London, long a top travel destination, is rich in history, has a wealth of museums, and monuments, plus a vibrant restaurant scene. Still, it’s nice to get out of the city and day trip-it to a nearby area. Bath, Stonehenge, even Paris are popular options, but don’t forget about Canterbury, a cathedral city in southeast England famous for its pilgrimage site from the middle ages.
[The Miller] swoor, “By armes, and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale.”
If you feel as though you just time traveled back to high school lit class you’re not probably not alone – the above quote is from The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400, and I remember daydreaming through much of it. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury. They come from all layers of society and tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to the shrine in Canterbury. Some of the characters are funny and rude (i.e. “colorful”), while others are moral and reflective. Chaucer is important because The Canterbury Tales was one of the first major works in literature written in English, and it helped put Canterbury on the map.
The massive romanesque and gothic cathedral that dominates the city is a compelling reason to hop on a train. Founded in 597, the Canterbury Cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures, and is best known for the murder of Sir Thomas Becket by the knights of King Henry II, and for the pilgrimage that Chaucer wrote about in the late 1300’s.
Located beyond the Cathedral, are the remains of St.Augustines Abbey, one of the oldest monastic sites in England. When Henry VIII seized the abbey in the 16th century, he destroyed some of the buildings and converted others into a royal manor for his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. In 1541 parts of the abbey were torn down and most the stone was sold locally. The library, containing two thousand manuscripts, was destroyed. The ruins of the Abbey are now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Canterbury is easy to see in a day. Currently, there are trains from London St. Pancras Station to Canterbury in as little as an hour, leaving plenty of time to tour the town and the cathedral, and to grab lunch at a local restaurant. The train station is an easy walk to the main street.
The city itself, although defined by its past, still has a busy modern vibe. Similar to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the King’s Mile has a variety of independent retailers and other shops along the old cobbled street. There is also a large student population who support the interesting dining, shopping and nightlife scene.
Canterbury is home to Greyfriars Chapel, Britain’s oldest Franciscan building which spans the River Stour. You can explore the ruins of the Norman Castle and view the Westgate Towers which has stood over the road to London for six centuries. Eastbridge Hospital was founded following the murder of St Thomas Becket to provide accommodation for poor pilgrims visiting his tomb. The building includes the early 13th century painting of Christ in Glory. Also, don’t forget the 13th and 14th century medieval city walls surrounding the city, built on the line of original Roman walls. Some have survived and offer great views of the town. Look for Castle and Broad Streets for access.
The impressive Christchurch Gate, built between 1504 and 1521, is the main entry into the Cathedral grounds. Try to find the sculpted heads of Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII, who married Catherine of Aragon in 1501. After Arthur’s death, Catherine married Henry VIII, and most of us know what happens next. Catherine is unable to produce a male heir and after twenty-five years of marriage led henry to divorce her, breaking with the Catholic Church and altering the course of English history.
Also recommended is the charming visitor attraction, The Canterbury Tales, an audio visual recreation of 14th century English life. Here you’ll meet Chaucer’s pilgrims at the Tabard Inn near London and view scenes illustrating five tales. Located on St. Margaret’s Street.”
Where to Eat: We grabbed lunch at Kitch, an all natural cafe located on St. Peter’s Street. The atmosphere is charming, and the food is fresh and delicious. Other top recommendations: Pinocchio’s – Italian Restaurant in a light airy space, 64 Castle Street, Café du Soleil – menu inspired by Provence and Italy, 5 Pound Lane, Deeson’s – modern British dining in elegant venue, 25-27 Sun Street, Café des Amis – Canterbury’s original Mexican Restaurant, 95 St Dunstan’s Street.
If you do go to Canterbury, I hope you enjoy your day in Southeast England. Don’t forget to wander around on your own for a while to enjoy the unexpected sights and sounds you might find along the way, and think about writing down your thoughts when you return to your hotel at the end of the day. It’s nice to reread and daydream about your trip once you return back home to reality.