I don’t suppose this blog about our visit to Kent’s most historical city will rank alongside Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but hopefully it will show that there is a bit more to Canterbury than just its cathedral.
Admittedly, we didn’t have time to see everything that the city has to offer, but enough to show us why people, other than pilgrims, should make a journey here.
The Roman town of Durovernum (“the stronghold amidst alders”) included a protective wall which was probably built around 270 – 280 A.D. This wall continued to be used, with improvements, right through the Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods into the Middle Ages, and still surrounds around half of the old city today. Inside this wall is the most interesting part of the city and the focus of this article.
The accommodation for our short stay in Canterbury was just a short distance from the Westgate which is an ideal starting point for visiting the ‘Old Town’.
At 60 ft (18m) high, the Westgate is the largest surviving city gate in England and probably the most photographed landmark after the cathedral. It was built around 1380 and replaced the original Roman west gate.
Out of eight original gates into the city, this is the only one still standing, quite possibly because from the 15th century until 1829 it was used as the city gaol. These days, Westgate Towers, as it’s now called, is a museum with a viewpoint at the top and a bar/restaurant and ‘escape’ attraction next door.
The Westgate sits on the southern bank of the River Stour, or more precisely, the Great Stour.
The river has several tributaries before reaching the sea at Pegwell Bay, and was an important waterway during medieval times, but it’s not a particularly large river and has several channels as it runs through Canterbury.
One of them runs alongside the Westgate and Westgate Gardens, and it’s definitely worth taking a short diversion to take a look at the gardens before walking through the gateway into the old town.
The gateway leads into St. Peter’s Street, and fortunately, the traffic that is allowed to pass through the arch has to bear right at the Guildhall, leaving the main thoroughfare that leads into the town pretty much pedestrianised the whole way. Like everywhere else though, that doesn’t quite translate into there being no vehicles here at all.
St. Peter’s Street, High Street, and St. George’s Street all lead in a straight line up through the town where it eventually ends at a gap in the city wall near St. George’s roundabout.
As you walk up St. Peter’s Street, on the left is a road called The Friars which crosses over another arm of the Stour near to the Marlowe Theatre. It might seem a bit incongruous to have such a modern building here, but I suppose the powers that be wanted a theatre that would do justice to one of their most famous sons.
Christopher Marlowe was a playwright and contemporary of William Shakespeare – some even say that he was William Shakespeare, but whatever the conspiracy theorists say, it’s generally accepted that William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, and Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury the same year.
Although he was only a poor man’s son, Marlowe’s abilities as a writer were obvious from an early age and earned him a scholarship to the prestigious King’s School, an establishment that still provides education for many well-known people today.
His skill at writing poetry and plays didn’t go unnoticed, and he was awarded another scholarship to enter Corpus Christie College in Cambridge, where he improved his literary skills to such an extent that his poetry and plays became a box office attraction for London’s new Elizabethan theatregoers. He achieved particular notoriety for his use of blank verse drama – a form of writing poetry or verse without rhyme, something which William Shakespeare perfected.
Marlowe’s ability to lure people into the theatre also meant that he was able to mix in the right circles outside of it – or perhaps maybe the wrong ones, because his personal life was so controversial that it may well have cost him his life.
Amongst other things, he’s been described as a brawler, magician, womaniser, duellist, heretic, and spy, and although there’s not much factual evidence to corroborate that he was involved in most of these extracurricular activities, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that he was indeed a government spy – and one of the reasons put forward for his murder in Deptford on 30th May 1593, aged just 29. There were so many theories about who could have killed him I’m surprised that a play hasn’t been written about the man himself.
Walking down The Friars I fully expected to see a statue of the famous man outside the theatre, and sure enough there was a bronze figure sat on a bench overlooking the river next to the theatre – but it wasn’t Christopher Marlowe, it was none other than Dave Lee. No disrespect to the man, but who the f*** is Dave Lee? Apparently, he was a local pantomime artist, and to be fair he probably did deserve some recognition for his work on and off the stage. Sorry Dave, it’s just that I was expecting to see Christopher Marlowe.
Back on St. Peter’s Street and just a bit further up on the left-hand side is the Old Weavers’ House, a much photographed timber-framed building that runs alongside the river. It was adapted in the mid-16th century by Huguenot and Flemish refugees who were granted the right by Queen Elizabeth I to set up their weaving looms here.
Walking over the King’s Bridge (or Eastbridge) brings us into the High Street, and just across the road is the Eastbridge Hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr, which doesn’t mean it’s somewhere you can pop into to get some help on your ingrowing toenail: No, hospital in this sense means a place of hospitality, and during its long history has sheltered pilgrims, soldiers and schoolboys, and for the last 400 years as Almshouses for elderly people in need of accommodation.
For a small fee it’s possible take a look around this fascinating old building which was founded in 1180 to accommodate poor pilgrims who were here to visit St. Thomas Beckett’s shrine.
Entrance is through a low pointed doorway into the entrance hall, where just to the left is a small Chantry Chapel which was closed down in 1547 thanks to dear old Henry VIII and then used as a cellar. It was reconstructed in 1969 and is once again used for worship.
Going down some steps leads to the Undercroft which has been here since around 1190 and originally used as the pilgrims’ dormitory.
For those of you who may have already taken part in some hospitality of your own by way of one of the nearby hostelries, you may be relieved to learn that the vaulting has taken on its irregular shape thanks to the movement of the foundations which were built on the banks of the river.
Back upstairs, the Refectory, which was built at the same time as the Undercroft and used as the pilgrims’ dining area, has a 13th century wall painting which was discovered in 1879 after being hidden behind a chimney for a countless number of years.
Before leaving the hospital make sure you also take a look at the upstairs chapel with its magnificent 13th century roof made from oak beams.
If you’re lucky (which I wasn’t), you may also be able to visit the Franciscan Gardens and Greyfriars Chapel at the back of the hospital. They’re usually only open during the summer.
Another place worth checking out is the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge a few yards further up High Street. The unusual Victorian building was under scaffolding at the time I was here, but it’s the city’s main museum and art gallery as well as the Tourist Information Centre.
It will depend on your interests as to how long you will want to spend in here. One of the things that I found interesting was the trio of sculptures known as the Magna Carta Barons, one of them being Archbishop Stephen Langton who played an important role in the implementation of the Magna Carta. Another thing to look out for is the Canterbury Cross, a symbolic Anglo-Saxon brooch found in 1867 and which dates to around 850A.D.
We’re now in the heart of Old Canterbury, but around a quarter of its medieval buildings were lost during air-raids in the Second World War: Miraculously, the cathedral was left pretty much unscathed, although there was obviously some damage. Assuming that you’re going to head for the cathedral, then it’s just as well to continue up High Street and turn left into Mercery Lane which leads to the Buttermarket and the Christ Church Gate. You can, if you so wish, go one block further up to visit the Roman Museum in Butchery Lane, but I wouldn’t say that the museum is a ‘must see’ if I’m being honest.
Bearing left at the Buttermarket will take you down Sun Street past the Sun Hotel and into Palace Street, which, from an architectural point of view is one of the most interesting streets in the city.
That said, at No. 52 is a rather non-descript building, although not for me, because this was the birthplace of Mary Tourtel, the creator of my hero as a little boy – Rupert Bear.
There are several half-timbered medieval buildings scattered along the street – St Alphege’s Priest’s House, Conquest House, and the most photographed of all – Sir John Boys’ House.
This look around Old Canterbury was never meant to be a circular tour, but if you turn left at the end of Palace Street into King Street and then turn right at the end of King Street, you’ll find yourself at the Marlowe Theatre. Turning right into St. Peter’s Street will take you back to the Westgate Towers where we started out. The beauty of places like Canterbury though, is that you can wander around the streets with no set trail at all, but of course, you can always print this blog out if it helps.
I don’t know how long it took Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims to reach Canterbury from London in the 14th century, but today it can take as little as an hour by train.
Back in medieval times they had to contend with the Bubonic Plague; today I’m writing this article as Coronavirus has become the latest pandemic to spread around the world, and millions of people have to isolate themselves away – including me. It seems some things change considerably over time – and some things don’t change at all.
Stay safe wherever you are.