HOME Master Article Index/Index by County Links Contact Us
Ancient Britain Castles Churches/Cathedrals Houses/Manors Museums Towns Countryside London History & Folklore Travel Tips

Test daily news

Visit the Stone Pages


Canterbury: Still the Perfect Pilgrimage!

by Julia Hickey

The site of the city of Canterbury has been occupied since prehistoric times; Neolithic round barrows and Bronze Age artifacts have been found in the area, and even before the arrival of the Romans, "Durovernon" (from the British "duro" or fort, and "verno" or swamp) was an important Kentish settlement. The Romans named it "Durovernum Cantiacorum," and made it a central administrative centre, for it lay at the junction of the roads to three Roman ports: Regulbium (Reculver), Dubris (Dover) and Lemanis (Lymphe). It stands up on the major Roman road that became known (and is still known) as Watling Street. The name Canterbury itself comes from the Old English Cantwarebyrig, or "fortress of the men of Kent."

Westgate and the River Stour

Still largely enclosed by its medieval city walls, Canterbury is a vibrant bustling place with much to offer the modern pilgrim. Be warned, though: by the time you have finished exploring this neat little city, your feet will feel as if they have made the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury just like Chaucer's pilgrims!

Begin your pilgrimage at the Westgate Tower at the bottom of St Peter's street. Built of Kentish ragstone in about 1377, it is the last survivor of Canterbury's seven medieval gates. Climb the narrow twisting stairs to the first floor, where there is a small museum giving information about the city walls and also about the role that the Westgate Tower played during earlier centuries as a prison. Take time to look through the murder holes at the traffic passing beneath you. Then climb to the ramparts for a real treat: a view of the city's higgledy-piggledy red pan-tiled roof tops leading towards the majestic cathedral that soars skywards. The City Fathers are very protective of their skyline. Buildings must not interfere with the view of the cathedral. Beneath the ramparts St Peter's Street is filled with a sea of shoppers. In the east you may catch a glimpse of Canterbury's ruined castle.

River Stour CanterburyJoin the waves of people on St Peter's Street moving up and in towards the centre of the city. The street climbs gently until you are almost on the River Stour itself. There is a striking Tudor building on the left side of the street just before the river. The blacked timbers and the mullioned windows are the frontage of a Tudor Merchant's House. The place is called The Weavers after the Huguenot refugees who found sanctuary here in the 16th century.

On a sunny day pause on King's Bridge -- it's an 11th-century creation -- to enjoy the sunlight bouncing from the water and smile at the antics of Canterbury's ducks. It is impossible not to notice the ducking stool where scolds, nagging women and suspected witches were strapped before being submerged beneath the water. It doesn't take much imagination to see Chaucer's Wife of Bath protesting loudly at being ducked here.

Time to cross to the right hand side of the bridge. The chapel-like building with the fine Norman arch showing just how much the street level has risen in 900 years is called Eastbridge. More properly, it is the Eastbridge Hospital of St. Thomas and is Canterbury's oldest surviving building. Step into the darkness and leave the noise of the 21st century behind you. Inside Eastbridge you have entered the world of the medieval pilgrim. Imagine them resting here -- footsore and weary -- before beginning their final journey to Canterbury's great cathedral.

"Hospital" simply meant "hospitality," and the refectory and undercroft give modern visitors some idea of how soothing this place must have been to the pilgrims. The ceilings in this place are truly amazing; you may have a sore neck by the time you get outside! The mural in the refectory ceiling dates from the 12th century and shows the martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket. Although there's no evidence that Chaucer came to Canterbury, he would have been familiar with hostels like this and it is not hard to place his famous band in its walls. [Read more about The Hospital of St. Thomas.]

Continue up St Peter's Street. Stour Street is on the right side of the road. This quiet side street contains two delightful secrets. The first is hidden behind a pair of double black gates next to the Grey Friars Guest House. Welcome to the oldest Franciscan building in Britain! Even more delightful is the fact that it sits across the river in tranquil surroundings. Wander through the little exhibition about St. Francis and St. Claire or just enjoy the gardens. The wonderful thing about Canterbury is that despite the hustle and bustle of modern city life, there are many hidden places to relax and come face to face with the past.

Canterbury CathedralContinue along Stour Street to the Poor Priests Hospital. If you visit on a Saturday, do not be surprised to find a bride posing here for her wedding photographs. It's a favourite place for a picture of the happy couple! And no wonder; the 13th-century stone work is mellow with age and the roses in the garden just invite photographers to get clicking. The building houses the Museum of Canterbury. Set time aside for this experience as it involves a walk through Canterbury's history from Roman times until the present day. There's an original George Stephenson locomotive and a copy of an Anglo-Saxon portable sundial. The exhibition detailing the building of the cathedral is fascinating. Find out who William of Sens was and how he fell from the scaffolding around the growing cathedral. Of course no visit to the museum would be complete without getting to know more about Rupert Bear. The little white bear with his yellow check trousers, matching scarf and red sweater was created in Canterbury by local artist Mary Tourtel (1874-1948). For many British children Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without a Rupert Bear annual and the adventures of Rupert and his friends -- all speaking in rhyme, making memories sublime!

Return to St Peter's Street. Technically this is now the High Street and if you look up when you reach the junction with Guildhall Street, you can see the road signs for Dover and London -- reminders of a time when Canterbury was not pedestrianised. There are two buildings to look for as you walk up this street. The first is on the left side and is the most modern building on the tour. The Beaney Institute is an imposing Victorian building with steps leading up to the main entrance, arched windows on the ground floor and mullions on the second. The black beams echo the medieval and Tudor buildings. It houses a library, art gallery and the regimental museum of the Buffs. The art gallery is a lovely place to spend a rainy hour or so. There is something very oldfashioned about the way that the pictures as presented so that they vie with one another for attention. Then there are cabinets filled with porcelain and other fine objects. It is rather like stumbling upon an Aladdin's cave of art. For the more military-minded, the Buffs Regimental Museum tells the story of one of Kent's finest regiments from its formation in Tudor times. Can you spot the Victoria Cross?

The other building to look out for on the High Street is also on the left side of the road. It's hard to miss this wedding-cake of a building with its pink and white plasterwork. Even better is the fact that it houses a coffee shop, and by now even the most hardened history hunter is probably in need of a strong dose of caffeine and slice of something calorie-laden. Whilst you are enjoying your coffee, imagine what might have happened in the room above your head in 1573. This building is all that remains of the Crown Inn. It is special because this is the place where Elizabeth I met the Duke of Alencon when he came a-courting. (Ultimately she rejected him.)

Canterbury TalesContinue up the hill until you reach a crossroads. Turn right into Margaret's Street. Continue along the road until you pass a church. It is now the home of the Canterbury Tales Museum. No trip to Canterbury would be complete without hearing more about Chaucer's pilgrims and their saucy stories. The waxworks inside the exhibition are accompanied by an audio that brings medieval England to life. [Read more about The Canterbury Tales.]

Discover the Three Tuns Inn at the end of this road. It was built in the 15th century and is popular with tourists and students alike. Turn left and you will be standing on Watling Street, or else follow the road around the inn and continue to the castle. This was built by the Normans 1080, replacing an earlier motte and bailey fortification built at the nearby Dane John. The stone keep seen today was constructed during the reign of Henry I (1100-1135) and was one of Kent's three royal castles; by the 13th century it had become the county gaol. Over the centuries, it survived whatever history had to throw at it until the time of the Victorians, who decided that it was in exactly the spot where they wanted to build a gas works. They set about destroying it by blowing it up. They failed! The shattered, weed-grown walls are a testament to the medieval builders who first raised them when the Stour was still a navigable channel. Visitors are not allowed in the building as it is too dangerous.

Return to the High Street. Cross over the main thoroughfare and down the narrow cobbled lane leading towards the cathedral. Pause to consider Henry II walking barefoot over the cobbles in public penance for his part in the death of Thomas a Becket. The alley opens out onto the Buttermarket and the Christ Church Gate entrance to the cathedral. Still feeling thirsty? Take advantage of Debenham's coffee shop. The best thing about the coffee shop is its location in some ancient vaults. Morelli's ice cream parlour, also on the Buttermarket, is something of an institution in Canterbury and should not be bypassed!

Kings School ShopTurn left into Sun Street. Pause when you have passed the jewellers on the left side. This is the Sun Inn, where Charles Dickens stayed, and it is well worth a photograph with its red gable end, three-storey timber structure and herringbone brick patterns. The jewellers housed in this building display some of the Duchess of Windsor's jewels. If visitors continue down Palace Street they will be rewarded by discovering a medieval building that seems to lean at an impossible angle; it is one of the oldest schools in Britain. It is impossible not to notice the King's School Pupils in their distinctive pin stripe trousers and winged collars. The school is not open to the public, but you can visit the shop (the doorway was built at a slant deliberately to emphasize the overall crookedness of the Tudor building).

Alternatively, turn right and walk up towards Burgate -- not too far, though. Turn right into Butchery Lane. It's not hard to guess what the medieval dwellers of this street did for a living! Sadly, the buildings on the right side of the street are a new development. This is the edge of the area that was destroyed by the Baedeker Air Raids of 1942 (so called because the places targeted were selected from the famous guidebooks). The devastation was recorded in 1944 when A Canterbury Tale was filmed on location.

Incredibly, during reconstruction work a Roman pavement was discovered in 1946. Today it can be seen in situ in the Canterbury Roman Museum. Travel back in time to the city of Durovernum Cantiacorum. The museum is quite incredible; as well as the pretty mosaic with its central flower, heart shaped leaves and woven border, here one can see the metal parts of a horse's harness, keys, dice, lamps, leather shoes, pins and needles, combs and bowls.

Continue towards Burgate. Pass through the city walls, cross the road and enter Longport. Follow the signs directing visitors to St. Augustine's Abbey. Look out for the water conduit set just beyond the sharp corner you turn to reach the abbey. It was a gift to Longport in the 19th century to help prevent cholera. This is an extremely unusual conduit because it is fashioned from cannon that saw action during the Crimea War.

St. Augustine's Abbey is a World Heritage Site run by English Heritage. The ruins are given life by the informative audio tour that helps visitors get their bearings. It was founded in AD 597 and came to an end with the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII. Given its location next to a thriving city, it is not surprising that very little of the abbey remains in comparison to the great northern monasteries of Fountains, Rievaulx and Mount Grace. Nevertheless, the site is impressive. Look closely to find medieval tiles depicting fleur de lis and flowers. It is possible that these tiles were fired on Tyler's Hill on the other side of the city. The museum houses some fine examples of masonry and tells the abbey's story. Here, visitors get the chance to see some of the artefacts unearthed over the years, including the burial mitre of Abbot John Dygon. Do not forget to admire the modern panel showing the construction of the great walls. [Read more about St. Augustine's Abbey]

St. Augustine's Abbey Canterbury

Return to the city. Instead of walking down Burgate back to the cathedral, turn left onto the city walls. The foundations are Roman but the majority of the flint structure is medieval. The path leads down from the wall into the main shopping area of the city. Look out for the tower of St George's Church, where Tudor playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe was christened. Sadly the rest of the building, along with the house where this infamous playwright was born, were both destroyed in the 1942 air raids. In the White Friars area of the shopping centre, take a good look at the pavements. This new development was created after extensive archaeological survey of the area. The pavements depict the round houses, the hearths, the wells and the burials discovered by the archaeologists. It is a wonderful reminder for Canterbury's modern pilgrims that there is more than 2000 years of history beneath their feet.

Finally, make your way along the walls to the Dane John Gardens. Legend has it that the Vikings martyred an archbishop of Canterbury here by shooting him with arrows. The reality is that the mound called the Dane John is a corruption of the word donjon and reflects the fact that this is the first Norman motte to be thrown up shortly after the battle of Hastings. The gardens are a delightful spot to sit and reflect on all the sights and sounds that Canterbury has to offer.

Canterbury Westgate

Canterbury Tower House

Related Articles:

Canterbury Cathedral, by John P. Seely

Timeline: Canterbury, by Darcy Lewis

Read More About:
The Hospital of St. Thomas
St. Augustine's Abbey
The History of the Archbishop of Canterbury
The Canterbury Tales
Thomas Becket

More Information:

Canterbury Tourism

The Canterbury Tour
An excellent virtual tour of Canterbury

Canterbury Buildings
An excellent online "tour" by a local photographer of Canterbury's historic buildings.

Canterbury Tales Museum

Canterbury Cathedral (official site)

Canterbury Cathedral

St. Augustine's Abbey

Canterbury Archaeological Trust Fieldwork
Articles reprinted (with permission) from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (whose website does not seem to be working), relating to the online Canterbury Tour.

Time Team Canterbury Big Dig

Michael Pead - Photos of Kent

Julia Hickey is passionate about England's heritage and particularly of Cumbria, where her husband comes from. In between dragging her family around the country to a variety of historic monuments, she works part-time as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She spends the rest of her week writing. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, dabbling in family history, cross-stitch, tapestry and photography.
Article © 2006 Julia Hickey
Photo of Kings School Shop © Stephen Bax (http://www.canterburybuildings.com). Westgate and the River Stour © 2006 by Michael Pead (http://www.michaelpead.co.uk; courtesy of Wikipedia.org). Canal photo © 2005 by Michael Bell (courtesy of Wikipedia.org). Canterbury Tales woodcut dated 1484 (courtesy of Wikipedia.org). Hospital of St. Thomas from The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 10, No. 268, August 11 1827 (courtesy of Wikipedia.org). St. Augustine Abbey courtesy of Wikipedia.org. Canterbury Cathedral courtesy of Britainonview.com. Westgate and Tower House courtesy of Britainonview.com.


 Site Copyright © 2017 Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
For information on reprinting articles or photos on this site, please contact Moira Allen, Editor