I’d been re-reading my favourite sections of The Canterbury Tales, and took it into my head to recreate the journey, over the Easter weekend, walking from Southwark to Canterbury, stopping off en route in Dartford and Sittingbourne.
It was a fascinating walk, from the bustle of London Bridge out through the wilds of south east London, into the bleak Medway flatlands of north west Kent and finally the picturesque hills and orchards around Canterbury itself. It left me with two legacies – an injured achilles tendon, still giving me trouble, and more positively, an idea for a story.
The story worried away at me, inspired by the literary heritage of the route. I had expected to find signs of Chaucer, but I kept coming across the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, who lived everywhere in London before settling in Rochester, Kent, and the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe, born in Canterbury and buried in Deptford.
Two and a half years later, the story has become a first draft of a novel, whose action unwinds along the London to Canterbury route. Last Friday I was anxiously working on how to end the final chapter. Inspiration came back where I started – with Geoffrey Chaucer.
The British Museum was hosting an evening event, Chaucer and the Medieval Pilgrimage, organised with the charity Poet in the City. The event complements the Treasures of Heaven exhibition, which looks at sacred art and relics from the Middle Ages.
The hugely enjoyable event encompassed readings from the Canterbury Tales, in both modern and Middle English; lectures by three academic experts on Chaucer, pilgrimage and the development of language in England at the time, plus some wonderful new poetry by poet Patience Agbabe, inspired by the Tales.
Stories, I suddenly realised, are time travel. Listening to vivid readings of original Chaucer, I felt tugged back in time, to a world where almost everything was different, except the ability of words to hold us spellbound, listening to a story. And Patience’s gripping, thrilling poetry drew on those same sources, that same impulsion to share an experience, make us feel and taste and see it. All the writers in our history, piling words upon words, a lexographic archeology for us to uncover.
Without wanting to give anything away, that’s where I found the ending for my own pilgrimage, the walk that turned into a story, that turned into a novel. In the words of every X Factor contestant, it’s been quite a journey.