The cobbled streets of Canterbury have more tales to tell than just that of the martyred Archbishop Thomas Beckett. As such, I am here as your friendly, and overly-chatty, tour guide to take you around the many other historical gems Canterbury has to offer…
Within a 200m circle of Canterbury city center there are two museums, hidden riverside parks, river tours, allegedly the oldest building in Kent, a pilgrims’ hospital, a Dominican priory AND a tiny chapel.
Now, if you follow my guide-book below you’ll notice the huge cathedral-sized elephant in the room which hasn’t been given a mention; Canterbury Cathedral. Despite not sitting within my 200m radius it would be historical unjust to leave it out entirely, so i’ll give a brief mention now….
For many, the Cathedral is the highlight of any trip to Canterbury. Since the murder of Thomas Beckett on its steps, 800 years ago, the site has been a focal point for religious pilgrims and history enthusiasts. If you do visit the Cathedral, you may also wish to call in at the small church of St Martin’s – to witness the Cathedrals humble origins. Still in use today, St Martins is the oldest church in continuous use in the English-speaking world. It was first built during the Roman occupation of Britain, and was restored by the pagan King, Ethelbert, for his French Christian wife, Bertha. It was here in AD 597 that the Benedictine monk Augustine, sent from Rome to educate and convert the Angles, made his first base. Augustine went on build his first Cathedral here – the remains of which lie under the Nave of the Cathedral which today stands in the centre of Canterbury.
Anyway, back to our tour!
When you arrive in Canterbury a great meeting point and place to start your visit is Westgate Towers.
This 60-foot medieval gatehouse is the largest surviving city gate in England. The present towers were built in around 1379 of Kentish ragstone, replacing the Roman westgate which also housed the Church of the Holy Cross on top from the late Anglo-Saxon period. It is the last surviving of Canterbury’s seven medieval gates and is one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks.
During its lifetime it has been a prison and now museum, boasting one of the best views of the city.
Allegedly Queen Victoria even drove through on one occasion, but only stopped to make use of the ‘facilities’!
Passing the towers make sure you also take a stroll through Westgate Gardens to your right. These beautiful gardens have been a public space since the Middle Ages, making it one of England’s oldest parks. Part of the gardens is an official ancient monument site because it covers the remains of the old Roman wall and London road gate.
Nature lovers must seek out the 200 year old Oriental plane tree which is rumoured to have engulfed a metal seat which once encircled it.
On exiting the gardens, take a right and start making your way up the high street until you reach the King’s Bridge over the River Stour. If you fancy a scenic tour of the city by waterway you can find the Historic River Tours on your left.
The knowledgeable guides will point out the beautiful 13th Century Dominican Priory (Blackfriars) and tell you tales of Canterbury in years gone by, including the origins of many phrases such as ‘leg it’ and why it was better to die by ducking stool than survive.
Just to the right of the River Tours you can visit Eastbridge Hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr. Since its foundation in the 12th century the Archbishop of Canterbury has been the patron, and for 800 years it has given shelter and help to pilgrims, soldiers, local societies and schoolchildren. The hospital is a real jewel in Canterbury’s crown, boasting beautiful 13th century murals and an undercroft with fabulous gothic arches.
Having visited an historic tower and garden, been on a river tour and walked the undercroft of the hospital it is definitely time for a spot of lunch, and where better than the historic Old Weavers Restaurant opposite on the river. Like the name suggest this was the centre of Canterbury’s weaving industry in the 16th century, with the restaurant’s foundations dating back to the 12th century
Now it’s time to walk off lunch by visiting another of Canterbury’s hidden gems, Greyfriars Park. Within the pretty (and relatively tourist free!) park is a small Franciscan island with a beautiful 13th century chapel.
It’s no surprise that Time Team love Canterbury and in August 2000 they came to Greyfriars, made some amazing discoveries and declared it one of the most important monastic archaeological sites in Europe!
On a sunny day you may even be able to spot a Greyfriar reading a book or catching some sun on the chapel lawn.
Leaving the park and turning right you won’t be able to miss the stunning exterior of Canterbury Heritage Museum. The ancient Poor Priests’ Hospital boats magnificent medieval beamed roofs and displays of Anglo-Saxon treasures, rare Tudor painted plaster…and even the original Bagpuss!
With so much to see and do for all the family this is the perfect afternoon treat…but be warned there may be ghosts about.
Walking back onto the High Street you won’t be able to miss the magnificent Tudor-esque exterior of the city’s largest museum, The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge.
When learning about the history of the Beaney many are devastated to learn that a pub called the George & Dragon Inn, was demolished to make room for the museum. However, this doesn’t last long as we are reminded that the City now has a treasure trove of collections for everyone to enjoy!
Declared a Royal Museum by Queen Victoria The Beaney now houses many curious finds including Sudanese Shields and an Ancient Egyptian mummified cat.
Further afield… (but still within the city walls!)
Despite being a little run down (the Victorians did use it as a store after all) you cannot miss Canterbury’s Norman Castle.
One of the three original Royal castles of Kent (the other two being Rochester Castle and Dover Castle), they were all built soon after the Battle of Hastings, on the main Roman road from Dover to London (the route taken by William the Conqueror in October 1066).
Canterbury Castle started life as a wooden motte and bailey castle in 1066 and the mound is still visible today in the Dane John (deriving from donjon) garden. However, the Georgians – and their love of landscaping – decided the mound would be more aesthetically pleasing to increase its height by a few meters!
When archaeologists found a series of beautifully preserved Roman floor mosaics and hypocaust, they left them in situ and built the Roman Museum around it.
Visitors can literally walk down from modern street level to the Roman street level into a town house. Families are able to explore Canterbury’s history, wander the marketplace, try on togas and discover hidden countless treasures.
So there you have it. Now it’s time to head back home, or maybe even nearby Whitstable for a plate of their legendary Oysters, and rest your tired toes after a day exploring this wonderful city. With history seeping from its cobbled streets, Canterbury will be sure to delight any historical enthusiast!
If you’ve visited any of the place mentioned, or not mentioned, on the list please let me know!
You can plan your visit to Canterbury here