We chose a fine, sunny Saturday to visit Canterbury Cathedral, although I am over-awed by the Church of England in all its forms so I was not in the best of moods. Most Anglican clergy are too posh by far for the likes of me, and I certainly can’t follow their nimby-pimby rituals.
I was looking for the French Chapel within the Cathedral – a chapel which has served Huguenots for well over four centuries. It’s the only Huguenot chapel inside an Anglican cathedral, and as such a pilgrimage destination for those of us with Huguenot ancestors.
We queued to get into the bounds of the cathedral. It reminded me of the constant queue for Bath Abbey - a line of tired sight-seers stretching round a square flanked with identikit tourist shops. In the swanky admittance hall, my husband flashed his credit card to cover the £14 fee for Cathedral entry. If you fill out a Gift Aid form, that £14 converts to a yearly pass, and you don’t have to queue up with the hoi-polloi to get in.
You still need your credit card, however; access to all areas is through the maze-like gift shop, which confused me with its many aisles of relics and tea-towels.
Finally released into the grounds, we found the outer part of the Chapel – a tiny brown door on the side of the white Cathedral, just like a mouse-hole; with a sign saying we would be welcome to enter through that door for chapel worship any Sunday at 3pm.
We went into the Cathedral itself through its impressive arch. It struck me that this building is colossal, much bigger than cathedrals I’m more familiar with, such as Southwark, Winchester or Worcester. Its preternaturally high ceilings felt weblike, and I was intimidated, too, by the large orchestra and choir doing a rehearsal. Even at ground level, there are many staircases and side-chapels, and it’s quite easy as a new visitor to get lost.
There was a plethora of Cathedral guides however, wearing yellow sashes, and we finally asked one grey-haired gent where the Huguenot Chapel was. He led us along corridors, and across atria, and down into the vaults. “There it is!” he said in triumph.
Another brown door, another notice about Sunday services, and windows you couldn’t see through. Locked.
Our guide seemed perplexed that we might want to go in. “You need a verger for that,” he said, frowning. “Just look for anyone in long black robes, that’s a verger. They’ll have a key.”
We set off again. Up, down, across. Tantalisingly, we occasionally glimpsed a flash of floor-length black disappearing through a door beyond us. Should we give up? Was it worth it?
Suddenly my husband lunged into a side-chapel. “Here’s one!”
Justin Welby, having a photo shoot.
“That’s the Archbishop,” I hissed, pulling my spouse’s coat. I was not in the mood to box the Archbishops’s ears for downplaying the Huguenot connection, although now I wish I had. He himself called out to us: “Don’t let me put you off! Please do come in!” Or words to that effect. But no, like church mice we scurried away, too small, too poor, too voiceless. And I hadn’t brushed my hair, so I wasn’t really decent.
Word was going round the guides that a key had been requested. We had given up and were slouching towards the Cathedral exit. Right at the door, we were stopped by people who had heard about the key quest and were eager to help. “We’ve found Hugh – he’s got the key! He’ll be down at the Chapel!”
Off we went again, in a mad dash for the Chapel. Hugh was about to give up waiting; we were relieved to catch him just in the nick of time.
Perhaps it was the rollercoaster quest which had ratcheted up my excitement about the Chapel, but I was profoundly moved as Hugh put the key in the lock, as if he were opening up the Secret Garden.
Behind the heavy door, it’s warm and intimate, with recognisable signs of the Huguenots which made me feel at home. There’s enough wooden pews for about forty people, a small organ, an altar.
It’s pretty much certain that some of my ancestors worshipped in this chapel, and it has massive symbolic significance in Huguenot history. Over many years, Huguenot weavers fled Catholic repression in France and landed on the Kent coast, making their way to the employment hub of Canterbury; my own family arrived during the late seventeenth century.
Hugh – not a verger, but a Huguenot descendant and lay preacher in the Chapel – told me that they used to keep the place open, until a beautiful model of an old church had been vandalised. The Chapel is off the beaten track within the Cathedral, so I could understand that policing it would not be easy, but still it seemed a shame.
There has supposedly been a Huguenot service in the French Chapel every week since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It must be a tremendous feat to keep that going in these agnostic times.
Perhaps I’ll write to the Archbishop, and say I’d like more prominence given to the Canterbury Huguenots and this musty, anomalous Calvinist chapel. Or, with the season ticket they sold us, perhaps I might hope to ambush him again in the nooks and crannies of his own Cathedral, and give him an earful.