CANTERBURY: tales from history

In the fifth of our new series exploring some of Britain’s most interesting towns and cities, Tom Evans travels to Canterbury and finds a thriving city that celebrates a rich heritage, and maintains a distinctive independent and local character.

With its rich history as a centre of English religion, mix of architecture spanning a millennium and growing independent retail and restaurant sector, Canterbury marries modern city life with a medieval atmosphere. As with Salisbury, the last place to feature in this series of articles, the famous cathedral dominates, but it is only a part of what this relatively small, but surprisingly vibrant, city has to offer. As pilgrims over the centuries have enjoyed, the modern visitor to Canterbury will be well rewarded for allowing time to wander among the wonderfully characterful and winding streets to discover its many interesting attractions.

The High Street

The High Street

It was in the seventh century when Canterbury started its rise to international fame, after it was chosen as the seat of the first Archbishop. The first cathedral was built at the time and later replaced with the massive stone structure we know now. The city can, however, trace its roots back to the Iron Age, when it was an important centre for the local Celtic tribe. The settlement was subsequently taken over and rebuilt during the first century AD by the Romans, who laid out streets on a grid pattern and built a wall around its perimeter. The town, known in Latin as Durovernum Cantiacorum, then flourished for 300 years, but was left abandoned following the decline of the Roman civilization in the 4th century. After the arrival of the Archbishop and cathedral, it really began to thrive again and leather and wool became important industries. By the Middle Ages, Canterbury was one of the largest towns in England and from the 12th century another important industry materialised, that of providing hospitality for pilgrims following the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The late 16th century saw the city’s population grow further as migrants from Belgium, who brought their weaving skills with them, came to Canterbury fleeing religious persecution. The industrial revolution largely passed Canterbury by and it remained a market town, though of significant religious importance. As the seat of the head of the Church of England, it has global status that is reinforced by its inclusion in famous literature from T.S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

History comes alive at The Canterbury Tales

History comes alive at The Canterbury Tales

Today the city is lively and thriving with education and tourism as its major industries; however its urban heritage certainly hasn’t been diminished and it manages to retain a somewhat medieval feel. This has been helped by the carefully rebuilt quarter that was razed by Second World War bombs and poorly rebuilt from the 1950s to 1970s.

Canterbury is located in Kent and is a short distance from the south eastern coast of England. It is well connected by road and rail, with the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link shortening the journey time from London’s St Pancras International to just under an hour. The city is joined to the national road network by close links to the M20 and M2, while the A2 and A260 connect it with the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel terminal in Cheriton near Folkestone. There is a coach park at St John’s, which is a few minutes walk from the city centre, and there is a two-bay coach drop off and collection point at St George’s Lane in front of the Whitefriars Shopping Centre. Canterbury has two mainline railway stations, East and West, which are located within walking distance of the centre and are served by frequent trains to and from London and elsewhere in Kent.

Most of the city’s main streets and visitor attractions are situated within the boundaries of the old Roman city walls, making it a great place to explore by foot. With so much history and hidden gems to uncover, it is well worth considering taking a guided tour of the city, where the stories of those who lived in and visited it are brought to life. There are a number of tours that groups may choose, from a general introduction to the city to themed tours that may include a lecture by an expert in the chosen field. Details on some of the options are noted in the box below. In addition, Canterbury Visitor Centre has a leaflet, ‘Queen Bertha’s Walk’, that allows groups to follow a selfguided walking trail from Canterbury Cathedral to St. Martin’s Church. The city can get busy with continental students during the early parts of the day and it may be worth arranging tours towards the end of the afternoon to avoid the crowds.

Canterbury’s ancient architecture

Canterbury’s ancient architecture

Perhaps the best place to start a tour of Canterbury is right at the heart of the city, opposite the cathedral entrance, at the Buttermarket. The small pedestrianised square has served as a focal point for for over 800 years and is a great place to gather for a talk from a guide. At its centre is a war memorial and the surrounding timberframed buildings house a selection of cafés, gift shops and restaurants, as well as the Visitor Centre. The area was previously known as the Bullstake, after the practice of baiting bulls with dogs in a belief that it would tenderise the meat, but was renamed around 200 years ago. The Cathedral Gates, built in 1507, overlook the square and provide a fitting introduction to the Cathedral Precincts.

Passing through the ornate gates, groups will get a full view of the historic Canterbury Cathedral. It is surrounded by medieval buildings and ruins and was built over a number of centuries primarily in the Gothic and Romanesque styles (more information about the cathedral and its key attractions can be found under the heading ‘Canterbury Cathedral’). Ruined arches from the medieval priory stand to the rear of the cathedral, as does a Romanesque gem in the shape of a Water Tower. Parts of the priory’s Granary, Bakery and Brewery can also be seen from here, though these are now occupied by The King’s School. Centred around Green Court, a large lawned area within the precincts, the school is claimed to be the oldest in Britain, having been established by Henry VIII in 1541. Visitors on a guided tour are able to enter the grounds of the Kings School and, during term time, will see students in their distinctive black and white uniforms rushing from class to class.

Leaving the Cathedral Precincts on to The Borough, groups will be struck by a lopsided building located opposite, which appears to be in the process of falling over. The building, formerly the school’s tuck shop, dates from the 17th century, but experienced substantial subsidence during later renovation work and is now one of the most photographed buildings in the city.

The Buttermarket

The Buttermarket

Close by, along Palace Street, visitors will find an array of architectural styles and a large range of independent retailers, charming cafes and a historic pub. A feature in Canterbury is the use of mathematical tiles, a Georgian cosmetic addition to buildings that made old timber-framed houses appear as if they were made out of red brick, and a number of examples can be found here. However, an earlier 17th century frontage on Conquest House, half way along the street, hides the interior of a historically significant building dating from the 11th century. It is believed to be here that the knights who murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral met the night before that fateful day in 1170. Other buildings of interest on the street include St Alphege Church, also dating from the 11th century, and the former home of Mary Tourtel, who invented Rupert the Bear.

The street makes up part of the King’s Mile, Canterbury’s most diverse and culturally unique shopping district. The mile stretches from Northgate, along The Borough, to the High Street, where the precinct meets Guildhall Street, and features boutique shops, independent restaurants and cafés that spill out onto the street.

Walking on to Orange Street and the Friars, groups should stop on the bridge that crosses the river to spy two friary buildings, which date from the 13th century. The old refectory and guesthouse are now privately owned, but were part of a much larger site granted to the Dominicans, known as the Blackfriars, in 1237.

The imposing new Marlowe Theatre, named after the famous poet and playwright who came from Canterbury, is located to the side of the Friars and is in sharp contrast to its historic surroundings. Due to open in the autumn, the modern building is the third incarnation of the theatre and will host ajor shows, as well as premiering new workby local artists and performers. Groups will be able to benefit from special ticket discounts, free coach parking and pre-booked catering.

Moving along the street towards the High Street, it’s worth looking out for the Marlowe Memorial Statue, created by the sculptor Onslow Ford in 1891. The figurerepresents the Muse of Poetry, dubbed ‘Kitty Marlowe’ by locals, and would originally have stood in the Buttermarket.
Exiting the Friars onto the High Street, groupscould head towards St Peter’s Street and the Westgate Towers at the dge of the old city walls.

The River Stour running through the city

The River Stour running through the city

The Grade I listed building, commissioned by Archbishop Simon Sudbury in 1380, is the largest surviving medieval gateway in England. The eye-catching landmark houses displays in an authentic setting and has recently been saved from closure and brought back to life under the directorship of Charles Lambie, who is also chairman of Canterbury Archaeological Trust. The building, which was used as a jail from 1453, is a fun place to explore and offers some wonderful views of the city from the top level. Visitors can experience the enlightened reforms of the Victorian era in the 1830s gaol, which has been re-opened for the first time in over 130 years. The building also houses some magnificent plaster casts, dating from 1847 and 1851, that represent those present at the signing of the Magna Carta and were used to create the bronze statues that now stand in the Lords Chamber at Westminster. A great deal of sympathetic renovation work has been taking place at the towers and a new glass covered café and visitor area at ground level, which provides information on the building for those unable to take the stone spiral staircase, have been created. The stylish café – which officially opens at the end of June – can accommodate groups for lunch or tea and coffee, but larger parties will need to split into smaller groups to take a tour of the towers.

Moving back along St Peter’s Street to the High Street, before reaching the river, look out for the Eastbridge Hospital, which was founded following the murder of Thomas Becket to provide accommodation for poor pilgrims to his tomb. For 800 years it has given shelter and help to travellers, soldiers and local societies and for over 400 years it has provided a permanent home to a number of elderly people. Visitors are welcome and attractions include an undercroft, two chapels, a 13th century painting of Christ in Glory and peaceful Franciscan gardens. Tours can be arranged.

Returning to the High Street and crossing the river, groups will see signs for boat trips that are offered along the River Stour. The tours provide a great opportunity to see the city from a different perspective – or as an alternative introduction before you explore further on foot – and more information about the different services on offer are noted in the panel below.

A short distance along the street is the site of the Beaney project, which will create a new art museum and library in the heart of the city. Due to open in the spring of 2012, it aims to restore and enlarge a Victorian building to offer a new venue where visitors can attend talks and events, as well as enjoying art galleries and a modern library.

Bagpuss at the Canterbury Heritage Museum

Bagpuss at the Canterbury Heritage Museum

Taking a right along Stour Street, groups will find the Canterbury Heritage Museum, housed within the medieval Poor Priests’ Hospital. With its oak-beamed ceilings, it contains an eclectic exhibition that explores Canterbury’s history from pre-Roman times to the present day.

Arranged as a time walk, the galleries contain some real gems including the original Bagpuss and Stephenson’s Invicta railway engine. In addition, there is an exhibition dedicated to Rupert the Bear, whose creator Mary Tourtel was born in Canterbury. Group rates are available and tours of the museum can be arranged with Canterbury Tourist Guides.

Close by, inside a 12th century church on St Margaret’s Street, is The Canterbury Tales. The attraction allows visitors to step back over 500 years to join Geoffrey Chaucer and his colourful characters on their pilgrimage from London to the shrine of Thomas Becket. Audio guides, static models, sets and smells are used to take visitors on the journey to Canterbury. With its recreation of medieval life, the attraction provides a fun introduction to an important time in the city’s history and to Chaucer’s famous tales. Group discounts are available.

Moving back across the High Street to Butchery Lane, groups will find the Roman Museum. Built around the remains of a town house, the underground museum tells the story of the city during the Roman era. Mosaic floors are preserved where excavated and finds from everyday life at this time are displayed in reconstructions of a house and market. In addition, artefacts can be handled and the Roman period in Britain can be explored further through the use of interactive guides.

The Roman Museum

The Roman Museum

A short walk away, off St George’s Street, is the Whitefriars Shopping Centre. It was once home to the Austin friars, but was extensively damaged during Second World War bombing raids and subsequently saw unsuccessful redevelopments between the 1950s and 1970s. The new development, completed in 2005, is far more appropriate to its historic setting and offers a range of high street stores and food outlets.

Moving just outside the city walls, onto Longport, is the impressive St Augustine’s Abbey. Along with the cathedral and St Martin’s Church, it forms part of the Canterbury World Heritage Site and was founded shortly after 597 by St Augustine. A museum and audio tour provide information about the site, now managed by English Heritage, but a guided tour can be arranged to get a greater understanding of the abbey’s historical and religious significance. A joint ticket can be purchased that provides entry to both the cathedral and the abbey.

Close by stands St Martin’s Church, the oldest still in use in England today. Regular Christian worship has taken place here since the 6th century and it is where Queen Bertha worshipped before St Augustine and his followers arrived from Rome.

There is more than enough to see and do in Canterbury to justify spending a night or two in the city and the accommodation offer caters for a range of tastes and prices. The Abode Hotel on the High Street is a stylish boutique hotel that has maintained the old wooden beams and traditional fabric of an ancient and historic building, while adding contemporary design features and modern comforts. The hotel has 72 bedrooms and offers a range of dining and drinking experiences. Other options include The Falstaff on St Dunstan’s Street, which has 46 ensuite rooms and can arrange group meals for parties of 25 or more, the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, which is situated in the grounds of the cathedral and has 29 rooms, and Best Western Abbots Barton Hotel, on New Dover Road, that has 53 rooms and a restaurant that can seat up to 70 guests. More hotels are available in the surrounding areas and the Visit Canterbury website has a groups section that lists the different options.

For more information on Canterbury please visit www.canterbury.co.uk or www.canterburygroups.co.uk

Canterbury Tours

Lis Hamlin, a member of Canterbury Tourist Guides Ltd, was the very friendly and knowledgeable guide who took the author on his tour of Canterbury. The company, which represents around 50 guides and was set up by them, offers walking tours of the city and the Cathedral Precincts, as well as tailored tours that cover specific interests. Lectures can also be arranged for group visits during the day or in the evening on subjects such as Canterbury Cathedral, The Origins of Christianity in England, Kentish Architecture, Churches, Castles, Gardens and Canterbury’s literary connections. Groups can also benefit from special tours of the Roman Museum and Canterbury Heritage Museum.
Tel: 01227 459779
Email: guides@canterburytouristguides.co.uk
Web: www.canterbury-walks.co.uk

The Canterbury Ghost Tour, meanwhile, offers groups the opportunity to discover the haunting charm of the city by night. The 75-minute tour combines an entertaining blend of history, humour and haunting tales, while walking through the old streets. Groups of 15 or more should book in advance and a tour and meal package is available.
Tel: 0845 519 0267
Email: bookings@canterburyghosttour.com
Web: www.canterburyghosttour.com

Another option for groups is to take an audio tour of the city. Kent Tours welcomes groups of all sizes for their ‘Canterbury Audio Tour’ and can provide information packs to accompany the tours. They have a shop in the city centre and are happy to meet parties at the designated Canterbury coach park at St John’s.
Tel: 01227 767543
Email: groups@kent-tours.co.uk
Web: http://www.kent-tours.co.uk

Or you can use the Tourist Tracks service – www.tourist-tracks.com/tours/canterbury.html – that provides the option of downloading a tour to use on an iPod or other MP3 compatible device.

A local flavour

Canterbury is home to a large number of independently owned restaurants, cafes and shops selling specialist goods and locally produced foods.

The King’s Mile, named after the area’s links with King’s School and royalty, has been re-invigorated in recent years by local traders working with the Canterbury Independent Traders Association and Canterbury City Council. The area received a £600,000 makeover in 2007, which included the introduction of distinctive signage and a pedestrian-friendly environment, to attract more independent shops to the city. The St Dunstan’s, West Gate and Northgate areas also offer a range of specialist outlets and a number of quirky cafés and stylish restaurants can be found on, or just off, the High Street.

Inside the Goods Shed

Inside the Goods Shed

The privately owned Deesons restaurant, based on Sun Street, prides itself on using the best produce that Kent has to offer. It serves new and innovative British dishes,as well as a variety of local drinks, and is able to accommodate pre-booked groups.

The fabulous Goods Shed, located next to Canterbury West railway station, opened in 2002 and houses a daily farmers market with onsite restaurant. The market has a great mixture of stalls, selling anything from fresh fish to local ales, and groups can be accommodated in the restaurant, which uses the market produce, during the week.

The stylish Farmhouse bar and restaurant, located on Dover Street close to the coach drop off point, only serves food that is sourced locally and seasonally. There is plenty of space for large parties here and a variety of budgets can be accommodated – GTOs are encouraged to get in touch to discuss menu options.

River Tours

A river tour offers a great way for groups to escape the busy streets and see hidden sections of the city.

Canterbury Historic River Tours

Canterbury Historic River Tours

Canterbury Historic River Tours provides an enjoyable insight into Canterbury’s historic past through a 40-minute guided rowing boat tour, which gives a good introduction to the city. The company can trace its history back to 1932 and is well used to taking groups along the River Stour to explore parts of the city that are only accessible by water. The tour travels to a small Franciscan island, known as the Greyfriars, before passing under the Eastbridge Hospital and the King’s Bridge. A series of medieval industrial buildings, including The Old Weavers House, The Kings Mill and the Cromwellian iron forge, can then be seen, as the boat sails towards the Dominican Priories. Solly’s Orchard, the site of the old Abbots Mill, is then visited before the tour returns, past the Marlowe Theatre, to the starting point at the site of the infamous ‘Ducking Stool’, a chair that was suspended on a frame over the river and used as a form of punishment, public embarrassment and a litmus test for witches in days gone by! The tours are led by friendly and informative ‘boatmen’ who relay facts about passing buildings and monuments in an entertaining manner. The company offers a meet and greet service from the coach park, or designated drop off point, and group discounts are available upon request.
Tel: 07790534744
Email: info@canterburyrivertours.co.uk
Web: www.canterburyrivertours.co.uk

Canterbury Punting Company, meanwhile, offers two routes along the river from its base on Water Lane. A tour, on a traditional punt, takes around 40 minutes and either travels through parts of the historic city or upstream and, out of Canterbury, into the countryside. Those looking for a little more excitement may like to book a ghost tour, which is available along either route and usually takes place during the early evenings. Groups of up to 36 people can be accommodated across the company’s three punts and discounts are available for parties of eight or more.
Tel: 07786332666
Email: info@canterburypunting.co.uk
Web: www.canterburypunting.co.uk

Canterbury Cathedral

The magnificent Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest and most important Christian structures in Britain.

There has been a church on the site since 602, when St Augustine established his seat within the city walls and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. The site was extensively redeveloped by the Saxons and then rebuilt completely by the Normans following a major fire in 1067; however, parts of the original building still lie beneath the floor of the Nave. Subsequent additions have been made over many hundreds of years and the cathedral, as seen today, is mainly a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles.

On entering the cathedral, visitors will be struck by the variety of stained glass windows. Some are amongst the earliest and finest in Europe, while others are more recent and date from the middle of the 20th century. The oldest window, located on the bottom tier of the West Window, dates from 1176 and shows Adam digging with a spade. The cathedral has its own stained glass conservation studio, which has become a centre of excellence and also works on the windows of other churches and cathedrals around the country.

The Quire is in the early Gothic style and replaces a much older structure that burnt down in 1173. It was designed and started by William of Sens, a Frenchman, who was mortally injured and forced to stop his work after a fall during building work. The construction work was continued and finished by William the Englishman in 1220.

To the side of the Quire is The Martyrdom, where Thomas Becket was murdered by knights in the belief that they were carrying out the orders of King Henry II. A modern sculpture, of two swords and a broken sword point, marks the site of the murder and throws a striking shadow behind a stone altar.

The cathedral’s Crypt is the largest of its kind in the country and is the oldest part of the building. The western section, dating from the 11th century, is in the Norman/Romanesque style and features rounded arches and carved pillars. A new sculpture by the artist Antony Gormley, entitled ‘Transport’, is suspended above the site of Thomas Becket’s first resting place in the Eastern Crypt. The work is made of iron nails from the cathedral’s repaired south east transept roof and is in the shape of a floating body.

With so much history to explore, tours of the cathedral are highly recommended and are undertaken by Blue Badge guides. A general tour, which takes around an hour and a quarter, provides a good introduction to the cathedral, but tailored and behind the scenes tours can also be arranged to explore different parts of the building including the studio where stained glass is restored and made, or where the masons work in stone. Another option for groups is to book an evening tour, which is a good option to avoid the crowds and experience the cathedral in a different atmosphere.

Advance booking is recommended and groups have the option of an ‘entrance only’ ticket or purchasing additional services, such as private guided tours, audiotours, audiovisual presentations and lectures.
Tel: 01227 762862
Email: visits@canterbury-cathedral.org
Web: www.canterbury-cathedral.org