This small city of prayer, stone and stories calls to travelers like a miniature Rome.
In bygone times there was nothing quick about getting to Canterbury — whether on foot, or at the comfortable horseback pace that gave us the verb “to canter.” Some chose to make their journeys longer, or harder — most famously Henry II, who in 1174 entered the city on bare, bloodied feet, a “Game of Thrones”-caliber walk of shame and atonement after the murder of Thomas Becket. Today the most devoted pilgrims still make their way to Canterbury on foot. But most visitors get here from London in just under an hour on the Javelin, Britain’s fastest domestic train. That’s barely enough time to don a hair shirt, let alone to make a dent in a volume of Chaucer. Focus instead on the rolling Kentish countryside and on the many who’ve crossed these fields before you, bound for this small city of prayer, stone and stories that still calls to travelers like a miniature Rome.
1) 3:30 P.M. DO NOT PASS GO
Enter Canterbury through the monumental 14th-century Westgate, England’s largest still-standing city gate. Structural highlights include gaps designed for aiming guns (rather than arrows) and “murder holes” (for dropping hot sand, boiling liquids and the like onto marauders). Atop it all is the best view in Canterbury. After your selfies, head downstairs to the incarceration-themed Pound, where the barman Adam MacLean will give you a Life Sentence — Tanqueray, Kamm & Sons, lemon and apple juice, rosemary shrub and egg white (£7.50, or about $9.75). Stand back — it’s finished with a fragrant rosemary sprig that’s flame-seared before your eyes.
2) 7 P.M. DRAMA THEN AND NOW
The short life of Christopher Marlowe, the poet, playwright and Canterbury native who so deeply influenced Shakespeare, was as scandalous — in 1593 a spy reported that Marlowe believed he had as much right to mint coins as Queen Elizabeth, and that religion’s original purpose was “only to keep men in awe” — as his death in a tavern fight, at age 29, via a dagger to the eye. His spirit lives on at the Marlowe Theater, one of Britain’s finest regional stages. Look out for Orlando Bloom, who made his debut at the Marlowe, at age 4. Today he is the patron of its youth theater.
3) 8:45 P.M. LOCKED OUT
One dark and rainy night, in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” Frodo and his companions pound on the locked gate of the village of Bree. Canterbury, too, once had reason to bolt its gates at night, and so pubs, offering a meal and bed to late arrivals, accumulated outside the Westgate. The 17th-century Unicorn Inn is one of the friendliest for traditional British pub fare, such as sausage and mash (£9).
4) 9 A.M. THE GARDEN OF ENGLAND
It’s hard to imagine a more pleasurable food emporium than the Goods Shed, an 1830s-era former railway depot now home to a restaurant, farmers’ market and a food hall that’s filled to the rafters with fiercely locavore, reasonably priced delights. Stuff your reusable shopping bag with delectable Kentish treats from Murray’s General Store. Then sit by the arched windows and enjoy a “build your own” English breakfast as the trains roll by.
5) 10 A.M. WORLD HERITAGE
In addition to Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury’s Unesco designation covers two other remarkable (and less-visited) venues. St. Augustine’s Abbey was founded in the late sixth century by St. Augustine (not the more famous of-Hippo one), whom the pope had sent to re-Christianize southern England. Slow-walk through the atmospheric ruins, then march uphill to the tiny St. Martin’s Church. As you catch your breath in the peaceful churchyard, ponder this: St. Martin’s is widely considered to be the oldest still-in-use church in the English-speaking world.CreditAndy Haslam for The New York Times
6) NOON; WHEN IN CANTERBURY …
Learn all about Durovernum Cantiacorum (Roman-era Canterbury) and — yes! — try on a toga at the pint-size Canterbury Roman Museum. Then head to Pret a Manger, the popular British chain, for a freshly made sandwich and a far older delight. There is a hidden cellar here, and the masonry walls, according to Marion Green, an education officer at the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, are evidence of “a substantial Roman building” that could be “a high status townhouse.” Staff members will take you on a tour if they’re not busy. Fire up your smartphone’s flashlight function and watch your head.
7) 1 P.M. THE SHOPPER’S TALE
In an ancient city, three of the finest shops call out to the past. Sir — he’s a baronet — Robert Sherston-Baker, owner of the Chaucer Bookshop, has mixed feelings about his secondhand-book store’s all-but-inevitable name. “It’s rather a bore,” he said, and anyway “we never seem to have enough Chaucer.” Ask instead about his 16th-century Bibles (costing thousands of pounds) and old Canterbury maps. Next up is Vinylstore Jr, a vinyl records store opened last year by Nick Pygott, a devoted fan of the band Dinosaur Jr., whose previous, seemingly only-in-England job was as commercial manager of a castle. Then head to the vintage clothing shop Revivals, opened in 1988 by Debbie Barwick, a former horse racing commentator who is now an eagle-eyed acquirer of estates, collections and theater wardrobe departments. Thanks to “Downton Abbey,” the regular pilgrimages of in-the-know Londoners and a Canterbury student population hungry for the latest in old things, Ms. Barwick’s lovely shop has never been busier, even if everything here comes with a gentle caveat: “People then were a lot smaller than what they are now. Even the men.”CreditAndy Haslam for The New York Times
8) 3 P.M. THE STONE AGES
I first saw Canterbury Cathedral from the air, as a student pilot on a flight high above Kent in 2002. The architectural majesty of the worldwide Anglican Communion’s mother church remains as pleasing a landmark as any I’ve seen, one that’s maintained by 24 masons, some of whom may never work anywhere else (it’s no surprise that Canterbury has a Freemasonry museum). You could spend a day exploring the cathedral’s peaceful, collegelike Precincts, or grounds; while inside the quiet enormity of the cathedral, take a guided tour to make the most of your visit. Leave time to attend Choral Evensong, which David Flood, the cathedral organist and master of the choristers, describes as the central event of the day for both the “Cathedral community” and “all its many guests” — that’s you.
9) 7 P.M. YOU’VE ARRIVED
A reservation at the Michelin-starred Sportsman in Seasalter, an aptly named coastal village about 10 miles from Canterbury, requires French Laundry levels of dedication. Weekend tables may book up eight months in advance. Yet when I pulled in late last winter, the place was so unassuming that I asked my taxi driver to wait while I confirmed the address. Inside, too, it’s an ordinary English seaside haunt — nautically themed paintings, a dartboard — while the ever-changing menu is simply glorious. We started with Whitstable oysters (£2.95 each) and slip soles (small Dover soles) in smoked salt butter (£10.95; the salt is from the nearby beach), then veered inland for the pork belly with crackling (£19.95). Instead of wine, the chatty guy behind the bar — the co-owner, Philip Harris, I later realized — suggested a Master Brew (£3.60) by Shepherd Neame, a Kentish brewery said to be Britain’s oldest. “This is what we all grew up on,” he said with a full-bellied laugh. “And look what it did to us.”
10) 9 A.M. LOCAL LINKS
On cold and gray mornings, have breakfast at the cozy Refectory Kitchen, where the hot chocolate is as comforting as the glass-fronted woodstove. On brighter days head to Kitch. With fresh white wainscoting, locally smoked salmon and crazily healthy smoothies, this cafe wouldn’t be out of place in the Hamptons.
11) 10 A.M. DANCE IT OFF
Minal Koria, born in Nairobi and a proud Kent resident since 1989, was trained in both north and south Indian classical dance. But ever since a childhood love affair with the film “Pakeezah,” it’s been the sounds (and moves) of Bollywood that have charmed her most. Her drop-in Bollywood Blast dance classes (£5) are open to all ages — sometimes three generations arrive together — and, mercifully, to all skill levels. In a city jam-packed with tourists, come to Ms. Koria’s high, bright studio to meet friendly locals, and to see the cathedral as so many pilgrims first did — in festive company, and from afar.
12) NOON; CLOISTERS TO OYSTERS
Among rail-to-trail conversions, the seven-mile Crab & Winkle Way, from Canterbury to the coast, stands apart: The steam-powered railway that once ran here was one of the world’s first. As you walk or cycle back to Canterbury, detour to Blean Woods, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve that is part of one of England’s most beloved ancient woodlands. Wander the coppiced forest on the well-marked trails, recalling Chaucer’s famous shout-out to the Blean (“Under the Blee, in Caunterbury weye”). Or, just listen for the nightingales.
A tourist-friendly city, Canterbury offers plenty of lodging options, including several Airbnb properties along the picturesque River Stour. Or try to get a room at the always-popular Canterbury Cathedral Lodge (Canterbury Cathedral, The Precincts, http://www.canterburycathedrallodge.org). Remarkably, it’s located inside the cathedral grounds. You’ll find a warm welcome and rooms (from £99) with stunning views of the cathedral, a particular treat after dark.
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