Great Britain has changed substantially since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which described life in late 14th century England. For this five-part series, Rob Gifford retraced Chaucer's steps, walking the 60 miles from London to Canterbury, to give a snapshot of Britain in the early 21st century.
Who knows what would have happened if Geoffrey Chaucer had not decided to write The Canterbury Tales in English, rather than French or Latin, which was more common at the time. Who knows what impact that would have had on the great stream of English literature that then flowed from Britain, and on the adoption of English as the language of America and of the world.
The miles and miles of Canterbury Road are steeped in English literature and steeped in the past of Britain's empire, but this also is a country struggling to come to terms with change — and a loss that comes with it.
Quite apart from Chaucer, the northern coast of Kent where the Canterbury Road comes near the estuary of the River Thames is steeped in English literature. Somerset Maugham lived nearby. So did Joseph Conrad, who was buried at Canterbury in 1924. In fact, at the start of Conrad's classic book of empire, Heart of Darkness, he wrote of the Thames in this spot. "What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! ... The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires," he wrote.
But the writer whose spirit haunts this area more than any other is not Conrad but Charles Dickens, who lived for decades nearby. It was in the marshes at Cooling that the memorable scene at the start of Great Expectations took place, when the young Pip has the meeting with the convict Magwitch that would change his life.
The Gad's Hill home of Charles Dickens on the Canterbury Road just outside Rochester has been a small private school for more than 80 years.
Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in the house, and he died while writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood there, according to Sarah Garratt, a teacher at the school.
Dickens is everywhere in Rochester. There's Great Expectations-this, and Miss Havisham-that, and Mr. Pickwick and Edwin Drood all over town — all celebrating the life of the great chronicler of Victorian England, when the British empire was at its height.
Closure Of Dockyard Brings Struggles
But the towns on the River Medway themselves have taken a beating since the closure of the massive naval dockyard where Dickens' father worked in the 19th century. The dockyard on the Medway had been a crucial part of the throbbing narrative of imperial history that coalesced between Elizabeth I and the present queen, the two Elizabeths who became the historical bookends of the British empire.
Richard Holdsworth, museum and heritage director of the Chatham Historic Dockyard, notes that the first evidence of the Royal Navy's use of Medway was upstream, which is where the Tudor dockyard under Elizabeth I was built.
"It was from here that the ships that fought the Spanish Armada were repaired and sent out, and the site played a huge role in English history," says Holdsworth.
The British armed forces moved out, though, in the 1980s, when the dockyard closed, and as the military itself began to downsize. For 300 years, the dockyard had been the principal employer in the area. Everything revolved around it, including the education system — and the loss was hugely significant, Holdsworth says.
The dockyard has turned itself into a fantastic historical attraction, where children can take part in making thick coils of naval rope, or go on board a Royal Navy submarine. Other old buildings have been turned into offices and apartments.
But outside the dockyard, Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham — the Medway Towns — have struggled to reinvent themselves. There's a big drug problem, and many people are on long-term unemployment benefits. But the main thing people everywhere are complaining about is immigration — because Britain in the early 21st century has become the new America, and the English Channel has become the Rio Grande.
Lacking Unity And Pride
Soccer is religion in Britain, and a few miles before Rochester along the Canterbury Road comes The Valley, home of Charlton Athletic Football Club.
Steve Bailey, 51, of the Charlton supporters' club is a salt of the earth Englishman, who's involved in his local community. But he says his family moved out of London toward Canterbury long ago because of increased immigration.
"Nearly everybody you meet [in the Canterbury area] will be people who moved from South London because of the immigration issue," he says. "Who have we got to blame — ourselves, our government — trying to embrace the world when we are not embracing our own people first."
It's more difficult to say that in the United States because almost everyone came from somewhere else. But there are a huge number of white British people who feel they are the real British people and that they are being ignored by the new multicultural agenda. Everyone in Bailey's local pub agrees that something needs to be done about immigration.
"It's not a question of race, it's a question of space," says Dave Hiatt, who is visiting the pub with his friend Abby.
Abby, who doesn't want her last name used, says it is just common sense.
"In the economic climate we're in, we don't have enough money for the people who have been here for generations, let alone anyone else," she adds.
Hiatt says there is a unity and a pride in America that Britain now lacks.
"In Grand Central Terminal in New York, you walk in there, 1930s art deco, and you get different colors, different creeds walking around, and the biggest, largest Stars and Stripes you can above them; they all class themselves as American," he says. "In this country, if you put up a flag at Charing Cross or Waterloo, there'd be an outcry," he says.
That's a good summary of what many white people say all along the Canterbury Road, as it follows the River Thames toward the North Sea.
Underneath, A Malaise
Even in the economic downturn, Britain still has hugely successful parts of its economy, its arts and literature are world class, and it's a great place to visit. But underneath, beyond the London, the Oxford, the Canterbury that visitors see, there is undoubtedly a malaise.
In that same passage at the start of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he writes of the English going out into the world on the River Thames as "messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire." That spark seems somehow to have been extinguished; the confidence has been replaced with confusion. And the question now is how to reignite it for modern — or postmodern — times.