Canterbury, Part 2 - The Pilgrim's Trail
Updated: Jul 23, 2019
The Pilgrim’s Trail takes your through a traveler’s view of the city. I decided to take this portion of my journey through Canterbury after I was able to tour through the Cathedral. Having seen what the more secular portion of Canterbury was like, I was eager to experience more of what life was like during the middle ages.
Below is a map of my journey on the Pilgrim’s trail.
But before I start my journey, a quick historical note. Canterbury became a famous site for pilgrims around 1170. The city owes much of its fame to Thomas Becket, also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Becket had a conflict with Henry II, King of England over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered in 1170 by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, he was canonized by Pope Alexander III.
The official account of his death was recorded as;
The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, "For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death." But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, 'Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.
Canterbury, because of its religious history, had always seen many pilgrims, and after the death of Thomas Becket their numbers rose rapidly.
My journey starts to the left of Christ Church Gate down Sun Street. This narrow medieval street is home to the Sun Hotel, which was mentioned by Charles Dickens. This hotel dates back to the late 1500s.
Down a bit further on Sun Street is an open square where four roads intersect. This area was known as the Rush Market. This was an ancient market dating back to the 1100s and was the site of cattle and grass exchanges for centuries.
From here I continued down Palace Street. Palace street is a long narrow street with a great deal to see. On the right is a plaque commemorating the Mayflower. This was where the Robert Cushman, a local grocer, hired the Mayflower for its voyage to the Americas.
A bit further along is Conquest house. This is a Tudor house that was built on a medieval house that was built over a Norman cellar. It is widely believed that the four knights that murdered Thomas Becket gathered at an inn here before going to the Cathedral to carry out their “foul deed”.
Continuing down the street is an impressive stone building. This is the original entrance to the Bishop of Canterbury’s palace. This building is worth a long pause to look into its windows and its beautifully preserved stonework.
As I made my way down the street, I noticed that there was a large crowd of people standing around a building taking their picture. When I arrived, it could see why. The building is magnificently crooked. This is Sir John Boys House. He was a member of Parliament for Canterbury in the 16thcentury. This building has been subsiding for centuries. I took a few minutes to go in…it is now a used bookshop and well worth the visit (albeit a bit scary given that it looks like it will collapse at any moment).
I then continued around to the left (down King Street). There is an unusual building that looks Egyptian) on the right-hand side of the road. This is The Old Synagogue. The Jewish community in Canterbury (believed to be the oldest such community in the country) built the Synagogue in 1847. It was used for services until the 1930s. Later it was sold to a local school who now use it for music recitals.
The remainder of this street is an impressive collection of Georgian homes. #20 Kings Street stands out with its wisteria and classic Georgian Architecture.
I then walked to a bridge called The Friars which sits over the river Stow. I had heard of this bridge before. It known for having an amazing view of an Dominican Friary that was built in the 13thcentury. It was occupied and used as a friary for over 300 years. The bridge is also known as the birthplace of Canterbury. There was a settlement at this site long before even the Roman’s arrived and built their great fortress.
A short walk from The Friars bridge is the Marlowe Theatre. This modern theatre was built to celebrate Christopher Marlowe who was born in Canterbury. Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary to William Shakespeare. He died in 1593. He was arrested and tried as an atheist (a crime with a potential death penalty). While being held, he was murdered by an unknown assailant.
In front of the theatre, there is a statue that celebrates the works of Christopher Marlowe. The statue, which erected during the 19thcentury was regarded as to lewd to be near the cathedral (it has an unclothed woman on top of the monument). Because of this, it was relocated to its present site.
From here, I walked down St. Peter’s Lane to a lookout area adjacent to Pound Lane. The lookout area overlooks the River Stow and on the opposite bank of the river, the site of a huge mill. The mill was designed by John Smeaton, architect of the Eddystone Lighthouse near Plymouth. My son will be happy I fit a lighthouse into this tour of Canterbury. The mill was largely destroyed in a fire in the 1930s but much of the equipment and the waterway survived. This lookout is a great place to sit and read…which I know because I took about an hour to do so.
After a very pleasant break, I briefly walked down pound late and took a quick right onto a small creek bridge called The Causeway. If you follow the path along the right side of the creek, you will be rewarded with a small footbridge that will take you to the right-hand side of the river. Like the last break I took at the lookout, you will be rewarded with a great view of the river and the houses that line it.
Continue walking until you are at St. Peters Street standing in front of the West Gate (the main entrance into Canterbury). West Gate is the entrance pilgrims would have used when traveling from London. The gate was rebuilt in the 14thcentury. The originally gate had a draw bridge that would have been used to seal off the city at night or when threatened.
There is a museum in the gatehouse that is well worth exploring. In the 1600s, the city used to hang people from the battlements as a deterrent.
I then walked down St. Peters Street to a small bridge that crosses the river Stow. Overlooking the bridge is a 16th century weaver house. During the 16th century, pilgrimages where on the decline and the region was plunged into a recession. The Canterbury economy was essentially saved by weavers who set up shop in the center of the city.
Across the road is the Eastbridge Hospital. This hospital was set up to provide care for pilgrims. It was originally a hospice during the 11thcentury and 12thcentury. The building has been sheltering people for more than 800 years and is still in use as a refuge for the homeless and a museum.
After a brief visit, I continued to walk down St. Peters Street until it turned into High Street. At that point, I took a right and turned onto Stour Street. From here, I took a small detour down a small path opposite Beer Cart Lane to the river where I saw the ruins of Greyfrairs Friary. I could only see it through an opening in the wall and I neglected to take any pictures but it is a beautiful brick lined path with benches and a great place to sit an rest.
Turn back the way I came, I walked down Beer Cart Lane until I came to St. Margaret’s Street. As I walked down the street, to my left, I came across an old church which has been turned into The Canterbury Tales exhibit. This is less a museum and more of a live acted and animatronic enhanced retelling of the Canterbury Tales. It’s a bit of a gimmick but well worth the visit. I met several other tourists from the U.S. and Germany and had a great time walking through the experience.
The last leg of my journey took me back down to the Canterbury Cathedral.
As I walked to the train station from my trip back to London, it was hard not to consider the fact that I had just been to a place that had been evolving for the last 2000 years. Ancient Britain’s settled here, Romans conquered them, Normans conquered what was left and brought organized religion, the first English church, the first English Abby, the murder of Thomas Becket and the arrival of Pilgrims, the dissolution of Catholicism by King Henry the VIII, the rebirth of Christianity in England, trade, war and tourism.
All of this was represented in some way during my trip to Canterbury.