Nestled near the North Downs and bisected by the River Stour, Canterbury is a city with a great many tales to tell. The 250ft tower of the cathedral, the mother church of the Church of England, can be spied for miles across Kent, over the treeline, rooftops and the city’s partially intact Norman castle wall. This stone beacon has been guiding pilgrims and visitors to ‘Britain’s Rome’ for centuries.
Within the city walls, there are fascinating smaller museums and lovely gardens to relax in. There are punt trips down the Stour which ripples gently along languid, tree- shaded channels. Or you can wander narrow, traffic-free streets, lined with wonky wood-beam medieval houses, where you may feel like you’ve slipped through a crack in time. Turn a corner and you’re right back in a lively and youthful university town with all the essentials of modern urban life, including a vibrant food and drink scene.
What to see and do
Originally named Christ Church and part of a monastic community, England’s first cathedral has been a sacred place of Christian worship for over 1,400 years. It was on the pilgrimage route to Rome soon after its foundation in the early 7th century by St Augustine, the Benedictine monk tasked with reintroducing Christianity to Britain. Much of the main building was reconstructed between 1070 and 1077 during the time of Norman Archbishop Lanfranc, replacing the earlier Saxon church destroyed by fire.
Following the grisly murder in 1170 that made a saint of Archbishop Thomas Becket, pilgrims from across Europe began to flock to Canterbury. Becket’s shrine was destroyed during the Reformation, but that loss doesn’t diminish the cathedral’s grand architecture and other important tombs, including those of Edward the Black Prince, Henry IV and his wife Joan of Navarre. The cathedral is the seat of the Anglican leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the site of his investiture.
There’s a new visitor centre, including a free viewing gallery, exhibition area and community studio. Inside the cathedral, there are also two new exhibitions of treasures from the church’s extensive collection. Don’t miss Christ Church Gate, the impressive South West Porch, the awe-inspiring Nave and St Martin’s Church (the oldest part of the World Heritage site).
Canterbury Roman Museum
A visit to this underground museum will give you a vivid sense of the ancient Roman town on which modern Canterbury rests. In 1886, workmen digging a drainage system uncovered a floor mosaic, 8ft beneath street level and thought to date back to 300 AD. In the aftermath of World War II bombings, further excavations of the site around Longmarket revealed more geometric and floral paving and the remains of a well-to-do Roman town house, warmed by a hypocaust (an underfloor heating system).
Left in situ, these discoveries are the centrepiece of Canterbury Roman Museum which displays many other archaeological finds from this and other sites around the city, including a wonderful collection of Roman glass and pottery.
The narrow, cobbled medieval streets of Butchery Lane and Longmarket branch into broad High Street. Running on a northwest–southeast axis between St George’ Gate and Westgate, this pedestrian thoroughfare is Canterbury’s commercial spine, lined mainly with shops, restaurants and cafés. Distinctly contemporary at its southern end, where you’ll find the Whitefriars shopping centre and other modern buildings, it offers up a more diverse historical character the closer you get to Westgate.
A personal favourite among Canterbury’s superb stock of heritage architecture, is The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge. This combined museum, art gallery, library and tourist information centre is named after the building’s Victorian benefactor, Dr James George Beaney. Hailing from humble beginnings, Beaney made his fortune in Australia and left money in his will for an ‘institute for working men’ to be built in his birthplace of Canterbury. This gorgeous building, with its elaborate façade of mock Tudor brickwork and terracotta, opened in 1898. The sensitively executed modern extension to the rear contains the library, visitor information centre and temporary exhibition spaces.
Rather than a single street, the King’s Mile covers a series of contiguous and neighbouring streets east of the High Street and north of the cathedral. It’s a picturesque district; at its heart is Palace Street, which is dotted with a good range of independent shops, cafés, bars and restaurants.
On the corner of Palace Street and King Street stands Crooked House, a comically wonky, early 17th-century half-timbered building, home now to the charity Catching Lives, second-hand bookshop. Alterations to an internal chimney are believed to have originally caused the structure to slip sideways and it’s thought that the house inspired a description of a lop-sided property in Dickens’ David Copperfield (the quote is inscribed across the building’s façade). Although it looks like it could topple over any second, the building has long since been stabilised internally by a steel frame.
Opposite, at the bottom of The Borough, is a stone gate opening into the section of the cathedral precincts occupied by The King’s School. England’s oldest public school dates back to the cathedral’s foundation and has had Royal Charter since 1541. The playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlow was a student here, along with William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood, and the distinguished Tudor gardener John Tradescant. More recent ‘Old King’s Scholars’ include the actor Orlando Bloom and author Michael Morpurgo.
Westgate and Westgate Gardens
An excellent elevated view over Canterbury can be had from the battlements atop the 60ft-tall towers of Westgate. The sole intact survivor of the city’s original seven gates, Westgate is also the largest medieval gate in England, built around 1380 as an extra defence for the city during the Hundred Years’ War. Originally approached over a drawbridge, the gate and the connecting 19th-century buildings of 1 Pound Lane later did service as a gaol and police station.
The history of the complex is explained in a small museum within the gate, which is accessed through The Pound Kitchen & Bar which now occupies the old police buildings. A fun way to experience the gate is to sign up to play one of the three Escape Room games here – full details are on the website.
The garden’s most extraordinary feature is a ridiculously chubby Oriental plane tree that is believed to be over 200 years old. A fine walk and cycle route runs through the gardens and along the Stour to the village of Chartham, three miles southwest.
St Dunstan’s Church
Walk five minutes from Westgate to the corner of London Road and St Dunstan’s Street to find this modest-looking church named after a 10th-century Archbishop of Canterbury. Its most famous feature – the remains of Sir Thomas More’s head – lies buried in a lead casket in an underground vault. It was from St Dunstan’s that Henry II commenced his barefoot walk to Canterbury Cathedral on 12 July 1174, the first stage of his public penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. This made the church an important calling point on the journeys of subsequent medieval pilgrims to the cathedral.
On your way to the church, take note of the Roper Gate on the north side of St Dunstan’s Street. This fine example of decorative Tudor brickwork was once the entrance to the long-since demolished 16th-century Place House, home to William and Margaret Roper.