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Overview: The Canterbury Road To Modern England

Lindsay Powell/NPR
The pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer's <em>Canterbury Tales</em> set off from London for Canterbury Cathedral, which has been a shrine since 1170 when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered there. Today, the city is grappling with an influx of foreign students brought by the Channel Tunnel.
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales set off from London for Canterbury Cathedral, which has been a shrine since 1170 when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered there. Today, the city is grappling with an influx of foreign students brought by the Channel Tunnel.
The knight and squire are among Chaucer's pilgrims. Their stories, published in the late 14th century, offer readers a "concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and country," wrote Oxford scholar Nevill Coghill.
/ Hulton Archive/Getty Images
/
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The knight and squire are among Chaucer's pilgrims. Their stories, published in the late 14th century, offer readers a "concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and country," wrote Oxford scholar Nevill Coghill.

"Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role," former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said nearly a half-century ago.

For many, those words ring true today.

The much beloved home of Shakespeare and The Beatles still struggles to find its place in the post-Cold War world and is grappling with serious new social and economic challenges at home: unemployment, the threat of Islamist extremism, immigration and growing alcoholism.

As Britain confronts change, it remains a place of rich history and picturesque villages — the quaint England of yore that Anglophiles worldwide find irresistible.

An NPR series retraces Geoffrey Chaucer's steps to explore Britain in the early 21st century, offering a portrait of a changing nation some 600 years after Chaucer's pilgrims made their colorful journey from London to Canterbury.

Chaucer's stories, published in the late 14th century, follow a collection of travelers from London to visit the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The Canterbury Tales offers readers a "concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and country," wrote Oxford scholar Nevill Coghill.

In much the same way, this series explores how British people live and what they believe. A journey through the county of Kent, and its capital Canterbury, provides a fitting overview of the British nation, and the new dramas being played out on its streets and in its rural fields.

Part 1 begins at a restaurant near the site where Chaucer dined with his band of pilgrims in the late 1300s. The modern-day restaurant, called Roast, has been credited with resurrecting British cuisine. From there, the path leads to London's East End to hear from the Muslim community about problems of integration into modern Britain. As the pillars of the old British identity — empire, monarchy and the Church of England — have eroded, there seems to be little to bind Britons and immigrants together, and that is deepening the divisions in society.

Leaving London, the road to Canterbury follows the River Thames, the artery so crucial to the founding of the British Empire. Part 2 visits the Chatham Dockyard, where monarchs including Elizabeth I built their ships. The dockyard was closed when the Royal Navy downsized, and now the surrounding towns are suffering social problems in an increasingly multicultural Britain. White, working-class Britons offer their views on growing immigration in recent years, in a region full of historical landmarks, such as Charles Dickens' house, where he wrote Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities.

The county of Kent has been at the front line of the drama of British history throughout the ages. The Romans landed in Kent, as did the Jutes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Vikings. It was one of the first points where Christianity entered England, and Canterbury is the center of global Anglicanism to this day. Part 3 looks at Britain's growing departure from God. Britain has become so secular that missionaries from Nigeria and from other former colonies are seeking to re-evangelize Britain.

Then there are the tricky issues of class — formerly a minefield for newcomers to Britain, but now less of an issue and less rigidly applied as social mobility has increased.

In Part 4, a group of rural people go fox-hunting and talk about class and the rural-urban divide. Many outsiders still have an image of Britain handed down from Jane Austen novels, of a prim, conservative population in their starched collars, offended by the very mention of sex. But modern Britain is much bawdier than that. A former schoolteacher runs pole-dancing classes for the educated, middle class women of rural, conservative Tunbridge Wells.

The provincial cathedral town of Canterbury has become a booming, multicultural city as people from across Europe have flooded in. In Part 5, members of a Scottish dancing society discuss the possible breakup of Britain, reflecting a sentiment of nationalism among the Scots and Welsh. And Canterbury's narrow, medieval streets echo with the chatter of European tour groups, students and visitors — who have turned the small town into a buzzing European city. As the journey ends, a look at the social and cultural tensions in Canterbury pose fundamental questions about national identity that were inconceivable in Chaucer's time, or even a few decades ago.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.
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