A Day Out With Elspeth in Canterbury

I’m not one to often speak of road numbers – I’m very conscious of Bill Bryson’s observation about that as a British past time – but my thoughts of Canterbury begin at the A2, the London to Dover road. You have the same view from the Eurostar – it’s the sight of the hunched up shoulders of Canterbury cathedral that warns you’re about to go into European turbo mode. The tower seems tall from some angles and not tall enough from others, for the cathedral that seems scrunched from the front is huge length ways, I believe within 10 feet of Europe’s longest medieval cathedral (which is Winchester, should you care, 556 ft). Canterbury’s like an over stretched slug with too small a steering wheel from the south/north.

Yes, like the Volkswagen indie cinema adverts, I see things differently.

It is pleasant to be in a walled city, and one with little traffic within them. I’m not a huge car-banner but it was so much more tranquil and safe. It’s even nicer to have a major medieval gate to welcome you – something that only a handful of British towns have. I consider Westgate as a burley but friendly door keeper.

Unlike Winchester, there’s a bit more to Canterbury than the obvious main street that presents itself both for shopping and exploring (of course Winchester has other streets but perhaps few with attractions and cafes?). Canterbury is good for cafes. The high street changes its name a few times and extends beyond the Westgate to St Dunstan’s street, which is also pretty and full of inns of pilgrims who missed the curfew.

The city side of the gate, it’s St Peter’s Street and this is the more attractive end with independents and eating options, becoming High Street briefly around the Eastbridge where there’s a medieval hospital you can visit (with a volunteer in the mould of the man in Duckula who recited the digits of pi) and the much pictured weaver’s tearooms (where you pick up a punt tour). Boho cafe here lives up to its name – there is a quite a streak of this in Canterbury, as was evidenced by a literary and music festival which was on when I visited.

Canterbury

As you head down (south east) the high street, towards where Westgate’s twin gate once was, you get to the post war high street shopping. This used to feel ugly and incongruent, but since the mid 1990s, it was mostly rebuilt in that short window when planning was sensitive. Gone is the multistorey car park that dominated the city as much as the amphitheatre on its site must have. Whitefriars shopping is a warm red brick; what was Gap clothes shop is in the traditional local pantiled c1600 style, and New Look nearby has a modern twist on a Dutch gable. This was all gratifying to someone who knew Canterbury during the modernist era and saw that most blights have gone.

New ones have arrived. The yellow 1930s cinema made a nice theatre, but now the Marlowe is all glass and shines blue at night, vying in attention with the cathedral from Tyler’s Hill at the university. Canterbury still has little by way of the arts, and save the Gulbenkian at UKC (read my visit here) which isn’t easy to access for non drivers all year round, there’s the two screen Odeon or this receiving Theatre Royal-like all rounder named, as many things are, after the locally connected playwriting Christopher. Yes Canterbury’s only about 40,000 people, no it’s not Kent’s county or largest town (that’s Maidstone), but being a famous cathedral and university city, one would hope for a little more perhaps, especially as it does serve much of east Kent as a retail/entertainment destination.

The other new cultural bit which was an unwelcome change was the Beaney extension. The heavily Victorian museum, gallery and library has a modern wing onto Best Lane, and has NO tourist information centre worth speaking of – for one of Britain’s most visited cities?! Thinking of getting guides, leaflets, things to do, places to eat ideas or souvenirs? Wrong. Thinking of planning a trip in the area or getting a holiday brochure for the rest of the country? Forget it. I really don’t know where this scaled down TIC trend is coming from, but it’s stupid. Where do the tourists go? The TIC used to be huge and multilingual, and its former site by the Canterbury Tales is now a tearoom with prices higher than the 17th C newelled staircase but fare that is less fancy.

Canterbury’s been good at tidying in my absence elsewhere, including scruffy Stour Street, or has my taste just changed? I quite liked wandering the back streets which seemed a little more industrial than twee (I found a bonded warehouse or two). The only bit that seriously needs doing, and I understand is earmarked, is opposite the modern Sainsbury’s and Kingsmead leisure centre, which feels more of a dump than ever since so little of Canterbury is now.

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Go down the side streets. All of them, and keep wandering. There’s quite a network. If you hit the city walls but see old beyond them, keep walking. You find interesting Northgate, St Augustine’s abbey ruins to the east, and even Wincheap’s worth a little wander, or the area just off New Dover Road. One of my favourite streets is Palace Street, which leads to Northgate and runs to short but sweet Sun Street (now with a shite marketing name I won’t repeat). Timbered fronted Conquest House and no 8 appear in guidebooks (if you can find one, mine are old) but there’s more to view, such as the Palace gate that’s had a staircase put where the entrance arch is. Like much round here, it’s part of the King’s (cathedral private) school, and there’s an Oxbridge/Eton parallel, not wholly welcome. Peek round the corner past the wonky house to St Radegund’s hall, a cool pub currently known as the Parrot with a lovely open timbered dining room upstairs.

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Want to see these? Pay up or lose out forever

Now I must start my cathedral whinge. £10.50, not just to go in the church, but to ENTER THE PRECINCT. It means if you don’t pay, the nearest you’ll get to seeing the Anglican mother church is through the back windows of the cathedral café (by the main gate, in a building more interesting than the food) or by the new cathedral shop’s back door. Even locals who qualify for a pass can’t wander through the other entrances as they once could. I was shocked by the amount of prohibitive signs and directivity. I wanted to reply that for £10 (only London’s great churches charge more in the UK), I should be able to wander where I wish in what order I want. I contrast with Norwich, where you’re thanked for not parking here and people sit and even kick balls on the grass and wander the labyrinth in the cloister. And then when I asked for a annual pass (not offered) I am required to fill in my details and have them verified and retained and to prove myself. I realised I may have walked into the gates of that once favourite cathedral for the last time. (Read my thoughts on Keep Cathedrals Free and on the 2016 gun guards)

Canterbury would feel weird without going in the cathedral, as the precincts (as the Close is called here) takes up almost a quarter of the walled city and is by far the tallest and most noticeable building. There is much to linger and enjoy in this city, though for holiday purposes, I’d say you’d need only a couple of days to get round the museums (it’s better value to buy a joint ticket for the Heritage and Roman ones) and try some cafes or do the river walk, for there’s not much far beyond the walls to explore. It is one of the most medieval feeling and atmospheric towns of Britain if not the continent, it’s charming, safe feeling but lively, and no French school parties squirting Kentish people this time. But for that £10.50 do I retain a sourness…