Less than an hour southeast from London’s St. Pancras by train, Canterbury is a wonderful day trip out of the city. Dominated by the massive Canterbury Cathedral, the medieval city center is lively with tourist shops, pubs, and cute little side streets. Coming to Canterbury, we can’t help but think of the Canterbury Tales or palace intrigue of Henry II’s ordering the murder of Thomas Becket.
There are two different train stations in Canterbury – Canterbury East and Canterbury West. Canterbury West is the stop for us as the train station empties unceremoniously out onto a main drag but its closest to Canterbury’s High Street, which means shops, pubs, and the path toward the Cathedral. A left onto Mercery Lane brings you to a plaza (the Butter Market) in front of the Christchurch Gate, the Cathedral grounds’ main entrance. Here we found Canterbury Pottery, one of the quaintest little shops in all of England.
The Cathedral grounds are impressive in size, but like medieval pilgrims we walk toward the Cathedral, to the massive Norman-era building and its gorgeous stained glass windows. Founded in 600 by St. Augustine, it is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although most of the original structures have not survived, the present complex dates from the 1100s. The Cathedral impresses by its size. The structure is Romanesque Latin-cross plan with Gothic features. The Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Cathedral is unique in our experience. The nave is massive in size and then halfway up there is “the crossing,” which is a large stone screen separating the nave from the quire. Beyond the quire is the small trinity chapel. At the time we were there, the Cathedral was hosting an art exhibition setting art in situ with glass art set against the start tan stone columns and walls.
Toward the side of the Cathedral is a site near the door to the monastic cloister, the stairs to the crypt, and the stairs leading up to the quire. Here is where Becket was killed.
Highlights of the Canterbury Cathedral are the Cloister and the Chapter House. The Cloister is situated on the north side of the Cathedral. It is a covered colonnade that encloses a small green courtyard and is attached to the side of the Cathedral. We understand now that the Cloister was built in the 1400s and on the ceiling are decorative adornments that bear the coats of arms of the persons who contributed to building the Cathedral. The jewel of the Cathedral is the Chapter House, where we find medieval stained glass, a lofty timber roof, stone seats ringing the walls under arched stone niches. This was the meeting place for the monks and priests that lived and worked here.
Further afield from the Cathedral complex are some “must see” sites in Canterbury from the famous crooked house that looks like to going to fall over to the Great Stour, its punts, and the Westgate Gardens. As a weird aside, we spent at least 15 minutes watching a male moor hen swim upstream on the Great Stour to grab nest-making material while his spouse watched from a perch inside the stone wall, giving direction where and when appropriate. Grabbing the nest-building material, he would let the river carry him back toward his mate, drop the nest material off, and swim back upstream. That is love. Just something about the cold and dreary day, the pints of beer, Canterbury Potter, exploring Canterbury made us so happy.
The essentials: We were here for lunch so we had pies at The Bell & Crown and pints at The Unicorn Inn near Canterbury West before heading back to London. Canterbury would be a wonderful home base to continue exploring County Kent from its beautiful Leeds Castle to the white cliffs of Dover, we’ll be back in later Spring to take in “the Garden of England.”
Notes by the Author: We were supposed to be in Portugal at the end of May but travel complications kept us in London and looking for adventure. Not packed for the fickle U.K. weather, we had to buy a windbreaker and sweater at St. Pancras station. Also during this time, we experienced the highs and lows of British public transit. On our way back to London, our Southeastern train was stopped for an hour (or more) because of some misanthrope jumping onto the tracks and leading the police on a tour of various train tunnels. Whilst frustrating, apparently problems with the Southeastern rail persist in a variety of different ways. Indeed, just days after, the Southeast rail was disabled because of a major thunderstorm and lightning strike.