Friday, May 16, 2008

Townin' Around: A Pilgrim's Tale of Canterbury

Canterbury is one of England's most famous cathedral cities, and nuzzles in a lovely corner of the Kent countryside. Its beginnings date back to a Roman settlement, and was the site of the establishment of Christianity in England when Augustine came in 597AD. What brought visitors in droves, and still brings them in droves today, was the murder and subsequent canonisation of Archbishop Thomas a Becket in the cathedral on the evening of 29 December, 1170. Geoffrey Chaucer died before finishing his epic "The Canterbury Tales," stories told by travellers making their pilgrimage to the cathedral to Becket's shrine. To his I will add my own tale.

The Pilgrim Arrives at Night

After a gruelling car trip trying to get out of London (this is NOT for the inexperienced, take the train or bus!), I arrived at night in Canterbury to be greeted by the massive and beautifully lit city walls and gates. I promptly got lost due to my lack of preparation, incomprehensible directions, and the fact that Canterbury's city centre is quite compact, thus full of pedestrianised areas and one-way systems. There's also a good deal of construction going on.

On my handy mobile I rang the staff of The Slatter's Hotel, where I had booked for the night. They were very helpful, in fact, it has to be said... the manager actually ran out of the hotel to come get me and lead me to the parking lot!

Check in was friendly and fast, but outside of the lobby and restaurant areas, the hotel itself is tatty. If you own a Fodor's or Rough Guide, make a note in your books now, as these guide books made this hotel sound like the cat's meow. It's not. Everything was clean, but the carpets were very worn and the decor was 70s (and not a cool retro either) and outdated.

Inside my room, I had a tiny TV, a window that would not open, awful furniture, and a bathroom ceiling scarred with obvious water damage. The room and bed were comfortable,
however, there was a "cheap B&B" feel about the room. The room would have been okay had it not been for the £55.00 per night price I paid.

Despite my disappointment with the room, I did get a good night's sleep. I didn't get my wake up call though, or the breakfast that was included in the cost of the room. As I checked out, the clerk apologised about the call (she forgot), gave me the pre-packaged continental breakfast to take with me, and granted me permission to keep my car in the parking lot until later. So at least service was good!

The Slatter's Hotel is very centrally located within the city walls on St. Margaret's Street. For enquiries ring 44 (0)1227 463 271.

A Fine Day for a Pilgrimage

After a quick nosy in the Tourist Information Centre on St. Margaret's Street (Enquiries: 44 (0)1227 766 567 or email:, my stomach led me to High
Street, the main thoroughfare through town. There I enjoyed a nice breakfast of a muffin and some fresh fruit at Aroma (34 High Street). You'll find a variety of fresh pastries, sandwiches and caffeine of your choosing at this chain. Aroma is a good bet for breakfast or lunch under a fiver, if uninspired.

After breakfast, I had a stroll down the High Street, which is filled with the standard British chain shops. At the far end of High Street, where it's called St. Peter's Street (all one street, just changes name a few times along the way), you can see the massive West Gate, one of England's finest medieval fortified gatehouses.

West Gate (St. Peter's Street, ring 44 (0)1227 452 747 for enquiries) is now a small museum which has displays of armour and arms. A group of schoolchildren were enjoying a talk and the chance to try on some armour replicas while I visited. Kids will likely enjoy making their own brass rubbings here as well.

While the small collection is interesting, what I enjoyed most while at West Gate Museum was the brilliant views of Canterbury and the surrounding countryside from the top. Be warned before you promise the kids! There are over 50 very narrow, very winding stone steps to climb to reach the top. Admission cost for adults is £1.00, 50p for children, and 65p for students and seniors.

If you are tired after your arduous climb, you may stroll next door as I did to the West Gate Gardens, which are along a path that runs by the river behind the Guildhall. I sat and enjoyed the sunshine while preparing my day. I think you'll find this to be a great place to relax or enjoy a picnic lunch.

A good place to have a drink, snack or get your picnic goodies is nearby at Cafe St. Pierre, at the West Gate end of High Street. They do lovely pastries and sandwiches to take away, or you may just want to enjoy your drink at the cafe seating outside or in the garden in the back.

A leisurely wander around any of the side streets off of High Street is bound to bring you nice surprises. One such wander around a road called The Friars will bring you directly to Marlowe Theatre. This god-awful, sky-marring building is named after Canterbury's Elizabethan son Christopher Marlowe, who is probably ashamed to have his name associated with such a monstrosity. At any rate, the Marlowe is Canterbury's venue for touring drama and opera, and plays a large part in the two week October arts festival.

Back on the High Street, you can not miss the medieval Eastbridge Hospital (Enquiries: 44 (0)1227 471 688). This 12th century building acted as a hostel for weary travellers who came to pay homage to the slain St. Thomas a Becket. Today it still serves that purpose somewhat as most of the building is a private retirement home. You may not feel the admission price, though minimal, is worth seeing only the undercroft, refectory and two chapels. I think it is worth a quick 15 minute dash. Admission is £1.00 for adults, .50p for children, and .75p for seniors and students.

The Pilgrim Approaches the Cathedral

After paying homage to the pilgrims hospice, I felt worthy enough to head down Mercery Street and approach the great cathedral. Not that you need directions, as the cathedral
can be seen from anywhere in town. Walking down through the timber roof medieval buildings of Mercery Street, camera at the ready, you can't miss the massive and ornate 16th
century Christ Church gate at the end.

You'll notice in front of Christ Church Gate, an expanse opens up in front of you as you reach Burgate (street). This core area, known as Buttermarket, used to be where religious relics were sold to pilgrims, who collected badges and other items to show their piety and as proof they'd been on the pilgrimage.

This Pilgrim is More Hungry Than Pious

Religion doesn't stand a chance against eating in my book, so I rambled down Burgate and hung a right on to Buchery Lane. On this street, you can still take cracking photos of the cathedral, or if you like, have a look the Roman Museum. I decided to look at the outside of the museum while having something to eat at Patrick Casey's, an Irish Pub located across the street from the museum. The museum may be a nice attraction for a trip to Canterbury, but this pilgrim hadn't the time.

At Patrick Casey's, I feasted on a scrumptious jacket potato (that's baked potato to you Yanks!) filled with beans and cheese, with a lovely fresh salad on the side. The fare was
much better than standard pub food, offering not only the usual pub grub but some nice Irish specialities as well. I feel this pub is a good pit stop for food or a quick pint.

Deciding to put off the cathedral until the morning, I checked into my new hotel, the Kingsbridge Villa B&B (15 Best Lane, ring 44 (0)1227 766 415 for enquiries). This B&B
is also very centrally located, however, car park is very limited here, so be sure and check as you book if there is space.

The room I received at Kingsbridge villa was small, but fresh and lovely - a huge improvement on that the one supplied by Slatter's Hotel. The management were friendly, but not overly bubbly, but friendly enough to give me a double room for the cost of a single room (£25.00 per night) as the single room was let. Apparently, some of the rooms at this B&B have a cathedral view as well.

Having settled into my room, I had just enough time to do a little shopping and sightseeing. Heading back over to St. Margaret's Street, you'll find a variety of shops along this street, including Waterstones (a large book shop chain), HMV (a large music store chain), and the Marlowe Arcade (full of more chain stores). Having a quick peruse, nothing really caught my eye, so I decided that it was time to join the call of other pilgrims.

The Smells of the Pilgrim Trail

The Canterbury Tales (St Margaret's Street, ring 44 (0)1227 479 227 for enquiries) is meant to be an attraction that brings Chaucer's poems to life in an educational, modern language experience. You get to choose a language headphone to hear the tales brought to life while you move throughout the journey through different rooms. What you might not be prepared for are the tributes to the smells of the journey. Mmm...sewage and horse smells. Lovely.

The attraction is interesting, and I am certain kids will find it a lot more entertaining than, say, the Chaucer Centre or the Heritage museum. The best part of the attraction is the actual tales themselves, although adults may find the presentation a bit flaky. Admission costs £5.50 for adults, £4.60 for children and seniors, and family tickets are available for £17.50.

I finished off a great day by having a stroll along the medieval walls and having popcorn for dinner while catching a movie at the small cinema.

The Pilgrim Has Procrastinated Enough

Having a good night's sleep behind me, I awoke to a homecooked breakfast at the B&B, opting for scrambled eggs on toast instead of the traditional English fry-up. Breakfast was cooked well, and what more can you say about scrambled eggs? I ate it, checked out, and was soon on my way to the cathedral.

The entrance to the cathedral is through the Christ Church Gate. Once you've paid admission, the cathedral is upon you in its full glory. The Christchurch Cathedral was the first
of the great Norman cathedrals, and while not the most beautiful in England, is stunning and important in its own right. Most of what you see today is the result of alterations, the last major work being done in medieval times.

You may want to purchase the informational booklet when you buy your ticket (£1.50). This will help you understand all the different areas there are to see within the church, and help you put things in historical context. Look for the spot where Thomas a Becket was murdered, St. Augustine's chair, the spot where Saint Thomas was buried (before Henry VIII plundered his tomb), and the tombs of Henry IV, his wife Joan of Navarre, and the Black Prince's effigy.

If time permits, don't forget to stroll around the north side outside and explore the cloisters, which are quite pretty and peaceful. Admission to the church is £3.00, but it is free on Sunday. I would allow at least two hours for your visit.

Lunch and Fun in the Sun

Heading back to the High Street, I decided to have lunch at a cafe table outside Marlowe's (55 St. Peters St.) I give this restaurant my highest recommendation, as both the service and food were quite good. I enjoyed a Mexican chicken quesadilla salad while watching the world go by at a hurried pace. Marlowe's offers standard British fare, sandwiches, and meals with a Mexican touch.

Within viewing distance from Marlowe's, you'll find the Weaver's House, which has been preserved and transformed from its original use as a Huguenot home into a restaurant. From April to October, Canterbury Historic River Tours leaves from the garden of this restaurant. This trip is a relaxing 30 minute row down the River Stour. The guides are friendly, a good laugh, and make you feel welcome as they point out various sights along the river. This was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The cost is £4.50 for adults.

With the afternoon fading, I took a walk down Stour Street and enjoyed a brisk walk through the Greyfriar's Garden. From the garden, you can see the remaining portion of the 13th century building, which spans the river. Doubling back, and noticing rain on the horizon, I chose to spend the remainder of the afternoon at the Canterbury Heritage Museum.

Housed in a former medieval hospital, the Heritage Museum (20 Stour Street, ring (0)1227 452 747 for enquiries) is a well-laid out trip through the history of Canterbury up to present day. The museum houses many archaeological finds and is very educational. I especially enjoyed the Roman exhibit and WWII video. Kids will probably find the Rupert the Bear exhibit the most fun. Adult admission is £2.40, children pay £1.20 and seniors pay £1.60.

The Pilgrim Relaxes

Having explored Canterbury relentlessly, this pilgrim was weary. The modern pilgrim should do what I did. I headed straight to Riceman's department store (9 St. George's Lane), made a beeline to the Clarins counter, and had a very relaxing facial, shoulder and neck massage. Ahhhh! £25.00 for over an hour's bliss. I purchased a few relics of my pilgrimage (okay, so they were Clarins' products, but this is the year 2000), and having found my nirvana, was ready to take on the world again.

This is the end of this pilgrim's tale. Should you decide to make the pilgrimage yourself, you'll find good bus and train connections to Canterbury from London, each taking under two hours. Nervous drivers may want to leave their cars in a Park and Ride car park, which are found on the main approaches into town, and take the shuttle bus. Parking in Canterbury is very limited, especially in the summer, and there are a few pedestrianised and one way roads.

Marks out of 10 for Canterbury overall: 8

Top Tips!

Ask for the free Visitor's Map and Accommodation Guide at the Canterbury Tourist Information Centre. The map will help you to easily navigate the town and give the hours of all the major attractions. Or visit their web site at:

For more information on services, food and accommodation in Canterbury, you may also want to try the following web site:

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