Canterbury is a contradictive city: Medieval buildings preserved for posterity and modern, ever encroaching university buildings march forward to take the town, in the name of Christ Church.
It seems the only arbitrator is the old Norman wall, barely holding them apart, and struggling under the load of tourists crippling its back. The cathedral stands proud looking on, at what its fair city has become, and although still standing tall, it can’t help but shudder and watch as a few more tiles fall off its ageing face as tourists’ pennies fail to provide it with the life it once knew.
I love this city; I fear for this city but most all I want you to enjoy the beauty of this city before more medieval buildings become chain coffee shops and before the eternally shining cathedral dims ever so slightly.
Here are my 5 things to do in Canterbury (and it was hard to choose 5!) if you ever happen to find yourself in the garden of England’s heart.
1). Visit the cathedral
As I write I can see the Cathedral from my window, a monumental feat of construction, built in an era before any of the machinery, we take for granted today, was available. A monumental feat to the tenacity of man, and the arrogance of the church, all manifested in a building that seems to try to reach the heavens itself, with its astonishing height and awe inspiring presence.
Walking around most street corners in Canterbury will lead to a magnificent view of this building which has a very dominating perspective and seems to tower over you, despite being far away. Inside you can find the Black Prince’s tomb and opposite, his son’s deposer, Henry of Bollingbroke ( Henry IV) giving a medieval style middle finger and demonstrating his power for all to see. You can even see the clothing and weaponry of the Black Prince and the lone candle where Saint Thomas Becket’s tomb once was, before Henry VIII melted it’s golden frame down for coin and threw the saint’s remains in the sea. This place exudes history and is a must visit.
Both internally and externally the Cathedral is impressive. Outside there are gardens to walk around and cloisters to explore where a small herb garden, tucked away can be found, with a small bench in the corner, where you might find me, if the hussle and bustle of the high street has become too much.
Furthermore the gardens are open for free in the evenings and although many return to visit the internal wonders of the Cathedral, I find myself forever drawn back to that little herb garden.
2). Visit the never ending list of historical buildings
To think the Cathedral is the only historical building in Canterbury is like thinking that the earth is flat. Almost everything inside the city walls is old and dates from every conceivable period you can imagine. Pilgrims’ hospitals from the Medieval age to Elizabethean houses by the river, now restaurants, and 18th and 19th century gentry housing, now serving as offices for lawyers and accounts. And I am not talking about only one of these representatives of bygone eras existing; there are dozens all more beautiful than the last and all as equally intriguing. Simply walk around and look out for the time the building was built and be astounded by the preservation and restoration that has gone into them.
There are plenty of old churches too, some only a little younger than the Cathedral itself, and all made from the local flint stone that abounds in the chalk so representative of Kent. I highly recommend visiting my favourite church St Peter’s, tucked away just off the high street next to the Cricketeers pub, it is absolutely delightful. The finest of all these religious monuments are the ruins of St Augustines abbey where the pre norman cathedral stood and where the man who converted the Saxons to Christianity lived and worked, St Augustine.
If you haven’t tired by this point then a walk along the city walls, by the bus station, is a great way to spend some time. These walls, along with a little restoration from various conquerors, have stood more or less in the same place for 2000 years and lead you past a pleasant park called Dane John and along to a mound used formerly as a Roman burial ground, where a quick steep trip to the top gives you amazing views of Canterbury.
Further along the wall, after a small break in it, you get to the ruins of Canterbury castle, which features a spectacular hole where a Victorian gas pipe has smashed its way through, with little regard for historical significance. The Victorians did a number on this town: painting the Black Prince black for example… causing irreplaceable damage.
The list really does go on and on and on. Visit the old West Gate and look for the scratches the buses left as these 20th century mechanical beasts tried to make their way through a 14th century gatehouse, the largest city gate in the UK.
I haven’t even mentioned the museums with the Canterbury Tales museum really taking top spot for me.
3). Explore the quirky old town bars and restaurants
Many bars and pubs have thrown off the shackles of the Shepeard Neame brewery monopoly and are embracing the modern trend of strong craft beers and supporting local cider makers. No longer are you left with 3% piss water you can have local lager, local ale even a local milk stout all made either on the premises or just down the road. I tried to name as many pubs as possible off the top of my head with a friend recently and we stopped at 15 despite there being many many more.
The quality of the bars and pubs is getting higher and higher and inevitably attracting the hen parties and stag dos, where pubs that were once pleasant now have to have a bouncer on the door, but the students of the city help lift the atmosphere of the town on a Friday and Saturday night by lifting it out of the hen party terror, of cow eyed girls pissing in the street, and hunched back protein shakes fighting with police, and into a place for all, whether it be a quiet pint or a rave.
You can really eat in Canterbury too. Foods from all over the place such as Greek, Lebanese, English, French, Turkish, Mexican and Spanish whatever takes your fancy you will find it here. However, the fish and chips in Canterbury are awful but to have the chance to eat al fresco on a cobbled medieval street, whilst 5 piece busking bands serenade you, is an experience you’ll never forget.
4). Spend some time in the many parks
All the parks in Canterbury are so perfectly placed and idyllic; you can forget you are in a city sometimes and not in fact in an orchard. They are incredibly well looked after and sadly being municipal have a closing time of around 9pm but I’ve seen students in there much later, perhaps a middle class break-in had occurred.
Several of these miniature chunks of paradise are placed alongside the river, where on a hot day, many try to dip their feet and nearly fall off the large wall that stems the river. They are used; they are alive and they are for everyone and I highly recommend finding ‘Abbots mill garden’ It really is a treasure.
5). Take a punt or a walk
For a price you can take a little ride down the river on a flat bottomed boat, whilst waist coated men try desperately to recount multiple tales of the town, all the while, puffing and panting; your only form of locomotion being a long stick and a stone river bed to push off. I’ve always wondered what you call these men, I mean, they punt so they are punters right?
If you aren’t too enthused by paying a pretty penny for a very pretty ride then my advice to you is simple… walk. Walk down every tiny street you can find, walk through parks and by rivers, walk into the countryside, to the marshes, to the tucked away houses and the secret pubs. There is so much to explore and never enough time to do it.
To finish my top 5 things I would like to say that Canterbury is by no means a perfect city: with tuxedo clad men driving their Bentleys past homeless people who stick their hands in bins looking for a meal. I don’t want to sugar coat it, there is division in this town with signs being placed around telling people “don’t give money to beggars” alongside “don’t feed the pigeon” signs but away from the politics, the city truly shines and despite the people’s failings, this 2000 year old town lives on and is ever welcoming and ever beautiful.