London Day Trips: Canterbury

Since visiting Margate on a bright winter day this January, I’ve felt good things about Kent. I’ve never spent time exploring this area of England before now – a travesty, really, seeing how close it is to London and how easy to access so much of it by train. When you live in London, especially as a student, your whole world of travel possibilities tends to be contained within the M25. But on another shockingly sunny winter day, I decided to broaden my Kent-horizons by exploring the ancient cathedral town of Canterbury.

The train from London Victoria to Canterbury only lasts an hour and a half and takes you through quaint Kent towns and stretches of lush countryside. From the train window, thick trees obscure your view of the valleys and farmhouses, except for when a strange-looking house piques your attention. After seeing many other similarly shaped houses – with roofs that look like upturned birds beaks – a quick Google told me these are oasts houses, dwellings where hops used to be brewed for beer.

Oast houses like these are common in Kent.

Arriving in Canterbury, it’s clear from the moment I step out of the train that this is a small town. Inevitably, in towns like these where train stations are a Victorian afterthought, visitors inevitably see the less-than-pretty sides of modern Canterbury on the walk into town. Arriving at Canterbury East (the town actually contains two stations, both of which serve London stations), this is the case, as you cross a busy ring road on your way into town. You’re quickly transported back into a Norman city on the city walls, which now surround a park. The best way to begin a day in Canterbury, and to vaguely get your bearings, is by walking up the Dane John Mound, which dates back to the first century AD and used to be a Roman burial ground. No longer a cemetery, the mound now provides a pretty bird’s eye view of Canterbury centre (including, to my dismay, a scaffolding-clad cathedral) and the surrounding countryside—a novelty to a Londoner, where, from most vantage points, you mainly just see more of London.

Canterbury Cathedral is easily noticeable from the Dane John Mound.

Before heading into the town, I took a detour to see Canterbury Castle, which turned out to be, also, clad in scaffolding and seemingly disintegrating before my eyes. Normally, the small public park is open to visitors, but that was also closed at this time; but, thanks to the detour, I did get a chance to see St Mildred’s Church, a pretty Anglo-Saxon church.

Wandering into the town proper, I was struck by how un-English it felt—the streets felt more European than anything, but whether this was due to Canterbury’s distinctly European history as a key Norman city or the effect of a rare sunny and warm February day, I don’t know. But on a Saturday morning, the streets were quiet, only the sound of birds and the odd car on the cobbles.

Another distinct characteristic I’ve found of old English towns is their ability to quickly make you lose your way (something I’ve also experienced in Shrewsbury and York). While Canterbury does have a central ‘high street’, filled with your average selection of British chain stores and the odd inviting coffee shop (Cafe St Pierre looked particularly inviting), it soon becomes clear to a visitor that there are plenty of other, smaller streets to dip in and out of, especially on the Cathedral side of town.

The Cathedral dominates these small streets, and there are plenty of places to get a nice shot of the central tower, which rises 72m above the ground. I was surprised that tourists aren’t allowed to wander freely in the Cathedral grounds, with all visitors having to queue for a ticket in the small square that serves as the entrance to the site. For the cost, though (£12.50 for adults; £10.50 for students), it’s certainly worth exploring; though it’s not the largest in the country, Canterbury Cathedral is the oldest and the first official site of Christianity in the country. Henry IV’s grave is located towards the back of the cathedral, and visitors can also stand in the exact spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170.

There’s even more to see outside the hallowed walls of the cathedral, including the cloisters, Chapter House, and the remains of a Benedictine monastery. If you head out of the cathedral this way, you can wander through the grounds of The King’s School, known only to me through the fact that Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe was a pupil there. For Marlowe fans, the church he was baptized at also still exists, though it now serves as a clock tower for the busy high street.

The King’s School was founded in 597 AD.

With the major Canterbury tourist attraction ticked-off, I settled to wandering the rest of the town. Disappointingly, the Westgate—the largest surviving city gate in England—is accessible only through a gastropub underneath it, which seems to thoroughly enjoy the influx of custom by tourists and offers free entry to the Westgate Museum if you buy a meal. No matter, the gate provided a useful starting point for a walk down the Great Stour river, a route which curves back into the town through some of the smaller, quieter streets.

Canterbury High Street with Westgate in the distance.

Canterbury can easily be visited in a day from London, or even half a day if you get out early enough. If you’re more interested in the ancient history of the city, it might be worth making time for Canterbury Roman Museum (£9 adults; £7 students). Otherwise, stopping for a drink in one of the various ancient pubs around time (the Unicorn Inn on St. Dunstan’s Street was originally built in 1593, while the Old Weaver’s House on the High Street boasts a history dating back to 1500). While there might be more picturesque towns and villages in England (the encroachment of modern Canterbury on the old town is noticeable), but just for the sheer amount of history Canterbury sits on, you certainly won’t be disappointed with a day trip to this Kent city.

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