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ACT Location Walk, Canterbury, 29th August 2010

Another successful ACT walk. It did rain a bit and that curtailed us somewhat and meant we had to cut out a few places we wanted to visit. But not many. A few people did leave when it started to rain, but not all that many.

We were walking around Canterbury and the theme of this year's walk was Michael Powell's Canterbury to go with Paul's new book.

We started by looking at various places that Michael would have known as a young boy, places he would have visited often. We started off in the Dane John Gardens near Canterbury East station. About 40-50 people turned up, quite a decent crowd given the overcast weather. Quite a few regular faces but quite a few new people as well. Everybody has a different reason for being there, some like all of the P&P films, some just like ACT. Some are interested in Canterbury and its history, some are interested in all British films. A nice mix with a few visitors from the Netherlands and one lady from Poland.

From the mound in Dane John Gardens you do get a nice view over most of Canterbury ("You get a very good view of the Cathedral now") and out towards Bekesbourne so we could see the route where the young Michael would come in to school with his brother John. At first they were brought in by their mother but later they would ride in themselves on their ponies. You can also see down the Stour valley towards Chilham

Next stop the Riding Gate, one of the many gates into Canterbury through the city walls, although the Westgate (seen in the film) is the only one that still has any structure as a gate. The others are now just gaps in the city walls.

On to the Froebelheim Kindergarten (12 St George's Place) where Michael received his first formal tuition. His mother had already taught him quite a lot and got him interested in lots of different things, but this was where his formal education started. After 2 years at the Kindergarten he moved on to the dame school run by sisters Helen and Mark Sankey (2 Castle Street). After that Michael went to King's School, which we visited later.

A look at the Three Tuns, the site of a Roman amphitheatre, the first theatre known to have been in Canterbury. Then to the Canterbury Museum which when Michael was a lad was the Poor Priests' Hospital for elderly and infirm clergymen. The Franciscan Gardens which is surrounded by the remains of a 13th century monastery. Tower Gardens which is on the site of the Tower House, built around one of the bastions in the city walls and dates back to the 15th century. Next to that is the Holy Cross Church which dates back to 1380.

The Falstaff Inn, just outside the city wall by the Westgate. If pilgrims or other travellers arrived a bit late, after the city gates had been shut for the night, they could find safe lodging in the Falstaff. In the film Alison is told that Geoffrey's father has been waiting for her, staying at the Falstaff for over two weeks.

Canterbury West station is where they arrive in the film (even though they set off on the line that would take them to Canterbury East). As they go over the level crossing they get a glimpse past the Falstaff, to the Westgate. "Pilgrims for Canterbury, all out and get your blessings."

From here we joined the path that the pilgrims took in the film. Through the Westgate, past the old Police Station, and on to the Marlowe Theatre. Whenever we stopped to look at a location used in the film we got some "volunteers" to read out the lines that were spoken at that spot in the film. It's a bit of fun and it helps to set the scene for those that don't know the film as well as some of us do.

The Marlowe Theatre is on the site of the old Friars Cinema which is where ACT had its world première. Quite possible the first première outside London for a British film, but it was most appropriate that it was first seen in Canterbury.

The Marlow is undergoing a massive reconstruction at the moment. cranes and scaffolding all over the place. When we went to the old Marlowe with John Sweet & Sheila Sim in 2000 they unveiled a plaque which had sat in the foyer until this reconstruction started. The people running the theatre have told me that they plan to have a mini-museum there to show the history of the places of entertainment on the site. That will include photos of the Friars Cinema and the old Marlowe Theatre. They say that the plaque will be kept safe and will be put into this history room. We'll have to make sure they keep their word.

Up the High Street, past the café on the site of the building that acted as the office for The Archers while they were in the Canterbury area. On to Canterbury Public Library aka the Beaney Institute. This was one of a few public libraries in Canterbury when Michael was a lad. He was a voracious reader and would often take out a few books in the morning, read them during the day and then return them so that he could take out a few more to see him through the night. Modern (for the time) novels, classics, science fiction, Michael's reading tastes were eclectic. That's why he knew so much about so many things and was able to bring all those references into his films.

A look down Mercery Lane leading to the Cathedral (where the soldiers march past the Boots sign hanging on the wall). But we'll visit that in more detail later. Across from Mercery Lane is St Margaret's Street. Here we find the site of the first Marlowe Theatre. Built in 1927 as the Central Picture Theatre. When he went to Chantilly during the 1919 Easter holidays he wrote in his diary that the films he saw in France were like the films he had seen in the Palais de Luxe (in St George's Street).

Michael's diaries (as revealed in Paul's new book) give some details of the films he saw as a young boy. Amongst his other gifts he also seems to have had a phenomenal visual memory and could remember details of films he saw as a boy many years later. In the same way he would go to see every theatre production that he could and many of his casting decisions were based on seeing someone give a certain performance on stage, often many years before.

As we went through the Marlowe Arcade towards Rose Lane ... the rain started.

It got quite heavy so we called a break to give everyone a chance to have a cup of tea. Paul & I discussed our options and agreed that if the rain continued then we would have to cut short a few locations and head for the shelter (or sanctuary) of the Cathedral. When we regrouped some 20 minutes later, a few people had decided that they'd had enough but there were still about 30 in the party.

A look along Rose Lane, where Alison kept her caravan. Past the shops that had been built since the war to replace the ones damaged in the blitz. Stopping by St George's Tower, all that remains of a church that was burned down in the blitz. The clock tower, with the clock hanging out over the street, is seen in the film

On to the Buttermarket, outside the Christchurch Gate into the Cathedral. The tea rooms are still there - sort of. They are now occupied by Starbucks. Apparently the Dean & Chapter charge quite a high rent and chains like Starbucks are the only ones that can afford it. But the structure of the building is relatively unchanged and you can still sit in that same window seat and drink your tea (or coffee) and re-create the scene between Bob Johnson & Micky Roczinsky.

In to the Cathedral itself to admire that amazing building and then to wonder if the film would have been different if they had been given permission to film there. Pause to admire the steps up to the "organ loft" (there never was an organ there in the real Cathedral) and then on to the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Calling him "Thomas à Becket" was a later affectation. Out through the cloisters and on to the "dark passage" where the young choirboys from King's School (including young Michael) would run terrified after evensong. Out onto the Green Court and the safety of the school grounds. Then we took a look at some of the places that Michael mentioned in his description of the school in the first part of his autobiography.

And that was about it. Our ACT walk was over for another year. Meeting lots of old friends, getting to know new friends, each one is different even when we visit the same places. New information is discovered, people ask different questions which leads the conversations down different routes

Great fun - see you all next year


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