slightly in that…well, not cheated. I made sure somebody who shouldn’t have had the keys so they could get in and out without being let in by the constables. And also that the body itself was discovered first thing in the morning in the cathedral. So before anyone else had been in so the constables hadn’t had a chance to find him.
Joanna: Fantastic. But that is definitely something. Does York have one, or is it special to Canterbury?
Anna: I’ve no idea. I don’t know that other places that had it. I only knew about it because I was quizzing one of my friends in Deal who has actually volunteered at the cathedral. So she knew all about the constables and let me in on that.
Joanna: Any other places in Canterbury or Kent that you also find interesting in terms of your book research?
Anna: There are loads. Most of them are connected to religious places in one way or another. But one that I really like is the East Ridge Hospital, which is just inside West Gate, bizarrely.
If you walk along from West Gate into the city, you go past the East Ridge Hospital, which is over the east bit of the river. And it’s a very old pilgrim hospital, which was set up, I think it was something like 20 years after the death of Thomas Becket. So it was a really, really early hospital and it was set up to house some of the poor pilgrims who couldn’t afford to stay in the inns or expensive places.
It’s still got a chapel and a great hall where presumably people would have eaten. But if you go downstairs into the undercroft, you can see right next to the river, so it’s got windows onto the river on one side, and then a fairly dank room with a hard floor where the pilgrims would have slept.
Going in there was really quite a special place that you almost felt the tiredness of all of those pilgrims who had walked or ridden for days to Canterbury. And this was where they finally got to stretch out and probably have a good gossip about all of the things that’s happened to them on the way, so East Ridge is really lovely.
The Greyfriars Chapel is what remains of the Franciscan Monastery, which was within Canterbury. It’s a walled city so within the city walls. And the chapel is actually on a tiny little island. The River Stour goes through Canterbury, but it’s very windy and it has these little tributaries that go off and then meet up again.
Greyfriars Chapel is a little pointy building actually set across one of those tributaries. So it’s on an island. And it’s actually quite hard to get to. I’ve discovered, since it just depends on whether a certain gate is open or not, off one of the streets of Stour Street, whether you can find it or not. I’ve spent a lot of time walking up and down thinking, ‘It’s got to be here somewhere,’ but there is actually only one way in.
Just outside of Canterbury, so about a mile or two, Harbledown Village, which has a couple of very old churches, and St. Nicholas Church and Almshouses is particularly ancient and really rather lovely. Again, they go back to Saxon times. St. Nicholas Church has connections with Becket, apparently he did visit there and lost a shoe there, they had an old shoe that they claimed was Becket’s shoe.
Joanna: A holy shoe.
Anna: Why he would have left a shoe there I cannot imagine. Except that there is a well around the back of it, which is still there, you can see a little stone basin which is filled naturally by a spring, supposedly a healing well, so he possibly had taken his shoes off to wash his feet or something.
But it also has almshouses, which are very old. And that used to be a leper colony. So back when we still had leprosy in Britain, and I think it was because of the healing well that they established the colony there to house the lepers and hopefully, I suppose that the idea was that there will be cured by this holy water.
That’s one that it’s still used, obviously no leprosy now, but it’s still used as almshouses now. And so again, it’s still got that nice connection of it’s pretty much being used in the spirit of which it was set up.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. The more you talk, I think we’re so similar in our love of history inspiring our stories, which is really cool.
I did want to ask you because another of your novels, The Peacock Room, features the work of William Blake, who I’ve also included in many of my books.
What fascinates you particularly about Blake, and what are the things that you’re particularly attracted to in terms of his work?
Anna: He’s a really, truly independent author and artist. He would absolutely be independently published and doing brilliantly today. I think it’s a little sad that he wasn’t able to do so back in the 18th century. I love his complete independence of thought.
He once said something along the lines of, ‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s.‘ I really like that, but he was so determined, for example, to present his work in the way he thought it should be presented.
He invented an entirely new printing process in order to engrave his poems have them decorated in the way he wanted, created as a unified piece of art, the words and the pictures together, and then hand color it and everything and produce his own books.
I really love that about him that he was completely uncompromising in the way that he produced his art. Not commercially successful, sadly, although he also supported himself by engraving and other more commercially viable work. I quite like that about him as well because so many of us, myself included, I work as a journalist, they need to pay the bills.
I do writing and I’m hoping to make the author career more and more important. But I like that independence of spirit where he can only do his art his way.
In terms of the actual poems, obviously, ‘Songs Of Innocence and Experience’ are the ones that I love the most because they’re far more accessible than some of his more lengthy poems. But a couple that I really love, ‘A Poison Tree’ is the one that actually inspired ‘The Peacock Room,’ talking about how if you hide hatred, it becomes poisonous and it can grow and become sinister.
The poem finishes with the line, ‘In the morning, glad I see my foe outstretched beneath the tree,’ which always gives me shivers down my spine every time I hear it. So I really love that one.
And then some really tender poems as well like ‘Infant Joy’ from ‘Songs Of Experience,’ which is this very simple little dialogue between a mother and her newborn child. I’m really curious about that. I’m interested to know how it is that someone like William Blake, who was, at the time, a young man in his 20s with no children, how he could think himself into that position to be able to write that sort of dialogue, I just find really fascinating.
Joanna: And what I find interesting there is you’ve picked up on the poetry. I’ve really written about his paintings and his drawings and some of the sculpture, I guess, that’s been made from that. I’ve seen his books, and I’ve read some of his writing, but I find his religious images, religious and mythological, I guess, which many of which come from the Bible but they’re also interpreted in many ways. His End of Days would be one of the most well-recognized images. When I went to the Tate Britain exhibition…did you go to that one?
Anna: Oh, several times, yes.
Joanna: That was just amazing. You’re walking around just going, ‘How does one person have so much richness in their head to produce all of this?’
I think that’s partly why I’m so fascinated with religion and the Bible and Christian history and myth and all the things that go around it because it’s such a rich vein to tap for our writing.
Anna: Yes, completely. And obviously, it’s something that Blake…I love the way that he reinterprets everything. I think that was quite key to his philosophy as well. But what he thought was divine was imagination. What an amazing role model that is, that he will take what other people see or hear, and he will completely transform it through the power of his own vision.
Joanna: Coming to your literary sleuth, Helen Oddfellow, obviously, some part of you is in Helen. And we both love old manuscripts as well. I love this idea, obviously, I do it too, weaving history into the novel. How do you pick it up from history and put it in modern-day? And how are you portrayed in Helen?
Anna: Helen was actually inspired by a friend of mine, who is a London tour guide, walking tour guide, Fiona. And the fantastic thing about going anywhere with Fiona is if you walk along the street, and she’ll say, ‘Oh, look, Mercer’s Guild,’ and you say, ‘Sorry?’
And you look, can you see a statue of a little lady above a shop lintel, you say, ‘Okay, what’s that?’ ‘Oh, that’s because that was a symbol of the Mercer’s Guild, and the Mercer’s Guild was the guild that produced fancy goods and sold fancy goods in London.’ So she’ll just know something about everything that you pass.
And at the time, when I was starting to write the novel, I thought, something like that, to be a London tour guide would be a really great profession for an amateur sleuth because she would already know all of this stuff, she wouldn’t need to go and find it out all the time, she’d already know it.
She’s already looking at things with a historical eye. So she notices stuff, and she notices stuff about history. I think that’s probably how I get the history in is because Helen sees it, that’s her, she looks for it.
I also made her an academic on the side because then she gets to go and dig around in archives. Like you, that’s a really fun bit of the job, I really enjoy going and digging around. I’m amazed actually how many people, if you tell them you’re writing a book, will let you just come and rifle through their archives with a desultory check on your identity. It’s fantastic.
Joanna: I lived for 11 years in Australia and New Zealand, and we came back eventually because I missed this depth of history. That we can walk down pretty much any street in the United Kingdom even, and there will be this historical resonance.
I lived in London as well, now I live in Bath, and it’s just everywhere in the architecture and in the names of the streets.
I feel like that resonance, that constant feeling that we’re part of history. It’s so inspiring.
Anna: I completely agree and I totally understand coming back for the history. That would be something that I would do I think. We’ve actually just had a weekend in London. First time I’ve been to London for absolutely ages, and we stayed in the city.
We went for this walk and was trying to remember a walkthrough I’d done years ago with a tour guide about Dickens because I’m thinking a lot about Dickens for the next book. And we walked up past the Royal Exchange down this little alleyway around the corner, and there was this tavern that Dickens apparently frequented.
And because it was pandemic and everything shut, and it was Sunday night and it was getting dark, it felt really quite spooky. I actually felt not only am I in a Dickensian alleyway by a Dickensian pub, I feel like I’m about to be thumped over the head by Dickensian urchin who’s going to run away with my money or something. As you say, it really feels like it’s absolutely everywhere. It’s certainly in London and absolutely in Canterbury as well.
Joanna: We could talk forever.
Can recommend a few books that feature Canterbury or Kent or just travel books that you love in particular?
Anna: The first is John Higgs’ book Watling Street, which covers quite a lot of ground but it starts at St. Margaret’s Bay where Watling Street, the Roman streets started. St. Margaret’s Bay is about 10 miles from here.
It’s a seaside village where Ian Fleming bought a house, which was a very beautiful beachfront Art Deco style house. He bought it from Noel Coward. So we’ve got a good couple of literary allusions to start with. And then the road continues up across the marshes with the Romans into London, out to the other side of London, goes through the Midlands as quite a long section in Milton Keynes and it finally winds up in Anglesey.
The road is quite straight, the book is anything but, he makes beautiful diversions all over the place, talks to lots of people who live along the route, diverts into all the history from ancient history with the Druids right up to 1960s countercultural history. It’s the most amazing book and hugely enjoyable. So I completely recommend that one.
Joanna: That’s straight on my list.
Anna: I’m sure you’ll love it.
Novels: I’m a great admirer of William Shaw’s crime novels, sets in Kent and surroundings, Kent’s just across the border. And his first one, particularly The Birdwatcher, which is set in Dungeness and I love Dungeness, again, it’s such an eerie place and in non-pandemic times used to go there quite a lot to hang out on the beach there.
And then my final recommendation, really, it’s nothing to do with Kent. But this year being the year where we’ve not been able to travel anywhere, and I was desperate to travel, particularly back in February, when everything was extremely bleak, I really, really was longing for an escape, a romantic Valentine’s Day escape. So I bought Jan Morris’s Venice, which I’ve not been to Venice.
This book is so evocative and so beautiful that I’m now quite nervous about going to Venice in case it doesn’t live up to the book, which sounds insane. It’s such a lovely book.
Joanna: It’s funny you say that. I have that book. And one of the earlier podcasts for Books and Travel is about Venice. And I’ve been three times and I actually talk about the problem when places don’t live up to your expectations.
The issue was that the first time I was in Venice, it didn’t. But then if you go back, and you go back and you go back, it’s a bit like London, or anywhere that’s so rich and has such depth and such a myth almost about it. And the myth of Venice is just huge. It’s almost like the first time you go, you can only really scratch the surface of the main things that you’re going to see.
You have to go back again and again in order to go, ‘I don’t have to go in there anymore because I went there last time. And now I can move to a second level of understanding this place, and then the third level.’ I know that’s a bit tough. But I feel like it’s important to take it down a level.
Anna: Yes, that’s very true. Two years ago, we went to Paris and I loved this trip because we didn’t have to do any of the tourist things because we’ve been there lots of times. So we can just go and hang out in the places that we liked and go to the exhibitions that weren’t in the Louvre or l’Orangerie or whatever.
Joanna: Where can people find you and your books online?
Anna: Right. My website is annasayburnlane.com. I’ve got a Facebook page, Anna Sayburn Lane. On Insta, @annasayburnlane, and just for a change on Twitter, I’m @BloomsburyBlue, because I used to live in Bloomsbury.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Anna, that was great.
Anna: You’re welcome. Thanks so much for having me.
More episodes and articles about Canterbury
- Walking the Pilgrim’s Way. Six Days From Southwark Cathedral, London To Canterbury
- Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England
- This Too Shall Pass. Thoughts From The Pilgrim’s Way
- Questions to Consider on a Pilgrimage
Ex morte vita. From death comes life.
When a relic of St Thomas Becket is stolen from Canterbury Cathedral, England, ARKANE agents Morgan Sierra and Jake Timber are called in to find it. As the trail of missing relics leads them across sacred sites in Europe, Morgan and Jake discover something far more sinister lies beneath…
Check out Tomb of Relics, An ARKANE thriller.
Love your podcast and am an inveterate pilgrim myself. I’ve walked Caminos in Spain and Chemins in France and now want to follow in your footsteps to Canterbury.
I was horrified to hear you moved from Australia back to England for the history. On my own property I have scar trees, grinding stones and axes that belonged to the Wiradjuri people who walked this land over 20,000 years ago. England’s history is skin-deep comparatively! I recommend you read, or better listen to, Anita Heiss’s novel Bila Yarrudhanggalandhuray for a taste of Wiradjuri deep history.
Jo Frances Penn
Thanks, Kate. The kind of history I love is the architecture, culture and art of Europe. We all have our favorite places and Europe is my home, Australia is yours 🙂