I get a lot of inspiration from visiting real places and learning about their history. One of the most enigmatic places I visited while researching Unlawful Things, which eventually played quite a big part in the novel, was Eastbridge Hospital in Canterbury.
Eastbridge is not a medical hospital, but an ancient place of hospitality, or hostel as we would call it today. It has been welcoming pilgrims and visitors to Canterbury for an astonishing 828 years, ever since Saint Thomas Becket was murdered in his own cathedral. It was set up to cater for the thousands of pilgrims who walked to Canterbury to visit the saint’s shrine in the cathedral, until its destruction during the Reformation. You can easily imagine Chaucer’s less wealthy pilgrims finding shelter here.
I first visited after walking the 60 miles from London to Canterbury, a walk that partly prompted the story that became Unlawful Things. Footsore and weary, I could well imagine stretching out on the tiled floor of the undercroft, chatting to my fellow pilgrims, eating in the dining hall and falling asleep to the sound of the river which runs under the bridge.
I’ve been back since to learn more about its fascinating history. I learned about some of the figures who became Masters of the Hospital, about their links to Canterbury Cathedral, and about the hospital’s time as a school. I can’t tell you much more, because lots of this wound up in the book. Of course, I designed my own version of historical events to fit my story. I was a little nervous about how modern-day Eastbridge might react to this version of history, but happily the present-day clerk to the hospital is a crime fiction fan and has been very understanding!
Eastbridge today remains an almshouse, continuing its tradition of hospitality. It has two chapels, and also welcomes visitors to events and exhibitions. It’s well worth a visit next time you are in Canterbury.