Wandering Around Old Canterbury

Wandering Around Old Canterbury

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.

I think it’s fair to say that most people will come here to see the Cathedral, and maybe St. Augustine’s Abbey, but there was a town here before St. Augustine arrived.

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 City Wall in Lower Bridge Street

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
The Westgate

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 River Stour at Westgate Gardens

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.

The Guildhall
St Peter's Street

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.

The Marlowe Theatre
The Stour alongside the Marlowe Theatre
Dave Lee

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.

The Old Weavers' House

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.

Eastbridge Hospital

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.

Entrance to the Hospital
The Chantry Chapel

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.

The Undercroft

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.

The Refectory
13th Century Wall Mural

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.

The Chapel Roof

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.

The Magna Carta Barons with Archbishop Langton at the far end
The Canterbury Cross

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.

Butchery Lane and the Roman Museum
The Buttermarket
Sun Street

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.

Conquest House
St Alphege's Priest's House
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.

The Westgate

20 thoughts on “Wandering Around Old Canterbury

  1. Alli Templeton

    I’ve been looking forward to this, and it’s been a wonderful read and another welcome trip down memory lane for me. Goodness, some of Canterbury doesn’t seem to have changed much at all since I lived there, and some has. Westgate Gardens are pretty much the same by the looks of it, and the gate itself, of course, and much of the high street. I remember the Pilgrims Hospital fondly, and I had to smile seeing the Weavers House again – it used to be a cafe when I lived there! Is the ducking stool still hanging over the river behind it? And believe it or not, I used to work at the Marlowe Theatre, when I was 16. It wasn’t in the new place it is now, though, but another beautiful old timber-framed building down a little side road the other side of the high street. I was there when they closed it to move it to the modern cinema building instead. I was at the closing party for the old building and everyone was heartbroken. Where I worked was much more a fitting tribute to Mr Marlowe, so why they made that move I’ll neve understand. It turned into a trendy wine bar. I’d really love to go back there now and revisit my old haunts, and the Cathedral of course. So thanks for refreshing my tired memory of my childhood medieval city. Having seen it again like this, it’s obvious I was always going to end up a medievalist. All those buildings and stories from the Middle Ages clearly got into my blood. Thanks for bringing it all back again, Malc. 🙂

    1. Easymalc Post author

      One of the things I really enjoy about blogging is when somebody either says it’s whetted their appetite to see somewhere they haven’t seen before, or it brings back memories.

      Canterbury must have been a great place to grow up. It’s not too big and not too small and as you say, growing up there must have had a lasting impact on you for the years ahead. I’m so pleased that it’s re-kindled those memories. Thanks for your lovely comments as always Ali.

      1. Alli Templeton

        Thanks Malc. It really has made me want to return. It was indeed a lovely place to grow up. I wouldn’t have realised the lasting impact it had on me at the time, being young and stupid, but the medieval surroundings clearly did get under my skin, because I was devastated when we had to move away. I’m glad it was still all there when I discovered castles, with my latent love for the Middle Ages. 🙂

        1. Easymalc Post author

          Canterbury still has what’s left of its castle doesn’t it?. It was the one thing that I wish I hadn’t missed, I’d love to go back there too 🙂

          1. Alli Templeton

            It does, yes. If memory serves it adjoins part of the city wall. I’m beginning to wish I’d never had to leave the place. Here’s to going back there when all this is over, then. 🙂

            1. Easymalc Post author

              And if I do get back there I also want to go back to Dover Castle. One of my favourires, not least because it has connections to the Battle of Britain and the Dunkirk Evacuation as well as its medieval keep.

              1. Alli Templeton

                Oh goodness, yes, that medieval keep! I did a Castle Study day there the year before last just before I did my module exam. It was with the author of the book that helped to get me into castles so much in the first place, Marc Morris. It was a fabulous day and I was bowled over by the keep. It’s my dream home! So I’m with you all the way on that… 🙂

  2. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

    What a beautiful place! Never been to Canterbury but I am putting it on my list, my after CV list! Great writing Malc, lovely pics as well and a great way to narrate such a beautiful place. Check out the “Torre de Serranos” or the “Torres de Quart” in Valencia, and you will see how closely they resemble the Westgate! Well, my friend, we are now in day 20 of the confinement, or quarantine, whatever…and we’ve 10 more days…supposedly…then the government will make an assessment and decide who is to be let out. They’re already saying that the children will be allowed out as well as all of us so we can exercise, at least walk in the park! We’ve already learned how to keep social distance, which in Spain it was hard as we all kiss…twice, one on each cheek, and people tend to hug each other instead of a handshake, but we’ve learned to stay away, so I guess they will decide to allow us to breathe fresh air and to walk! Take good care, Malc, hope you are good. Keep the beers chilled and the wine decanted.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks again for your kind words Francisco. I remember seeing the Torres de Serranos during my short time in Valencia, but not Torres de Quart. I think I’ve mentioned to you before how impressed I was with Valencia. It has so much to offer. You’re very lucky to live there.
      I can imagine how difficult it must be for Spanish people to be isolated. It’s just not in their nature. As for me, I made my weekly escape from the house yesterday to go to the local surgery for some ongoing treatment which is not Covid-19 related, and the poor nurse was almost in tears talking about what’s going on. I feel so sorry for these people who put their lives at risk for us all. Please take care and make sure you don’t fall at the last fence.

      1. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

        Hope yer feeling better Malc, take good care and stay safe. Yesterday I also wondered out, to the supermarket and it was a delight to be outside, breathing fresh air…luckily today it is quite sunny here! Stay well my friend, and no, we won’t fall at the fence. God is with us.
        All the best,

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks Stephen. I always hope that a blog or two of mine will either bring back some memories, give an idea on where to go, or even give food for thought. I reckon the door in John Boys’ House could well feature in your Thursday Doors.

  3. toonsarah

    Thanks for the virtual tour and interesting commentary 🙂 I’ve been to Canterbury for work, once, but can’t say I saw much of it and certainly nothing this picturesque

    1. Easymalc Post author

      I thought you would have been here somehow. Glad you enjoyed the tour round. Easy for you to get here as well. Thanks for taking a look Sarah

  4. Nemorino

    Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
    The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
    — this is certainly the right time of year for a pilgrimage to Canterbury, if only the coronavirus weren’t locking us all in place. Thanks for the virtual tour, in any case.

    1. Easymalc Post author

      Glad you enjoyed the tour from your armchair Don. Armchair travelling isn’t quite the same as the real thing I know. Hope you’re coping ok


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