Canterbury, Part 1 - The Heritage Walk
This past week, I found myself in London for a series of business meetings. This left a free weekend to explore something new. I found myself thinking about Canterbury. It had been almost 15 years since I had last been there and that was a very short trip. Basically, the cathedral and little else. I decided to explore more of Canterbury.
For those of you who do not know of Canterbury, it is in many respects, the birthplace of organized religion in England. It is home to a great cathedral, an important Abby and the very first church established in the country. It was also one of the first medieval walled cities in the country.
The first thing I should mention is about planning for the trip. It is a very short train ride to Canterbury. It takes a little over an hour and the trains are very comfortable. My advice to anyone is to leave on the 8:00 AM train. It will maximize your day trip as most everything closes around 5:00 PM.
The second thing I should mention is that you should bring a good pair of shoes. This is a walking city and there is a great deal to explore. At the end of my day, I checked the health app on my iPhone and found that I had walked over 14 miles.
When you arrive at Canterbury, you will find yourself in a small train station. Exiting the train station, you should cross the main road and make your way to the right. Ultimately, you will find yourself at the main road that goes through the city and off in the distance, there will be the old medieval city gates. It is nearly impossible to get lost in Canterbury. There are a lot of landmarks to use to navigate and the streets are well posted.
There are two traditional walks in the city of Canterbury that visitors should consider. The first is a Heritage Walk. This takes you through most of the city’s key landmarks and focuses on the broad history of the city. The second is often referred to as the Pilgrim’s Trail. As the name implies, this one gives you a more secular perspective.
I decided early on that I wanted to do both starting with the Heritage Walk. This is a map of the walk.
My first stop was Christ Church Gate in front of Canterbury Cathedral. I chose this location because it is central to the city and I was planning on touring through Canterbury Cathedral mid-day.
This gateway was constructed in 1520 to memorialize to Prince Arthur, brother of King Henry the VIII. This is the main entrance into Canterbury Cathedral. What I enjoyed the most about the gate was considering the millions of people who must have crossed its threshold on their way into the cathedral. The gateway is one of those funnel points in the world where, throughout history, people from all walks of life have made their way.
To the right of the gate and down the street about 100 yards, I found my way down to St. Thomas’ Church. On my way, I noted that there was a Wagamama down a side street; no matter where you go in the UK…there is a Wagamama.
This church stands out because it is decidedly more modern than its surroundings. This area was heavily bombed during the Second World War during which around a quarter of the ancient city was destroyed. This church was built in the early 19thcentury and dedicated to Thomas Becket. It as later expanded after WWII. To the right, in the church courtyard is a display of a tower. This is all that remains of the Mary Magdalene Church.
From here, I continued my journey down Burgate (on the right-hand side). At the end or Burgate, I found myself at the old city walls. The walls can be traced back to the Roman period. Over the centuries, they have been reinforced and rebuilt but always along the original Roman foundation. The walls are not regarded as a main attraction of the city. Nevertheless, they are well worth exploring and I would recommend at the end of our journey to Canterbury to walk their entire length. They will take you all the way around the city.
From the this point at the city walls, I walked down the street that runs parallel to the walls and found myself at a small park called Lady Wootton’s Green. This square is dominated by two statues that were erected in 2007 to memorialize Queen Bertha and King Ethelbert and the complicated history of this small piece of land.
Here is a brief history of this site.
In 580 Bertha, the great grand-daughter of Clovis the founder of the Frankish monarchy, married Prince Ethelbert of Kent. She was a Christian and a former Roman building, said to be on the site of the current St Martin's church, was adapted for her use as a chapel. Her route there from the city started from what is now Queningate, a blocked pedestrian gate in the southern city wall, and passed through the fields which would later become Lady Wootton's Green. In 597 Pope Gregory sent Prior Augustine to convert the British to Christianity and on his arrival he was allowed to use the Queen's chapel for worship. By 601 King Ethelbert had been converted to Christianity and provided the resources for Archbishop Augustine to build his cathedral in the city and the abbey to bear his name outside the walls. The abbey was for the burial of the future Archbishops of Canterbury and Kings of Kent and the Green thus became part of a ceremonial way between the city and abbey. It also contained the Mulberry market and from the 12th century the abbey's almonry with an associated chapel.
The abbey was enclosed and the Fyndon Gate built by 1308, but after the dissolution of the monasteries the King converted part into his “new lodgings”, eventually to be leased to Edward Lord Wootton in 1612. Lady Wootton was widowed in 1626 but lived on in her palace until she died in 1659. Eventually the garden in front of her gates, which had also been known as Mulberry, Palace or Ambery Green, took her name and came back into public ownership. A row of houses on Broad Street was demolished in 1896 to open the view to the cathedral and create the public gardens.
The medieval buildings surrounding the Green were destroyed by bombing in 1942, leaving only the old almonry building at No 1 to be rebuilt on its remaining 13th century ground floor walls. In 2007 statues of King Ethelbert and Queen Bertha by Stephen Melton of Ramsgate were installed. They were given by the Canterbury Commemoration Society to the city in recognition of the part they played in establishing the Christian faith in England.
…and that is the short version!
This was a good kicking off point to walk to St. Augustine’s Abbey. The Abbey can be seen for free if you look through the bars of the fence surrounding it or you can pay English Heritage for admission.
The ruins are well worth exploring and you should give it a good hour at least. This was one of England’s first Abbeys and has a history that encompasses Christianity in England.
It survived and grew up until King Henry the Eighth dissolved the Abbeys as a means of plundering their wealth and centralizing political and religious control of the country.
A long walk down from the Abbey is St. Martin’s Church.
This small church is surrounded by a beautiful cemetery which is well worth exploring. Some of the headstones date back over 500 years.
The church itself (which still holds services) has the distinction of being the oldest church in England. This church is where Queen Bertha practiced her faith after moving to England and marrying Prince Ethelbert. Roman bricks were used in its construction. I was lucky enough to be there right after a service and several of the attendees were kind enough to show me around.
I funny side note is that while I was there, there was a sudden change in the weather and hail started pouring down. Being inside the church at the time, it sounded like there was a chorus of drums playing on the roof.
From here, I walked back down the street from which I came to a street called Ivy Lane and a building called The Fall. This is a well-preserved example of a 15thcentury hall house. This means that the house was built around a great hall with a large fireplace. Later, it was expanded during the Tudor reign.
My next stop took me to the corner of St. Georges Street and Upper Bridge Street. From this point, there is an entrance onto the city walls. I took a slight detour from my planned walk and walked for about 30 min on top of the city walls. I found myself wishing that I brought a book with me…what a great place to read a Bernard Cornwell novel.
After my walk on the wall, I back tracked and went back onto my planned walk. My next stop took me to Watling Street just opposite Dane Jon Gardens. This is and has been a large open park for the citizens of Canterbury. One of the highlights of the gardens is the medieval mound which affords a great view of the city. The mound was the site of a Norman keep. Today, it is used for city events.
My next stop took me to Rose Lane near Long Market. This was the site of the city market. Unfortunately, it was bombed during the war and most of what you see here was reconstruction.
From here, I continued down Butchery Lane back towards the cathedral. On the right is a Roman Museum which is certainly worth a visit. I spent a good hour exploring the finds from what was originally a roman fortress. As you continue down the street, you should note that the buildings on the left are all original and date back to the time of the pilgrims.
Fortified with a perspective of the history of the city, this is a great time to visit Canterbury’s famous cathedral. This is one of England’s finest cathedrals and is not only knows for the buildings but also the grounds surrounding it.
I took my time walking through it. One of the architectural features that struck me was its vaulted ceilings. It was magnificent without losing the intimacy of a small church.
After the walk through the cathedral, I grabbed a sandwich back at Long Market before my next journey…The Pilgrim’s Trail.