With cobbled streets, a beautiful cathedral, and a fine castle just down the road, history comes alive in the city of Canterbury
There can't be many places more pleasant than Canterbury early on a Sunday morning. Here, inside the city walls, it is possible to imagine the place as it was in medieval times. That’s because much of the old city has survived: its cobbled streets still leading, as they have always done, to the most glorious of cathedrals; its backstreets still silently guarding secrets from the past; its church still offering its faithful a place of worship and solitude.
The church was established here when St Augustine laid the first stones of his Abbey in 597AD. From those foundations grew the cathedral, which still towers over the city today. We took the excellent audio tour and made our own way around the building. From inside, the grandeur of the cathedral is striking, but most impressive of all are the wonderful 12th-century stained glass windows that somehow survived everything from Norman conquests to the Blitz.
The Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey and nearby St Martin’s Church are all listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the status attracting that modern-day pilgrim – the tourist – to sites where once only the faithful flocked.
It was to the city’s cathedral that the 14th-century pilgrims of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales walked to pay homage at the shrine of murdered archbishop Thomas Becket. That journey from the Middle Ages is recreated at the city’s other leading attraction, the Canterbury Tales Museum.
Becket and bunkers
We paid homage to Thomas Becket in our own way by indulging in a splendid Sunday roast at the pub that carries his name. The landlord of a neighbouring pub had reliably informed us that the Thomas Becket had one of the best roasts in town, and we weren’t disappointed.
Our bellies full, we set about exploring what else Kent had to offer. If history is your thing, England’s oldest county has more castles and stately homes than anywhere else in the UK, and Canterbury makes a perfect base from which to explore them.
The National Trust is a good starting point, but we headed for Dover Castle, which has sat atop the splendid White Cliffs of Dover since Anglo-Saxon times. We wandered the castle’s myriad tunnels, trying not to get lost. The underground bunkers here provided a nerve centre for the evacuation of Dunkirk, while its medical centre – which you can still tour – was used to patch up the dead and dying. It’s a fascinating glimpse into one of Britain’s pivotal war moments.
Further north along the Kentish coast, we made for Herne Bay and Whitstable, both pleasant seaside escapes. It must have been our lucky day because we arrived at the tiny Wheelers Oyster Bar (8 High Street, Whitstable) as a table became free. Wheelers has been doing great local seafood for over 150 years. Despite room for only 14 covers, it has never seen the need for expansion. Nor has it ever got round to getting a liquor license, or accepting credit cards. As we found, the food alone is the drawcard.
Back in Canterbury, we wound down with a gentle punt along the River Great Stour, which flows through the heart of the cathedral city. We drifted by The Greyfriars, a small Franciscan island that is home to a 13th-century chapel, and back to the cathedral. We’d come full circle. It was a peaceful end to days spent in a peaceful place. Canterbury is a relaxed city comfortable with its place in history. Its cobbled streets have many tales to tell to anyone with time enough to listen.
Where to stay
The Coach House
in Canterbury (34 Watling Street) is a Grade II-listed Georgian building that has been tastefully turned into a stylish B&B guesthouse. They also organise cycling weekends, guided and self-guided tours of Kent, painting breaks and professional photography weekends.
Where to eat
The Goods Shed (Station Road West, Canterbury): primarily a farmers’ market, The Goods Shed also has an onsite restaurant that uses market produce.
The Thomas Becket (21 Best Lane, Canterbury, Kent): dishes up one of the best Sunday roasts in town.