Today we'll continue our around-the-world journey by leaving London, flying east/southeast over the countryside of Kent to Canterbury, an ancient religious center and home to a famous cathedral. We'll then fly along the English coast, seeing the white cliffs of Dover and the Isle of Wight, before heading south over the English Channel to France. As today is Memorial Day in the U.S., we'll fly over beaches of the French Normandy coast, where the D-Day landings took place during World War II, before we land in the city of Caen, our first stop in continental Europe. Let's go!
In medieval times, long before airplanes such as ours, people made the journey from London to Canterbury on foot or by horse as a religious pilgrimage. They would travel there to visit the shrine to Thomas Becket, the head of the Christian church in England who was murdered in 1170 in a power dispute with King Henry II. Having died for his beliefs, Becket was named a saint and became a powerful symbol of the church and religion.
Such pilgrimages were the basis of 'The Canterbury Tales,' an important work of early literature. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1390s, it follows a group of pilgrims who engage in a story-telling contest on their way to Canterbury. It's one of the first major works written in English, or in this case "Middle English," an early version of the language in common use today. Populated by a wide range of characters, it's also a rare window into life as lived more than 600 years ago.
Canterbury has hosted a settlement since prehistoric times. The Romans occupied the city starting in the 1st century A.D., eventually adding an earthen wall for protection. Parts of this wall, rebuilt in the 14th century, still stand today. After the Romans retreated in 410, the area languished until Pope Gregory sent his emissary Augustine to reestablish Christianity in Britain.
The church Augustine established here in 597 was rebuilt in stages to become Canterbury Cathedral, which has remained a center for British religious life through many upheavals over the centuries. During World War II, the cathedral was a prime target for German bombers; citizens protected it in part by lighting fires to give the impression that the structure was already burning.
Today the cathedral is home church to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads the Church of England, which in turn is the mother church for the worldwide Anglican Communion. This branch of Christianity was founded in the 1530s by King Henry VIII after a dispute with the Pope. You can find out more about this history-making conflict in the resource links below.
In medieval times, the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury (about 67 miles) on foot would take four days. Today, we'll cover that distance in about a half-hour. Even if we didn't have our own airplane, we could make the trip by train from downtown London in just over an hour. Great Britain, like the rest of Europe, has a more developed passenger train system than in the United States, with high-speed rail lines linking major cities. Why do you suppose this is?
Flying south to our next location, the coastal town of Dover, we'll see where the high-speed rail line linking London to Paris enters a long tunnel under the English Channel. The Channel Tunnel, called 'The Chunnel,' is 31 miles long and connects Great Britain to France. Opened in 1994, it's the first link between Britain and mainland Europe since the last ice age 10,000 years ago, when sea levels were low. Read more about this "land bridge" in the links.
Dover is famous for its miles of tall white chalk cliffs that line this part of the English coast. Some are as high as 350 feet! Visible from the coast of France across the English Channel (here at its most narrow), during World War II the cliffs became a symbol of peace and homecoming by virtue of a popular song, 'The White Cliffs of Dover.' Although massive, the cliffs are actually quite fragile, made up of layers of ancient microscopic sea creatures deposited on the ocean floor and pressed together over tens of millions of years.
Continuing west along the coast, we come to Hastings, near the site of the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066 that saw William the Conqueror arrive from France to take over medieval England from its Anglo-Saxon rulers. A little farther west, we come to Brighton, a beach resort town that became hugely popular in the 19th century when the development of new railway lines brought it within reach of day-trippers from London. Among the local landmarks are the famous "Brighton Pier," which extended out into the English Channel. The beaches here, however, are not sandy or flat but are composed of pebbles and rounded stones that tend to create steep banks. They're called "shingle" beaches and are a common feature of the English coast.
Further west, we come to the Isle of Wight, a large island just off the south coast that protects the harbors of Portsmouth and Southampton, where we stopped a few days ago. Due to its location, the Isle of Wight was an important crossroads in Britain's bronze and iron ages, as evidenced by many ancient coins found here. Going back even further in time, the Isle is home to some of Europe's most notable dinosaur fossils. You can learn more about why dinosaur fossils are found here in the links below.
Long a rural outpost, the Isle of Wight became fashionable as a vacation resort in the 19th century when Queen Victoria established a summer home here. Statistics show that it gets more sunshine than any other spot in Great Britain. Due to a quirk in geography, the island's north coast is one of the few places on Earth to see four high tides each day instead of the normal two. Information in the links explains why.
And now we turn south, flying over the English Channel to the coast of France, about 90 miles away. This same distance was traversed on June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, by Allied troops traveling by air and sea from England in the first steps to finally liberating Europe from Hitler's armies in World War II. The major attack, kept a secret, caught the Germans by surprise, but still prompted fierce fighting for weeks along the French coast that summer as Allied troops struggled to establish a foothold and advance.
As we fly over to France, the English Channel seems peaceful today. This was not the case for soldiers crossing these waters in the vanguard of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. In the pre-dawn darkness of that day, they prepared to follow orders: to storm the beaches via landing craft or to parachute behind enemy lines by jumping out of the same type of aircraft we're flying today. More than 150,000 soldiers from the U.S., Britain, Canada, and other nations participated.
Many were lost that first morning, that first day, and in the weeks that followed. Because today is Memorial Day in the United States, today we honor the memory of all who served and did not return, here and anywhere. We honor them by remembering the sacrifices they made. And, in our flight around the world, we'll do it by making our arrival in France with a low-altitude pass over the very beaches in Normandy where so much sacrifice was made on D-Day during World War II.
We've seen a lot of cathedrals and churches on our trip, and we'll see many more. But this place is holy, too. Like a church, it's a place that should inspire us to think thoughts bigger than ourselves. Although our trip is a virtual one, our duty to remember those who came before us is very real indeed.
After passing low over the Normandy beaches, we'll land in the small French city of Caen. The airport here, not far from the coast, was itself the site of fierce fighting following the initial D-Day invasion. In fact, nearly the whole city was destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the war. Today, like so much of the French countryside, it's a place of beauty and contentment. It's a fine place for our first stop in continental Europe. We can't wait for dinner and our first taste of world-famous French cooking.
Resources to learn more about today's flight: