This article was excerpted from Ken Haigh’s book On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage (University of Alberta Press, 2021).
I try to visit the village church, but it is locked, which is a shame because although the outside is an ugly mélange of stucco, brick and flint, I have been told that the inside is quite beautiful. On a side note, Richard Harris Barham, the author of The Ingoldsby Legends, was once the vicar here. After a brief rest and water break on a lichen-encrusted bench in the churchyard, I hustle once more up the hill and rejoin the Pilgrims’ Way. I soon enter the vast Eastwell Estate at the point where the ruins of the estate church of St. Mary’s stand. Passing through a mossy archway and entering the skeleton of the old church, I spy the hiker whom I had passed earlier, seated on an overgrown wall. She has her lunch spread out on a handkerchief at her side. Her nose is buried in her guidebook, the North Downs Way guidebook, I note—the same one I’m carrying—and she looks up suspiciously.
“Why, hello again,” I say.
She regards me for a moment with narrowed eyes, then gives a slow nod and returns to her reading. Feeling awkward, I walk back through the ruins to a small car park. I set my backpack down on the grass and remove my camera. As I am shuffling around the parking lot, looking for the best vantage point to take a photo, a moist voice chirrups in my ear, “Are you an ’istorian, surr?”
“I said, are you an ’istorian?”
The speaker is an elderly man seated in the driver’s seat of a beige Ford Focus with the side window rolled down. I hadn’t seen him at first. I’d assumed all of the cars were empty.
“No,” I say, “but I have an interest in history.”
“Then I suppose you have come to see the grave of Richard Plantagenet?”
I profess ignorance, and he proceeds to give me directions to the tomb, and then begins to relate the history of the Wars of the Roses. I sense that if I am not careful, he will keep me standing there all day, so I interrupt him and ask if he has a moment to show me the way. He seems pleased to be asked. “I’m not an educated man, you understand, but I do have an interest in ’istory.” He speaks with a Kentish brogue and with the lisp of an elderly man with loose dentures. It takes him quite a long time to extricate himself from the car, and when he stands, he comes only to my shoulder. He walks toward the chapel at a slow mincing pace, as if in carpet slippers. I realize he is much older than I first thought.
His skin is like crepe, his eyes red and moist, and when he speaks, a line of spittle runs from the corner of his mouth to the point of his chin where it hangs like an icicle, growing longer and more fascinating with each syllable. He wipes it away with his shirt cuff.
“I grew up ’ere, you know. Rang those bells.” He indicates the ruined tower. “My grandparents lived in the lodge beside the lake.”
He points through the screen of trees that surrounds the churchyard, to a picturesque cottage beside a large pond. “They are buried just over there. I come here often. I like the peace and quiet.” I am puzzled. The ruins look ancient to me. “You attended this church as a child?”
“Certainly. There was regular services ’ere until ’38 or ’39.”
“The War. The Germans shot it up. After the war, the roof was gone and it was no longer considered safe, so they pulled it down and moved the monuments. But it was falling down even before. The last time I rang the church bell was in 1953 for the Coronation.” We look up at the bell tower, which is leaking pigeon feathers like a burst cushion. There is also a small chapel to the south of the tower and the remains of a connecting wall. That is all that remains of Eastwell St. Mary’s. He points into the small chapel, now an empty room. “Used to be a beautiful statue of the Virgin in there. It’s in Challock Church now. The big monuments they took to the V and A. Ah, ’ere we are.”
We pause by a cube of stone protruding from the grass in what must once have been the side wall of the nave. The woman with the guidebook is still seated nearby, making a brave attempt at pretending we are not there. I bend down and read the stone:
“Reputed to be the tomb of Richard Plantagenet.”
“He was the natural son of Richard III, but after ’is father’s death ’e ’ad to ’ide. His enemies, the Tudors, wanted ’im dead, you see, so ’e came to Eastwell. He lived in a small cottage on the estate and worked as a stonemason.” I watch with fascination as another long stalactite of spittle grows from his chin. How long before it breaks? At the last moment, he swipes it away with his shirt cuff. “He lived a quiet life and died ’ere—the last of the Plantagenets. If things ’ad turned out different at Bosworth Field, why ’e might ’ave been the King of England.”
I turn to the seated woman. “Imagine that!” She knits her brow and frowns. I have completely spoiled her quiet pilgrimage.
I turn back to my guide, changing the topic. “So did you live here with your grandparents?”
“No, my parents.” He can see my confusion. “Back then everyone worked on the estate. My father drove the first car in 1919.”
“He was the chauffeur?”
“Aye. I left school at fourteen to join ’im. I remember my first job on the estate was a beater.” I must look puzzled for he continues. “The gamekeeper, you see, would release the pheasants out in scrub, and then we would walk up and down beating the bushes, so the guests could shoot the birds as they flew.” He frowns. “I never liked that job. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against ’unting, but it seemed cruel. The poor birds spent all their lives in cages and then on their first day of freedom, they get shot.” He shrugs. “But it was like that. Different times. Back then, you never knew ’o you might be serving at dinner—King George, Lord Mountbatten, even Churchill. Why, I remember seeing all three of them standing together on the roof of Eastwell Manor watching the manoeuvres.” “Manoeuvres?” “During the war the estate was taken over by the army. They used the grounds to practise for the invasion. When the war was over and we drained the lake, we found an amphibious tank right in the bottom.” He laughs. “I remember one day, my dad and I were walking across the estate, ’im in ’is ’ome guard uniform, me in my naval uniform, and this sergeant comes running up, furious ’e was, and red in the face. ‘Are you crazy!’ ’e yells. ‘Do you want to get yourselves killed?’ I guess we’d walked right into the middle of a live fire exercise.”
“You were in the navy?”
“Yes, North Atlantic convoy duty. I was in a corvette—little bathtub of a boat, tossed us around something ’orrible, it did.”
“I know. I’ve seen one, in Canada, in Halifax. It must have been pretty cramped.”
“It was, but it was nice too. Everyone pitched in together. Rank doesn’t mean much on a ship that small. I remember once we was near Greenland. The ice was growing so thick on deck the captain worried we might capsize, so everyone, and I mean everyone, was on deck chipping ice as fast as we could go to save the ship.”
At this point the woman gives up. She has been trying to wait us out, hoping we will go away, but it is clear that the old man is in no hurry. She packs her belongings, stands up, hoists her pack to her shoulders and sets off with a stiff angry gait.
My companion, oblivious to her annoyance, is lost in reverie. He scans the quiet churchyard and sighs. “I always loved it ’ere. Brought my wife ’ere just before she died. It was her last day outside the ’ospital. That was two years ago now. We’d been married for seventy years.”
“Yes, can’t even remember life without ’er.” He pauses. “Well… now I can.”
I walk him back to his car, and we shake hands.
“Ken,” I say. “I’m sorry, but I never introduced myself.”
“Peter,” he responds.
“I’m pleased to have met you, Peter.” We shake hands again.
I hitch my pack once more to my shoulders, and, waving goodbye, turn and carry on toward Canterbury.
This extract from On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage by Ken Haigh is reproduced by kind permission of the author. The book is published in paperback by the University of Alberta Press and available in bookstores and internet booksellers.