A Canterbury Tale - Wandering Around England's Medieval City

Last year I took myself on an epic wander around parts of the UK to celebrate a milestone birthday (which milestone you ask? I'll just let you guess on that one!) and while planning my trip, decided that since I lived in the small town of Canterbury, Connecticut, it would only be right to visit the not-so-small Canterbury, England for which my Canterbury was named. After all, I was spending a few days in London and it was an easy train ride to Canterbury via Southeastern Railway so why not?

After a lovely one hour ride from London's Victoria Station through the Kent countryside to Canterbury West Station, I disembarked the train and began the 1/2-mile walk to the Cathedral Gate Hotel which would be my lodging for the next 2 nights. My walk took me towards and through England's oldest still-standing city gate, the monumental 14th-century Westgate, and then down the pedestrian-only St. Peter's Street past the Black Griffin Pub which is the first pub past the city's walls. As I made my way along with the crowds, it was rather hard to believe that my small-town of Canterbury was named after this Canterbury as they were nothing alike at all! Thankfully though, I had watched enough Rick Steeves' videos to know that Canterbury is a popular tourist destination and one of the most visited cities in England so I wasn't expecting to have the place to myself!

Dragging my suitcase behind me down Mercery Lane, I finally arrived at Burgate and entered the Buttermarket - which my hotel stood across from - where I immediately spotted Canterbury Pottery. Knowing I'd find the perfect gift for my sister-in-law who has a most impressive collection of pottery, after stashing my luggage at the hotel, I made a bee-line for the shop which is run by Richard and Jan Chapman who have been producing their beautiful pottery in the back of the shop since 1963. As I explored the shop, it was hard to choose from the great offerings in front of me trying to keep in mind the limits of my suitcase and the cost of shipping things home. Even though I almost succumbed to the call of yet-another coffee mug to add to my collection, I finally settled on a cute little mouse-shaped chutney pot for Ann which I knew would fit perfectly in my suitcase. Happy with my purchase but debating on whether to come back and buy that coffee mug after all, I left the shop to explore more of the city.

I have to say that I really liked walking down the narrow streets of this most historic city with the tops of the buildings hanging closely overhead. The hard part was not stopping every few feet to take another photo - especially if it was a street like Butchery Lane that had the cathedral standing tall in the background!

At the small-in-size-but-big-in-history Canterbury Roman Museum, located on the remains of a very large Roman Town House that was unearthed during excavations following the bombings of World War II, folks can learn all about Durovernum Cantiacorum aka Roman-era Canterbury. Kent’s only Roman Museum, visitors can explore Canterbury’s history, wander through the marketplace and discover hidden treasures as they step back, and down, to the streets of Roman Canterbury.

Above: A view of the Canterbury War Memorial honoring the men of Canterbury who fought in the Great War at the Old Buttermarket. Below: My dinner for my first evening in Canterbury picked up at the local Tesco. Even though there were lots and lots of great places to get a meal, I decided that an early night with dinner in my room wasn't such a bad idea as I had a full day ahead of me bright & early the next morning. Besides, I really like the pre-made sandwiches from Tesco! Don't judge me!

The next morning after breakfast in my room - not from Tesco but from the hotel! - I took off for a full day of exploring the medieval city that pilgrims have been making tracks to for years and years and years. You won't find it in this post but I definitely visited Canterbury Cathedral - twice - where I happily spent several hours exploring all of the history found there. Hopefully the post on my pilgrimage to the 'Mother Church' will be done soon and I can share some of the beauty of one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England but for now, it's just Canterbury in general!

Above: Part of the Canterbury city walls that were built by the Romans probably between 270 and 280 AD. Below: Of the original 24 medieval towers along the walls, 17 remain intact, including Queningate which pretty much just guards a car park these days but is still pretty cool - especially from an American point of view as we have no walled cities over here!

You might think that this wrought iron sign will lead you to the loo and though once upon a time it did just that, it now marks the entrance to an art deco-inspired cocktail bar located in what was once underground public toilets. Privy opened in July of 2018 with a 1920s speakeasy theme. How cool is that?

Another part of the city's walls near the end of Burgate.

This tower, which dates to 1503, is all that's left of Canterbury's St. Mary Magdalene Church built during the Norman period. The church, which once stood on the site where the St. Thomas of Canterbury Church stands now, was demolished in 1871 as the structure had become dangerous.

The only Roman Catholic church in Canterbury, St. Thomas of Canterbury was built from 1874 to 1875 in the Gothic Revival Style. The church contains the relics of Thomas Beckett who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170 by followers of Henry II, King of England.

A look at Burgate heading back  towards the Old Buttermarket which has lots of great little shops to pop into if you're in the mood for some shopping. The road is pedestrian only though cars are allowed to briefly drive to the hotel to drop off and/or pick up luggage. By the way, the square was christened Buttermarket a mere two centuries ago to replace the not-so-nice name of Bullstake, which came from the use of dogs to bait bulls in order to make their meat more tender.

Meanwhile, back on the other side of the walled city, I took another walk past the Westgate which was built around 1379 of Kentish ragstone to replace a crumbling circa 1023 structure. Westgate, the last survivor of Canterbury's seven medieval gates, is still well-preserved and is one of the city's most distinctive landmarks.

Now part of the Westgate Tower Museum, structural highlights of the medieval gatehouse include gaps designed for aiming guns (rather than arrows) and 'murder holes' which were used for dropping hot sand, boiling liquids and the like onto invading marauders.

Providing hospitality for over 600 years just a short walk outside of the Westgate, the Falstaff Hotel is a historic coaching inn that dates back to the 16th century and originally called the White Hart until its name was changed in 1783. With 46 en-suite bedrooms and a popular bar, it's probably a great place to stay but my goal in going there wasn't to book a room but to enjoy Afternoon Tea. I do love the tradition of Afternoon Tea and at only £15.00 - or £22.50 if you toss in a glass of champagne - the Falstaff was the place to go!

Following my very enjoyable respite at the Falstaff, I took a walk through Westgate Gardens which has been a public open 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. The 200-year old Tower House was once the home of the Williamson Family who created the picturesque gardens and riverside walk.

The River Stour (or Great Stour if you'd like!) runs through the park making it a great place to go punting or - in my case - take photos of other people punting! Not sure what "punting" is? It means riding in a punt - a flat-bottomed boat with a square-shaped bow that is propelled by a pole pushing against the river bottom. There are two punting companies in Canterbury if you'd like to take a float down the very pretty, very clear river - Westgate Punts and Canterbury Punting Company.

Located in the gardens is a 200-year-old Oriental plane tree – with a huge trunk – which is believed to be the oldest specimen in the country. It's rumored that the trunk has actually engulfed a metal seat which once encircled it! There are six of these trees in Canterbury which are quite distinctive with their bulbous, knobbly trunks that would certainly give any tree hugger pause before trying to wrap their arms around them!

After the gardens, I headed back into the city proper passing some rather interesting shops and pubs and such along the way.

A larger than life statue of Geoffrey Chaucer, dressed as a Canterbury pilgrim, stands on the corner of Best Lane and the High Street holding the opening text of The Canterbury Tales and wearing an astrolabe (early navigational instrument) around his neck - Chaucer wrote a guide to how they should be used. Thought to be the only Chaucer statue in England, the statue was unveiled in October of 2016 - the result of a ten-year project led by the Canterbury Commemoration Society.

Speaking of Canterbury Tales, the medieval St Margaret's Church now houses The Canterbury Tales, a popular tourist attraction in which costumed guides and life-sized character models reconstruct five of Geoffrey Chaucer's stories of love, infidelity, intrigue, courtship and death. The pilgrimage appeals to visitors of all ages.

Next door, if you haven't already had Afternoon Tea elsewhere, you can amend that horrible mistake by popping down the rabbit hole and visiting Alice and The Hatter - a themed tearoom featuring a décor of themed wall art, chequered floor, throne chairs, tea cup stools, grassy nooks and love seats. At £22.95 it's a bit more pricey than the Afternoon Tea at Falstaff's but it's worth it if you like your tea served with a side of whimsy! Definitely made me wish I had time for TWO Afternoon Teas!

Heading to other parts of town on what was a beautiful 1st of September evening, I walked back down Mercery Street towards the Cathedral Gate before taking a left onto Sun Street and seeing what lay in that direction.

Located on Palace Street in the King’s Mile section of Canterbury, Conquest House is a Grade II listed building wherein four knights sent by Henry II plotted the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, back in the 14th century. It’s now the headquarters of an organisation called Art In Cambridge which advertises life drawing and portrait classes.

The Sir John Boys House aka The Crooked House, King's Gallery or Old Kings Shop, is a skewed 17th-century building that is probably - with good reason - the most photographed house in Canterbury! The house reputedly gained its markedly skewed look after alterations to an internal chimney caused the structure to slip sideways. Attempts to rectify the slippage actually caused the whole structure to skew further sideways. Once used as a school, the house is now used as a charity bookshop for the local independent homeless charity Catching Lives. Wish it had been open when I walked past, I would love to have gone through that crooked door!

Behind the closed gate above lies St. Augustine's Abbey which was founded in AD 598 after St Augustine - who went on to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury - arrived in Kent on a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Part of the Canterbury World Heritage Site which includes the Canterbury Cathedral, not much remains of the abbey today but at its height, it was one of the most significant religious sites in medieval England. It's even rumored that the site may be the birthplace of the famous Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the Norman Conquest. As it's outside of the city walls, it often gets missed by tourists - including myself which I am totally bummed about as I would have loved to explore the ruins.

Lastly, for those who might be wondering what I had for dinner on my second night in Canterbury what with all of the wonderful pubs that I had walked by ... well, I ate back in my room again but this time I skipped the sandwiches at Tesco and got myself a proper hamburger at Byron located a hop, skip and a jump from my hotel.

Yes, it's an American-style burger joint and and yes, I could have found somewhere more regional to dine but to be honest, it was a pretty darned good burger and was the perfect way to end a day full of exploring a very cool city when what I really just wanted was to head back to my room, kick off my shoes and see what might be on the telly! Sometimes wandering just wears a body out!


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