Experience Canterbury

Posted on: 23 October 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A guide to Kent’s oldest and most celebrated city.

Cathedrals and champagne bars; cobbled streets and elegant eateries; castles and chic boutiques. Canterbury is Kent’s most historic city and makes a seductive venue for mid-week breaks and weekend escapes.

Even though it was bombed relentlessly during the World War II it still contains many ancient buildings, and modern building development within the medieval town centre which is strictly regulated by officials at Canterbury.

Canterbury was founded as the Romano-Celtic town of Durovernum Cantiacorum. In the early Middle Ages, the city became known by the Anglo-Saxon name of Cantwarebyrig, meaning "fortress of the men of Kent".

The city is easily accessible from London, being 90 minutes by rail and about 70 miles by road.

What To See

There are so many ways to get to know this atmospheric city and as the heart is traffic-free a leisurely stroll (with a Green Badge Guide or solo) along the narrow, cobbled streets is ideal for discovering its treasures including a good mix of shops, boutiques, cosy pubs and restaurants. 

This is a walled Roman city and there are still sections that can be walked around offering amazing views so take advantage.

Its centrepiece is Canterbury Cathedral – richly deserving of the UNESCO World Heritage status it shares with nearby St Augustine’ Abbey and St Martin’s Church.

The place simply oozes history. Founded by St Augustine about 1400 years ago, it boasts an 11th century Romanesque crypt, a 12th century Gothic quire and a magnificent 14th century Gothic nave.  

Canterbury CathedralBut it’s probably best known for the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. Canterbury, always on the medieval pilgrim route to Rome, became an end in itself as thousands came to worship at Becket’s tomb – particularly after his canonisation in 1173.  Literary giant Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales were by no means unique.

Becket’s shrine was destroyed in 1538 but today you’ll find a simple candle marking the spot - and note the pink stone bearing the imprint of the pilgrims’ knees over the centuries.

Do wander off the beaten track while you’re here and explore some of the hidden secrets regular tourists miss. Go to the cathedral precincts and find the Dark Entry (a long narrow passage leading to the cloisters, crypt and interior of the cathedral) where the ghost of Nell Cook - who cooked for the cathedral’s prior about 200 years ago – is said to roam. Apparently she was buried alive after being accused of poisoning the prior.

Nell’s story is related in Thomas Ingoldsby’s collection of myths and ghost stories published between1840 and 1847 – and such is the power of his prose that those in the know still avoid the Dark Entry on Friday nights.

The cathedral has at least 70 Green Men (interpreted as a symbol of rebirth), most of which can be seen in the roof bosses in the Great Cloister and are among hundreds of faces, mermaids and angels looking down on visitors.

Don’t miss evensong at the cathedral – 3pm on Saturday. Slip into a pew, gaze up at the vaulted ceilings and vivid stained glass windows and let the voices of the choir wash over you.

Just beyond the city centre is the oldest church in England still in use – St Martin’s Church (01227 768072) – and then head outside the city walls for St Augustine’s Abbey (www.english-heritage.org.uk) where a free audio tour guides you through the former monastery.

At the Roman Museum in Butchery Lane (below ground at the level of the ancient town) investigate the remains of a Roman town house or the medieval West Gate Towers which now houses a small museum of arms and armoury. And try the Rupert Bear Museum – part of the Museum of Canterbury. Creator of the iconic bear Mary Tourtel went to art school in the city. (www.canterbury-museums.co.uk).

Canterbury was the birthplace of 16th century poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe and the theatre bearing his name presents a wide range of live entertainment and performing arts (www.marlowetheatre.com).

The most obvious area for shopping is the Whitefriars centre which reflects the city’s traditional street style but offers contemporary fashion and lifestyle retail names – but don’t overlook the quirky individual shops, either, in the maze of medieval side streets. Burgate’s Bloomsbury for jewellery, bags, art and a variety of gifts or nearby Canterbury Pottery stand out from the crowd. 

Between April and September you can glide away from the city centre courtesy of Canterbury Historic River Tours – a convivial insight into Canterbury’s historic past complete with light-hearted commentary. Tours last between 30 and 40 minutes. (www.canterburyrivertours.co.uk).

Where To Eat

Whether you’re after a quick bite or a gourmet meal you won’t have to look far for an answer.

Acclaimed chef Michael Caines at ABode Canterbury offers great modern British cuisine using local ingredients in a cool and elegant space. There’s also a classy Champagne bar. A second Michael Caines eatery – the Old Brewery Tavern – is at the same address and ideal for more dressed-down dining. (30-33 High Street; 01227 766266; www.michaelcaines.com). 

The Goods Shed is another favourite and conveniently situated next to the first daily farmers’ market in the country which supplies the ingredients for its splendid modern British fare. (Station Road West; 01227 459153). 

For a sweet treat aim for The Custard Tart teashop (35a St Margaret’s Street; 01227 785178) for a cake - or three.

Café St Pierre is a friendly French café with a great patio at the back and outdoor tables (St Peter’s Street; 01227 456791).

Where To Stay

Check in to ABode Canterbury for modern luxury at a sensible price. Everything you need for an indulgent short break from handcrafted beds and tuck boxes to DVD players and wet rooms. (30-33 High Street; 01227 766266; www.abodehotels.co.uk). 

Sightseers may prefer the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge which overlooks gardens and has amazing views of the cathedral. (The Precincts; 01227 865350; www.canterburycathedrallodge.org). 

Out of town award-winning B&B Iffin Farm House gets glowing reports from its guests. (Iffin Lane; 01227 462776; www.visitkent.co.uk).

Web Links

Kent Tourist Board

Canterbury Tourist Board

Canterbury Cathedral

Have you been to Canterbury before?

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