If you’re looking for a day trip away from the noise and pollution of London, head out to Canterbury just a 90 minute train ride to the southeast.
We’ve all heard of the Canterbury Tales, a series of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. It’s a cornerstone of English literature and well worth reading. Even if you weren’t assigned to read it in school, a visit to Canterbury will be an interesting diversion.
The most important site is, of course, Canterbury Cathedral and St. Augustine’s Abbey, which together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s been a church at this spot since 597 A.D., when St. Augustine founded one here to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Like many early Christian churches, it was built atop an old Roman temple to assert the dominance of the new faith. The church has been extensively remodeled over the years, especially by the Normans in 1070. The soaring Gothic roof and the dazzling stained glass are the most impressive features, but pilgrims come here to see the spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170 for opposing the Crown. There’s a small chapel here where Becket is buried.
Also worth a look are the extensive crypts, with dark chapels, flickering candles, and the cathedral treasury. After seeing the interior, be sure to visit the grounds, a quiet series of gardens and squares that are soothingly beautiful in the fading light of evening.
The other half of the World Heritage Site is St. Augustine’s Abbey, founded in 598 A.D. and now in a state of elegant decay. It’s the oldest Anglo-Saxon Abbey in England. It was the only abbey to survive the Viking invasions of the 9th century and became central to the religious life of the region until Henry VIII shut it down in 1538.
Canterbury was an important Roman town and some of the these early remnants remain. The Roman Museum on Butchery Lane explains the development of Roman Durovernum through artifacts and recreated rooms. The star attraction is part of a Roman house uncovered by a Luftwaffe bomb during World War Two. One room had a heating system under the floor, a hollow area where warm air flowed from a nearby furnace. Also preserved is a hallway decorated with mosaics.
%Gallery-83609%Canterbury is a fine old town for a walk. The River Stour cuts right through the center and lining its banks are timber frame houses from the Tudor era. Rough medieval towers and ornate Victorian buildings compete for space with more modern buildings to give a quick lesson in the history of English architecture. Just around the corner from the Cathedral is the Canterbury Tales Exhibit, which sounds like a literary tourist trap. Since I haven’t been there personally, I’ll refer you to a blogger who has.
For dining you simply must go to Kashmir Tandoori at 20 Palace St. This local favorite has been serving South Asian cuisine since 1966 and has won a entire wall of awards. The balance of spices is masterful, emphasizing flavor over fire in a way that makes you appreciate Indian cooking as more than an endurance contest. They offer regional dishes from all over South Asia.
If you stay overnight, you can’t get a better view than from the Cathedral Gate Hotel at 36 Burgate. When I was there in 2007 the hotel was a bit tattered and in need of a remodel, but being located right next to the cathedral gate with splendid views of the Cathedral itself, you’ll barely notice. Make sure you get a room facing the Cathedral and not the street.
Up for another day trip? See another cathedral and more Roman ruins at St. Albans. You can even drink in “England’s oldest pub”!