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Tell-tale features

Chris Fautley experiences the world of Chaucer's stories - smells and all.

Heard the one about the cockerel, the hen and the fox? Or the three drunkards and the pile of gold? Chaucer put it better, but for students of The Canterbury Tales the answer would hopefully be "yes".

Housed in a former church in Canterbury, the Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction is a walk-through series of set-piece tab-leaux that use life-sized figures, sound, light, animation and even smells to enable visitors to experience the journey of Chaucer's 14th- century pilgrims.

The idea of joining a medieval pilgrimage which takes in forests, bustling high streets, raucous markets and gloomy inns is appetising enough but the real master-stroke is being able to enter the world of five of the tales. A group of Year 7 students from the King Edmund School in Rochford, Essex, suddenly find themselves in the company of Chaucer's pilgrims in the night-time fug of Southwark's Tabard Inn.

Sunrise sees the journey begin as we move though the hustle and bustle of Borough High Street and the Kent Road. Both are splendidly portrayed, especially by the detailed half-timbered buildings, and lead to St Thomas's Watering Place - a damp and murky spot where the Knight's Tale is told.

It isn't long before proceedings are interrupted by the miller blowing a loud raspberry and proclaiming that he can tell a far better story, the cue to move on. The Miller's Tale is superbly brought to life by characters who appear from behind window shutters. "Children always adore the Miller's Tale because it is rude," English teacher Sheila White whispers.

Visitors are issued with headphones and a "wand" which activates a sound track at each scene. It feels as if a gentle hand is ushering you along, but you cannot rewind or pause the commentary should you wish to linger.

There is fine attention to detail throughout and worthy of special mention are the setting for the Wife of Bath's Tale; the putrid inn where the Pardoner's Tale is told; the West Gate entrance to medieval Canterbury; and the final destination, the shrine of Thomas a Becket.

When it seems as though things cannot possibly get any better, we reach the re-creation of Canterbury's old market. Here the minutiae of mediaeval life is colourfully set out: a scrivener, a herring seller, a badgemaker and barber extracting teeth. "I find oil of clove deadens the pain," explains our guide. You could even smell it.

At journey's end, a quick strawpoll of pilgrims confirms that the Miller's Tale is indeed the favourite. Several say the experience had helped their understanding of the stories considerably -"brilliant" is a typical comment.

A knowledge of the stories is vital to full enjoyment. "I don't think there is any point bringing children here cold," says Sheila White, adding that the secret of the attraction's success is that the stories are not too long.

Although all the students are studying the tales, the visit is part of a bigger picture. "We teach them the whole Becket story," she says, so they also visit the city's cathedral, the West Gate and the Eastbridge Hospital.

The Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction leaves you wanting more and if they could find a way for everyone to revisit the bits they liked best it would be perfect.

The Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction, St Margaret's Street, Canterbury, Kent. CT1 2TG Tel: 01227 454888 pound;2.95 per child. Advance booking recommended


* It is still possible to see buildings in Canterbury that may have been used by those on pilgrimage: * The Chequer of Hope Inn, High Street, is a 14th-century lodging house that was popular with pilgrims.

* Eastbridge Hospital, St Peter's Street, provided cheap lodgings.

* West Gate Tower, St Peter's Street, was the entrance to the city for pilgrims from London.

* Canterbury Cathedral, journey's end. Admission charges apply.

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