Canterbury, England, is one of the prettiest cities in the UK – and it’s only an hour away by train from London. Every stone and alley is well worn from tourists and pilgrims alike. If you love history or need a breather from the crowds and smog it’s the perfect getaway.
Did I mention it’s utterly charming?
This is the biggie – the reason this city is a cornerstone in the Western imagination. Why it’s the HQ of the Anglican Church, why innumerable pilgrims have visited for centuries, and why most people visit today. After all, has anyone not read at least one tale from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? (If not – I recommend The Wife of Bath’s Tale.)
Some people still start their pilgrimage the traditional way, walking from their own front door all the way to the city. (Alas, I flew.)
Every inch of this place is covered in history. You may find yourself rushing past The Black Prince’s tomb or some historic stained glass.
Go to Evensong! You don’t have to be religious to be astonished at the beauty of a Choral Evensong. It’s an Anglican tradition passed down for centuries, and you really can’t beat the acoustics. (Also, it’s free. Yeah, saving you 12.50 per person. But be respectful and maybe buy a postcard – cathedrals aren’t cheap to maintain!)
This is a rather controversial piece of modern stained glass, the Bossanyi Window. Locals describe it as a love or hate it piece – but I got the feeling it’s mainly the latter for them. The original stained glass, unfortunately, was destroyed in WWII.
Canterbury Cathedral also boasts one of the most beautiful ceilings – my neck got sore from craning.
The most famous, or infamous, incident at the Cathedral was the murder of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. After Thomas Becket and Henry II quarrelled over excommunications, an exasperated Henry II uttered these words (or words similar) in 1170: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four knights heard this comment, took it as an order, then murdered Thomas Beckett near this very spot.
This sculpture represents the four swords of the knights. Of course, Becket was soon venerated as a martyr and the pilgrimages a la The Canterbury Tales began in his name.
Also, don’t forget to go down into the crypts to see Anthony Gormley’s piece, Transport, suspended from the burial place of St. Thomas Becket. The Chapter House and cloisters are fantastic, too. (Go through the door behind the shrine!)
St. Martin’s Church and St. Augustine’s Abbey Augustine’s Abbey
Canterbury landed on the UNESCO World Heritage List partially because of these properties (and Canterbury Cathedral, of course). They’re less visited than the Cathedral, but still incredibly important places.
I’d brush up on your Anglo-Saxon and medieval history before going – you’ll get more out of these two places. Or learn at the location.
Bertha and Æthelbert of Kent statues greet you at Lady Woolton’s Green, a historical park made from the path from Queen Bertha’s path to her chapel at St. Martin’s Church.
St. Augustine, considered to be the founder of the Catholic Church in England, founded St. Augustine’s Abbey in 598. It was one of the most important, and rich, monasteries in medieval England. When Henry VIII broke from Rome and began to dissolve the monasteries, he and his henchmen soon got their greedy hands on St. Augustine’s Abbey’s riches and even some of Æthelbert’s skull – it was by then a relic.
Today you’ll see mostly ruins next to beautiful 19th century St. Augustine’s College.
After exploring this and the museum, go to St. Martin’s Church, only an 8-minute walk away.
To sum up its long and rich history – St. Martin’s Church was once Queen Bertha’s private chapel before St. Augustine expanded it and then baptised Æthelberht – the first English king to convert to Christianity.
Today, St. Martin’s Church is the oldest parish church in the English speaking world. But it can be easy to walk right past it, it’s a humble and quiet place of reflection surrounded by tombstones and greenery.
There’s a mixture of Roman and Saxon architecture – study the walls closely and you’ll see mixes of Kentish ragstone and slim Roman bricks under a lovely beamed ceiling.
Get a tour if you can, the small church and surrounding grounds are steeped in history and a friendly local expert is sure to point out graves and features that you wouldn’t notice otherwise.
Roman Walls and Medieval Gates
After so much history it can be nice to casually stroll especially on a nice day (after a cup of tea, of course – try Burgate Coffee House).
I recommend walking the Roman Walls. The city walls that partially surround Canterbury are fairly quiet compared to the bustling area directly around the Cathedral. You’ll get especially fantastic views from Dane John Mound, the site of a previous motte and bailey castle.
Along the way, there are plaques explaining local history.
And these gates still remain imposing – Westgate is the largest city gate remaining in England.
Walk to Chatham along the River Stour
Kent is beautiful, and it isn’t known as the Garden of England for nothing! Get a slice of it by walking to the next village – Chatham.
This is a brisk walk that should take a little over an hour, about 3.5 miles, along the river Stour. (We took the five-minute train back.) Take a picnic if you so wish.
Walking along the River Stour is utterly relaxing. Immerse yourself in rolling fields, watch the skips go by and locals out with their dogs. We even saw some Highland Cattle.
This was taken near Greyfriar’s Gardens. We stayed at Greyfriar’s Lodge, a budget-friendly and Grade II listed lodge that allows permanent access to the gardens, which are usually only open to the public for limited times.
Canterbury is well worth a visit for the history and casual charm of the place. Get some tea, hear the old bells of the Cathedral, and visit a boutique. Most importantly, explore, explore, explore.
There’s plenty of museums, theatres, and shops to visit – and even a crooked house Dickens may have written about (which I wrote about here). You’ll be following in the footsteps of so many famed names, and they seem to pop out at you from every corner.