Above: The panel showing characters from the ‘Canterbury Tales’. It is one of the panels from the long mural beside Old Kent Road.
We don’t know the exact year that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous work – the ‘Canterbury Tales’. It is estimated that it was the year of 1386 and some historians believe that it was during the month of April – to be near Easter time – of that year. Pilgrims were often setting off in groups from London to ride on horse-back or to walk the 60-odd miles to Canterbury. The attraction was the Shrine of Thomas a Becket, at Canterbury Cathedral, where he was buried. Becket was slain near the High Altar on 29 December 1170 by four knights who believed they were carrying out the instructions of King Henry II. It became one of the most-visited religious shrines in England in medieval times.
Chaucer set the scene for the departure of an imaginary group of 29 pilgrims at the Tabard Inn, Borough High Street. They spent the night there, before setting off early in the morning the next day. The inn is long gone, having closed down in the 19th century but its site is easy to find because the old yard of the inn is still there – in the form of a narrow passageway now called Talbot Yard. The Prologue starts with the lines (‘translated’ into modern English):
“It happened in that season that one day
In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at heart,
At night there came into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride.
The rooms and stables of the inn were wide;”
The route for the pilgrims was to walk down Old Kent Road, through Deptford and Greenwich and over Shooter’s Hill. It is the line of the old A2 road. It usually took four days to walk to Canterbury, staying at inns overnight along the way.
The Canterbury Tales continue with the lines:
“Early next morning at the spring of day
Up rose our Host and roused us like a cock,
Gathering us together in a flock,
And off we rode at slightly faster pace
Than walking to St Thomas’ watering place;”
As they walked down Old Kent Road they passed an ancient hostelry then known as ‘St Thomas’ Watering’ – named in honour of St Thomas a Becket. At that point a tiny stream crossed the dusty track and provided water for horses to drink. While they were being refreshed, their owners could also enjoy a ‘swift half’ in the pub beside the roadway. The site is still a pub today – now called Thomas a Becket.
It is a romantic story of devout pilgrims slowly making their way to the shrine of a much loved saint. Today’s visitors to Canterbury can make the journey from Southwark to the ancient cathedral city by car in about 90 minutes. It is interesting to note that in medieval times even poor people would aim to go on at least one pilgrimage to a famous shrine in their lifetime, often walking all the way. Today’s traveller would probably not be so keen to make such a trip by foot and and most of us take the easy way out – by car or train.
With the above thoughts in our minds, we now take a look at the attractive mural at the top of this article. It was added to the North Peckham Civic Centre in 1965. The rather unattractive stock-brick building on which it is mounted stands beside Old Kent Road at the T-junction with Peckham Park Road. It is now in use as a place of worship. The murals remain to be admired, made by Adam Kossowski, a Polish artist. They cover several subjects relating to the history of Old Kent Road but we will concentrate on the part that illustrates Chaucer’s story.
Above: A detailed look at the same panel relating to Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’.
The whole panel shows 10 figures. Some figures are on their horses, riding to Canterbury, ‘most devout at heart’ as Chaucer puts it. The stream is shown in the foreground with a horse drinking – reminding us of the ‘watering place’ also mentioned by Chaucer. As many of us know, most of Old Kent Road is singularly unattractive being a busy highway. These murals add a touch of beauty to what is otherwise a bleak scene of endless traffic thundering past the busy corner. Although a modern work, the style has a medieval look to it, with its subtle colours. The quality of the work is superb, almost creating the illusion of figures in a stained glass window.
The part of the mural about the Canterbury pilgrims is only a small fraction of the whole mural on the North Peckham Civic Centre which has scenes from events that have taken place on Old Kent Road over the last 2,000 years. The complete mural, measuring about nine feet in height, is in three sections. On one wall is a panel just over 21 feet long. On a second wall, at right-angles to the first panel, are the other two panels which are either side of the main entrance doors. These two panels measure approximately 19 feet and just over 31 feet respectively. The total length, if the three panels were mounted side by side is therefore about 72 feet long and about nine feet high. Where the first and second panels meet at right-angles the ‘corner’ is decorated with butterflies. The artist added his name to the top right of the third panel with just ‘Adam Kossowski 1965’.