The big idea

With one of the oldest and most famous cathedrals in the country, and being the only city in the Garden of England, Kent, it’s no major surprise that Canterbury’s a little cracker of a city.
Add to that spirituality and countryside and an invigorating coastline, with a range of different atmospheres in the district, and this is a place for people who seek a blend of experiences from a single break.

Spiritual inspiration...

To have one of the oldest and most renowned cathedrals in England would be impressive.

To have the Archbishop of that cathedral as the head of the Church of England would make it special. To then have the abbey that marks the rebirth of Christianity in England, and the country’s oldest parish church still in use? Well, that would certainly justify a status as a World Heritage Site.
 
Canterbury is quite simply one of the great holy places of Christendom, and has been for over 1,400 years, when the first Roman monks arrived in the small town. But it’s in the last thousand years, ever since Archbishop Thomas à Becket was brutally murdered for his beliefs, and his subsequent sainthood bought hundreds of thousands of pilgrims here every year, that it has truly cemented its claim. It was this that was the subject of the famous Canterbury Tales, written over 500 years ago by the ‘father of English literature’ Geoffrey Chaucer. And of course it’s still on sale today.

...and inspiration all around

Canterbury is a fascinating destination in itself. That said, if you look at the Canterbury district as a whole, you’ll find some impressive sights. Head north to the coast and there are a couple of crackers in Herne Bay and Whitstable. Or browse in most directions and you’re surrounded by chalk grasslands, wild woods and historic little villages.

Let’s take the invigorating coastline a few miles north of the city. Herne Bay is a classic seaside town: two miles of seafront, clean beaches with traditional brightly colouredbeach huts and pretty Victorian architecture. And just to the east is Reculver, with a country park designated a Special Protection area, important for migrating birds, and the imposing Reculver Towers overlooking the sea (check out the statue to the famous ‘bouncing bombs’of World War II, they were tested in the waters here).
 
And then there’s the bohemian and utterly charming fishing village of Whitstable. It’s a foodie’s paradise, with its famous oysters, fascinating little shops (over 90% are independent), and only one of a few beaches in the country with a pub on it. Why not take the route of the old Crab and Winkle line from Canterbury out here? Incidentally, if local foods are your thing, Kent has a huge amount to offer (Kentish hops, Kentish Huffers and the like).
 
Or in the surrounding countryside take in the woodlands of Larkey Valley, Druidstone Park or Blean Woods; the chalk grassland of Denton Bank or Park Gate Down: so much of this part of East Kent is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty.
 
So, at the risk of slipping into cliché, it really is a great base for exploring the area.

Essence

A uniquely important city amidst some idyllic countryside, the essence of Canterbury is sacred nature

How it can make you feel

A visit to Canterbury can quite simply be uplifting, both spiritually and physically. The size of the city is compact, the World Heritage Site area inspiring, and the streets and lanes in which to shop are winding and genuinely interesting.
And then you’ve got the surrounding area.
Beautiful

History

The story of this well-loved and renowned city begins just over 2,000 years ago, when it was occupied by Celtic people from northern France, and was known locally as Durovernon. 
 
Over time the Romans smartened things up and the town, now known as Durovernon Cantiacorum, developed, helped in no small part by the straight Roman roads that were constructed to link the town with London and Dover.
 
The Romans left the town in 410 AD and the Anglo-Saxons gradually took over; the once-magnificent Roman town was destroyed and the name of the town was changed to Cantwaraburh, literally ‘the fortified town of the men of Kent’. Then, towards the end of the 6th century, the Pope sent Augustine on a mission to restore Christian religion to southern England; he duly arrived in Kent and received a positive hearing from the then King, Ethelbert (who later became a Christian). Augustine was given an old Roman church, later to become the cathedral, and a monastery was built to house the monks. At this point in history only monasteries were allowed to teach higher education, and the town built a great reputation for the quality of its teaching and the beautiful illuminated manuscripts produce by the monks.
 
During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Vikings staged regular attacks on the town, until eventually King Cnut was crowned King of England, in the process murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Alphege. But 1066, and the succession to the throne of William the Conqueror, put an end to Viking rule and signalled the start of big changes in the country and the town of Canterbury. It was around this time that work started on rebuilding the cathedral, the previous one having been damaged by fire just after the Norman Conquest.
 
The cathedral was completed at the end of the 11th century, partly destroyed by fire in the 12th century, added to in the 13th and 14th centuries and completed in the 15th century: some building project. Of course, the cathedral is the scene of one of the most dramatic moments in the town’s history, when the Archbishop Thomas à Becket was violently murdered by four Norman knights for defying the king and siding with the church. Following his death, miracles were reported and Thomas was quickly declared a saint by the Pope: this in turn led to his shrine becoming one of the most important places of pilgrimage outside the Holy Land (remember pilgrimages were an important part of mediaeval life – the Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century by Chaucer, is the story of a group of such pilgrims on the way to visit Becket’s tomb).
 
Cut forward to the 16th century and Canterbury would again find itself caught up in the battle between King and Church. This time it was Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries which led to the destruction of Becket’s tomb and the monastery being grabbed and turned into a royal palace for the King and wife number four. The cathedral itself was, however, allowed to carry on as an Anglican church.
 
There then followed fun and games as Henry established the Church of England. His daughter, Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary, switched back to Catholicism, then another daughter, Elizabeth I,  sought reconciliation between the two sides. But not before Canterbury had seen witness to the execution of their Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, and the burning of over 40 Protestant martyrs in the late 16th century.
 
It was also a time of religious unrest abroad, which resulted in Canterbury welcoming Protestant families from Holland and Belgium – many of them were weavers, which gave the local economy a boost.
 
The 18th and 19th centuries were a period of stability for Canterbury: the roads were widened, gardens such as the Dane John Gardens were laid out, and the streets were lit.
The 19th century saw the arrival of the railways, and it was into nearby Whitstable on the wonderfully named Crab and Winkle Line that a six-mile long track was laid to connect Canterbury with the coast. And on 3 May 1830, the first people in the country ever to use a regular rail service travelled the line, making history for the town.
 
During World War II the city took a battering in the Baedeker bombings in revenge for the bombing of Cologne. The aim was simple: to target strategically unimportant but picturesque English cities. Thankfully, the cathedral remained largely untouched, although the Whitefriars area was destroyed. The area has since been redeveloped into a shopping centre.


 

How to experience Canterbury

If you’re going to see the highlights of the Canterbury district, it’s best to start on the coast on the east of Herne Bay at the Reculver Towers. The contrast of rugged coast with the open seascape means a cobweb-blowing start to the day. Then head west to Herne Bay itself; for a more chilled experience, why not simply stroll the promenade and admire the beautifully laid out seafront gardens?
 
Next stop, head west again to the coastal town of Whitstable – there’s a fully working harbour here, some cracking independent shops and great fish markets for food lovers.
Whitstable was also a haven for smugglers in the past and as you meander round the network of alleys, with evocative names like Squeeze Gut Alley, you’ll get a feel for the escape routes used by them some 300 years ago. You can also sail on an old Thames Sailing Barge from the harbour to check out the Maunsell Sea Forts, which were built during World War II, and the wind farms.
 
Now’s the time to head into Canterbury itself via the Crab and Winkle Way – it’s on the historic old railway path; you can walk or cycle (there’s plenty of bike hire places) as it’s mostly flat and just over seven miles long.
 
So, to Canterbury itself: coming into the city cross the River Stour and you’ll find Westgate Towers on the left, one of England’s finest mediaeval fortified gatehouses, and alongside it Westgate Gardens, beautifully landscaped on the banks of the river (most of the gateways into the city were demolished during the 18th and 19th centuries – Westgate is the last one standing).
 
Once in the city, head along St Peter’s Street and onto the High Street; as you do, you’ll pass over King’s Bridge where you can book a river tour of the city – a great way to discover the history of the place and admire weeping willows, clear water and the relaxing meander of the river.
 
Turn left off the High Street down Stour Street; take the first right down here and you’ll find The Museum of Canterbury, which tells the story of the city via interactive displays, as well as housing the Rupert Bear Museum (his creator, Mary Tourtel, lived and worked in the city), and Invicta (the original steam locomotive used in that historic journey back in 1830).
Next door to the museum you’ll also find Greyfriars, the oldest Franciscan building in the country.
 
Turn around and head along the wonderfully named Beer Cart Lane, then turn left at St Margaret’s Street and up on the left you’ll come across The Canterbury Tales visitor attraction, where you literally step back 500 years and join the poet Chaucer and his famous characters as they travel from London to the city, all reconstructed in the historic building of St Margaret’s Church.
 
After experiencing the most famous tales of the city, head straight up the street, through the Christchurch Gate and you’re at the famous cathedral itself. And what a lot there is to see here: the 12th century quire was the first ‘Gothic’ building in England; The Chapter House is the largest of its kind in England; the Bell Harry is here, rung to mark the death of a king, queen or archbishop; and there’s the stunning fan vaulting of the ceiling and the stained glass window commemorating the bravery of Alphege, a previous Archbishop who ordered the people of the city not to pay a ransom when kidnapped and paid with his life.
 
Other legends include the tomb of the Black Prince and the origins of the phrase nosey parker, reputedly after a less popular Archbishop, Matthew Parker, who ordered several unpopular enquiries into the affairs of his clergy.
 
After the cathedral, head down Burgate and then Butchery Lane on the right to find the Canterbury Roman Museum, here you’ll go back even further in time and see archaeological finds from the early Celtic tribes. Head back up Burgate and head east towards Broad Street, where you’ll be able to see the old city walls, mostly mediaeval, but in the Broad Street car park there’s a small part of the Roman Quenin Gate visible in the city wall.
 
Cross the road and you can admire the statues of King Ethelburg, Kent’s most powerful Anglo-Saxon king, and Queen Bertha at Lady Wootton’s Green. Behind here is the gate to the old St Augustine’s Abbey. Finally, along from here, is St Martin’s church – the oldest parish church in England still in use.   
 
After all that, why not get back to nature, head south out of the city and maybe try Howletts Wild Animal Park to witness the late John Aspinall’s collection of elephants, tigers and gorillas.
 
A magical end to the day at a pretty magical place.

When to visit

City pics

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