On a recent wobbly day, I went, as is my occasional wont, to my local church. I’ve done this wherever I’ve lived – in London, Athens, various bucolic English parishes – and sometimes I pray but more often I seek a sense of rootedness and peace. I always come away feeling refreshed and in touch with not only a deeper part of myself, but a deeper connection to place.
Since January, my local has been Canterbury Cathedral, mother church of the Anglican community worldwide. I went once as a tourist; queued up, bought my ticket, took the one-way tour. I gawped at the list of archbishops, which includes Augustine, Becket, Cranmer et al. I absorbed the glamour of the tomb of the Black Prince, felt mildly bored by the spot where Becket was murdered and seriously considered some charming oven gloves in the gift shop.
The next time I went, I wanted to nip in, seek some solace, and get on with my day. Lockdown had ended and Canterbury was an entirely different city from the quiet days of midwinter: the streets thronged with groups of tourists and I had to battle my way through the narrow lanes around the cathedral. As I approached the beautiful wooden gates, I suddenly became aware of quite how long the queue was, and quite how many tourist information boards were propped up around the entrance. I am, by upbringing, culture and inclination, a Catholic. As such, I am not accustomed to having to line up to go into a church. The vast majority of Catholic churches in this country are modern horrors that no one in their right mind would go to for anything other than Mass (thank you, King Henry). On the continent, Catholic churches are ten-a-penny.
I pondered all of these things and felt sorry for the poor Anglicans, their great churches – Canterbury,
St Paul’s, Coventry, York – turned into tourist playgrounds.
And then I saw it, the mark of the devil: the TripAdvisor owl. It proudly proclaimed that Canterbury Cathedral had won a “Travellers’ Choice” award in 2020, an acclaim for “accommodations, attractions and restaurants that consistently earn great reviews from travellers and are ranked within the top 10% of properties on TripAdvisor”. A quick internet search revealed that Canterbury Cathedral is, in fact, only ranked third of “things to do in Canterbury” by travellers, after Westgate Gardens and St Martin’s, another church. A peruse of the TripAdvisor reviews turned up the usual grumbles – too much scaffolding, too little parking – including much indignation about the £14 per person price of admission. It costs around £20,000 per day to keep the cathedral up and running, although this is to maintain it to full tourist standards of health and safety, with a visitor centre, café and shop, rather than the lowlier worshipping standards of most churches.
All of which invites many questions: does Canterbury Cathedral rely on TripAdvisor reviews to boost visitor numbers, and do visitors rely on them to know whether or not to make the journey? Surely being the first church of England, with a century and a half of history, and a world-famous pilgrimage site, is enough of an endorsement? The travel restrictions of the last 18 months have meant that more of us are taking our holidays within the UK, but are we really so divorced from the history of
our island and its great sites that we need TripAdvisor to tell us where to go?
By the time I got to the front of the queue, I was in a welter of cynicism. Feeling as though I’d been made to go to Disneyland, I irritably snapped at the greeter that I “just wanted to pray, thanks”. “Of course,” they said, and ushered me inside. I sat in a quiet corner and felt the calm descend. Robed priests walked softly by and the hordes of tourists spoke in whispers. After a few minutes, a minister walked up to the pulpit and said a few words about the cathedral as a place of sanctity and solace, and ended with a prayer for the lonely. My soul quieted, the babble in my head faded, and I felt held and at peace.
Canterbury Cathedral can still offer succour and reflection. Churches are places “at the still point of the turning world”, to quote TS Eliot. No amount of TripAdvisor-isation can or will ever change that. Amen.
Violet Hudson is a freelance journalist
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund