The poet Geoffrey Chaucer is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost figures in English literature. His best known work, The Canterbury Tales was published in 1476 (probably the first book ever to be printed in England) making it a best seller for over 600 years. Chaucer wove his tales around the central premise that each was told by a pilgrim travelling from the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London (where the story begins) to the shrine of Saint Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral, one of the most popular sites of pilgrimage in Medieval Europe. Pilgrims did actually gather at this inn to make the perilous journey in groups, before proceeding at a leisurely pace along what is today roughly the route of the A2 (incidentally, this became known as the Canterbury Pace, which moved in modern English as the word canter).
This famous association between Canterbury and Chaucers great work is rather shamelessly promoted in the city, even to the extent of providing an experience for visitors to learn about the Tales. This is how The Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction is described:
A visit to The Canterbury Tales, one of Kents most popular attractions, with its stunning reconstruction of 14th century England, is just like stepping into the Middle Ages. Inside the historic building of St. Margarets Church you can step back over 500 years to join Geoffrey Chaucer (Englands finest poet) and his colourful characters as they journey from London towards the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral and enjoy their medieval adventure stories.
Not forgetting, of course, the opportunity to enjoy their Chaucer-themed shop and café afterwards.
I arrived at the Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction on a Friday lunchtime in early May; it is located in a converted church in central Canterbury and was very easy to find (it is marked on all the tourist maps and is well signposted). I was drawn there partly from a desire to learn more about this important body of literature, and partly from the promise of a chance to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. I suppose I rather expected something like the famous Jorvik Viking Centre in York: careful, historical recreations using room sets and costumed figures, and well-researched information presented in an enjoyable and accessible way. I suppose I expected to go away having learnt something that would increase my appreciation for the city. Unfortunately, a lot of other people also seemed to be drawn there on the same day and I had to queue for around 25 minutes to actually get inside the building.
Once inside and parted from your money (£6.95 adults; £5.95 for the studious and pensioners, and £5.25 for under-15s) you are presented with your audio device and headphones. The Tales Attraction operates by fitting each visitor up with an electronic baton which picks up audio signals played at specific points around the building; the baton is set to your language (English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish or Japanese) and when it detects a signal in a room, it plays it to you through your headphones. This gives you a personal commentary that does not intrude on other visitors, regardless of different languages. The building is divided into a number of rooms The Tabard Inn, making the pilgrimage, the Knights Tale, the Millers Tale, the Wife of Baths Tale, the Nuns Priests Tale, the Pardoners Tale and the Shrine of Saint Thomas each with a commentary that is supposedly based on the original wording by Chaucer (although in simple modern English so we can understand it better).
So, armed with my device and instructed in how to use it, I joined the next group and awaited the door to open to admit me to the Tabard Inn. As it is necessary to have the commentaries running on loops in each room, you are admitted in groups every four or five minutes, just before the first commentary in the Inn begins: the doors between rooms are controlled electronically, and time their opening and closing to coincide with the playing of the audio signals. Therefore, when the first door swung open, my group walked into the Tabard Inn just as the previous group were leaving it for the next room. The door closed behind us and the first commentary started up. Or rather, we all started waving our batons around like mad conductors trying to find the signal that would give us our commentary. It worked in the end, but I found that you had to stand with your arm outstretched and slightly raised to be able to pick up the commentary clearly, hardly the most comfortable position to be standing in. This first scene lasted around four minutes or so, then on cue to next door swung open and we marched through to the next set. At first I thought this was clever and well coordinated, but by the end I was feeling more like a herded sheep than anything else.
The room sets themselves were constructed well enough. They were populated with suitably dressed figures (although remarkably clean and well-fed for the 14th century ) and well-built backdrops, some with moving parts to help tell the Tales. In most rooms, subtle spotlighting was used to guide you to look at the places in the set that told the section of the story you were currently listening to (although in some places this was a bit too subtle, and as you moved around trying to find what you were supposed to be looking at, the audio signal crackled and faded). Smells were indeed added as promised, although I actually only noticed them in the first three rooms and I seriously doubt the accuracy of any of them. The sets were fun, but in no way the reliably reconstructions of the medieval world that we were led to believe we were getting. The commentary (when I got it, my arm did get rather tired towards the end and the signal did jump in places) was rather good and seemed to capture the original bawdy humour of Chaucer.
The tour itself lasted 40 minutes before coming to an abrupt end and sending us out (surprise, surprise) through the gift shop. I have to admit feeling a bit disappointed: my first thought was is that it?. The leaflet I had picked up about the Tales Attraction had instructed to allow at least an hour for my visit, yet here I was in just two thirds of that time, at the end (I had spent nearly as much timing queuing to get in). For the price I paid, this was far too short a time in my opinion for 40 minutes of entertainment, I think something around the £3 mark would have been a fairer price. I didnt hang around much to spend any more money in their shop, although I can comment that it was large (larger than some of the rooms I had been in on the tour), clean and well presented, and stuffed full of Chaucer mementoes (books, audio books, the Tales for children, etc), local produce (Rye pottery, local wines) and the Usual Suspects (pens, stationary, postcards, badges, etc).
Overall, what did I think? It was quite funny and entertaining, but not really what it presented itself to be I learned precious little about the Tales (indeed, the BBCs recent adaptations left me with a greater appreciation for them) and it certainly did not have any historical accuracy or re-create the medieval world. The audio device, while a really good idea for making the Tales accessible to an international audience of visitors, didnt work properly. The headsets didnt fit well, the signal wavered a lot, my arm grew tired of holding the baton out and waving it around, and as a result I missed sections of commentary. I felt rushed around and a bit cheated. My overall opinion is that this was just a shameless way of fleecing tourists out of money, of cashing in on the Chaucer connection; I got a few laughs but learnt nothing and rather wished I hadnt bothered.
To sum up, the Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction was:
1. Well presented
2. Available in seven languages (plus a childrens audio tour in English)
3. Centrally located and well signposted
4. Popular with other tourists
The Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction was not:
1. An economical day out
2. For anyone who likes to move around at their own pace
3. For anyone hard of hearing or who does not like using headphones
4. For anyone unable to cope with ramps and stairs (no wheelchair access available)
Location: St Margarets Street, Canterbury (just off the High Street)
Entry: £6.95 adults / £5.95 students and pensioners / £5.25 children under 15
Opening Times: Daily (except Christmas Day), 10 am to 5pm
Phone: (01227) 479227
Web: www.canterburytales.org.uk / firstname.lastname@example.org
I am almost certain that those of you reading this will have heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the well known Canterbury Tales. These are a collection of stories told by a fictional group of pilgrims, on their way to Canterbury in the fourteenth century to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket. Becket of course was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral at the end of the twelfth century, for standing up for the rights of Church. Though if you ask me, and I studied this a couple of years ago, it was sheer bloody-mindedness which led to his death. Nonetheless, pilgrims immediately flocked to Canterbury in huge numbers after his death, some of whom made the trip as a type of ‘holiday’. The journey of Chaucer’s pilgrims, from Southwark to Canterbury was the occasion of much jollity and merriment, and they kept themselves amused, by telling each other stories on the way. Located in St Margaret’s Street, in the centre of Canterbury, if you visit the Canterbury Tales attraction, you can join a selection of the pilgrims on their journey and see the tales come to life. This is suitable for all ages, and if you enjoy places such as the Jorvik Viking centre, then you will love this – it is a similar type of experience. It’s open all year round, and costs £5.90 for an adult to visit, and £4.90 for a child or student. Personally I think this is great value – and if you are a family of 4, you can get a ticket for just £18.50. However, look in the local papers too, such as the Kent Messenger for example – as often you will find some discount vouchers. If you visit in the winter months, you won’t have any problems with queuing, and indeed, could find yourself alone in the Canterbury Tales – definitely the best time of year to visit, and is when I usually go – sometimes at Christmas you might get a free glass of mulled wine afterwards. In the summer however i
t’s the opposite – long queues into the street, with many visitors, especially foreign tourists. Canterbury is as much as a tourist magnet today as 700 years ago! But don’t worry, it won’t be too crowded inside, as the number of visitors allowed in at one time is carefully controlled. Unlike some other places I’ve visited, there never seems to be a problem with the temperature inside either, I never come out of here feeling too hot or sweaty! Once inside, you will be given a headset to wear. This is a particularly good idea – you can set it to which ever language you want and set the volume to the level you want. You will then be taken into a recreation of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, from where the pilgrims began their journey, and be introduced to the world of Chaucer. As in the Jorvik centre, smells, sounds, moving models and movement will all add to your experience. The only difference is that you walk round here rather than going in a timecar. The doors between each section open automatically, and lights change, so you do know where to go! You will go round in a group – up to about 14 people – unless of course you do as I recommend, and go in winter, then it could be just you alone! After this, you will be introduced to the pilgrims themselves. There is a great choice of characters here – someone for everyone. My personal favourite is the Wife of Bath, a large, jocular women, who has already had 4 husbands! Her reason for joining the pilgrimage is to find her 5th! Other pilgrims include the Pardoner, the Nun’s Priest, the Miller, and the Reeve – an interesting mix of different social types in the fourteenth century. This attraction is set out superbly – once you have joined the pilgrims, who are all very realistic looking, and dressed in accurate replica C14th clothing, you really do feel as if you are walking along a street in this period. Rats poke their littl
e heads out, and there are conversations of people in the street – shouted from window to window. You can smell what it was like too – but thankfully the smells are not too overpowering here! The main part of the experience is listening to five separate tales. I won’t go into detail as to what these are about, since I don’t want to spoil the surprise. However, each tale takes place in a separate area of the experience, and you can have a seat whilst you listen. Excellent use is made of audiovisuals, and of moving models, with each tale you will find something for all of your senses to enjoy! My personal favourite is the Miller’s Tale – very very amusing!! If anyone has been here, they’ll know what I mean! All the tales are very easy to listen to, and don’t worry, they are not in Chaucerian English – don’t think many people could cope with that, I know I certainly couldn’t, even after studying it at school. A couple are amusing, some more serious, but they all seem to have a moral message in them, as I believe was common in this period. Towards the end of the experience, you walk past the hostel where the pilgrims stay, and along to the shrine of Thomas Becket – this of course is a replica – the real one was in the Cathedral until destroyed during the Reformation. (Once you’ve finished here, you might want to go to the Cathedral and see the spot where Becket died – although it’s a bit of a let down, only a small slab marks it). Everything is superbly recreated here, and even though I have been here more times than I care to remember, the models never seem to look shabby, the upkeep really is very good. Finally, you enter a marketplace. If you’re squeamish, take note – there is a particularly gruesome scene, where a medieval dentist is extracting some teeth! However, there are many other traditional market place activities going on,
with pilgrim badges being sold for example. Again, the smells and sounds work alongside the models and scenes to make it feel as if you are in a real medieval city. This is an amazing place to visit. You really are transported back in time – the medieval recreation is so accurate and well thought out that for an hour or so you can completely forget the real world and imagine that you too are on the pilgrimage, judging which tale you think to be the best. This attraction would, I think, appeal to people of all different backgrounds, nationalities and ages. It’s certainly not too intellectual, and most of the history that you get from here will be by absorbing your surroundings. There is nothing to read, so even people who might get bored by a traditional museum can enjoy it here. It’s billed as “Kent’s Premier Visitor Attraction” and rightly so!