London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

A Day Trip To Canterbury

26/08/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 14238 votes


One of the best things London has to offer the tourist is the opportunity to venture off for a day to one of the many alluring towns on its outskirts. I knew that Original London Walks offers, as part of their Explorer Day series, weekend trips outside of London. When my husband Jack and I discovered that Canterbury was the destination on our chosen Saturday, we felt that this would be the way to see the medieval city, so rich in history, with its famous Cathedral the site of the murder of the Archbishop Thomas Becket.

With a fact-filled, narrated walk in the morning, another in the afternoon, and time off for lunch, what better way to go? For only ten pounds, plus heavily-discounted train tickets, it seemed a real bargain; and in our experience, this touring company had never failed to deliver anything less than a sparkling and instructive account of its subject matter, by amiable and well-informed guides.

We gathered in Victoria Station on Saturday morning with an enthusiastic group under the leadership and tutelage of Gillian as we willingly placed ourselves in her hands for the day. In high spirits (for we were only half-way through our vacation), we boarded the train for Canterbury, eager to travel to the city where many before us had made their pilgrimage.

We recalled Chaucerís Canterbury Tales (read years ago in school and perhaps not fully appreciated at the time), a poetic narrative that vividly and humorously depicts one of these religious expeditions. We were excited to travel by train, coming as we did from our own rail-starved States. The English countryside was exceptionally beautiful (all of that green grass in January!) on this cold, sunny day, and the journey passed quickly.

West Gate

Once at Canterbury, we began our walk into the city centre. It is such an old city, Canterbury - St. Augustine was sent here in 597 by Pope Gregory to bring Christianity to England. We approached West Gate, the 14th century two-towered gatehouse, part of the original City Walls. Walking along the River Stour, we watched several children tossing food to the swans before Gillian led us through a park and onto one of the many winding streets that make up Canterbury. We had our first glimpse of the spectacular spires of the Cathedral soaring above the rooftops. The busy, pedestrian-only streets lined with charming half-timbered buildings gave Canterbury a most appealing look, with an air about it of a perpetual festival.

Old Weavers Houses

Gillian pointed out some of the old inns that had housed the multitudes of people who ventured here to see the shrine of the martyred Becket, strongly urged by the Church to make such a pilgrimage during their lifetime. We saw Conquest House, reputedly where King Henry IIís knights met before their fatal assault on Becket.

We stopped before the Old Weavers Houses, once inhabited by the French Hugenots who sought refuge here during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, as she welcomed them and gave them special privileges, including a place to worship in the Cathedral. We were given a lesson in architecture, learning to distinguish a Gothic arch from a Norman one.

I am ashamed to say that my mind kept wandering as I found myself gazing wistfully at all the wonderful shops. It was an effort to remind myself that I was here to educate and enrich myself historically, and not to enlarge or enhance my wardrobe! Nevertheless, I had always wanted one of those beautiful wool plaid skirts . . . I made a note to return someday just to shop!

The Cathedral

Just when our heads were about to burst from all the anecdotes and information we had been fed, Gillian released us with free time in which to feed our hungry bodies. We were freezing as well, after hours of being outside on such a cold day, and Jack and I hurried off to the Bell and Crown Pub. As crowded as the streets were, the pub was quiet and fairly empty, although it is recommended in at least one of my guidebooks. We warmed ourselves before the fire and ate delicious shepherdís pie, with time to relax before resuming the tour.

We met our group at Buttermarket Square, a picturesque marketplace where vendors once hawked their wares as they converged upon the pilgrims. Often, these souvenirs were fakes, such as vials of liquid said to be the blood of the canonized Becket or bones purportedly those of other saints. We entered the grounds of the Cathedral through the elaborate Christ Church Gate.

Chapter House Ceiling

Gillian took us around the environs of the Cathedral where we saw remains of the old monastery and the flint-fronted buildings of Kingís School. Kingís School was the Canterbury Cathedral School until King Henry VIII took over all the cathedral schools in the nation, renaming them after himself. We had seen groups of young boys in their school uniforms all morning on the streets of the city, and Gillian explained that they have classes on Saturdays.

We walked around the Green Court and through the Great Cloister and into the Chapter House, the largest chapter house in England. I was thrilled to see one of the Cathedral cats who live on the premises, walking around with all the dignity of a feline who resides in a place of such historical and ecclesiastical importance. Finally, we entered the Cathedral, and glad we were to be sheltered from the bitter wind on this wintry day.

Canterbury Spires

It was truly awe-inspiring and somewhat overwhelming as we explored this enormous place, finding the single candle where Becketís shrine was located before Henry VIII sent his men to demolish it and scatter the remains, as well; he despised Becket, seeing him as a symbol of opposition to royal authority.

Not far away is the site of Becketís murder, marked with a modern rendition, in bronze, of a cross, and two swords -the weapons used by the knights who carried out what they believed to be their Kingís most fervent desire. We took our seats in the Quire for the Evensong and thus ended our visit to the Cathedral with a moving service as the voices of the boysí choir echoed throughout the church that is the Mother Church of the Anglican religion throughout the world.

We boarded the train and sat across from two British women, one a teacher of autistic children and the other a fashion buyer for a department store. They were Londoners, neighbors of each other, and enjoy spending their leisure time on these outings. We talked about some of our favorite experiences in London, such as attending Prime Ministerís Question Time, and on an earlier visit, a criminal trial at the Old Bailey.

Spires and Ruins

One of the women exclaimed, ďI want to go on holiday with you! Youíve done things weíve never done, and we live here!Ē For the next ninety minutes, we exchanged views on every topic imaginable, talking and laughing like old friends. If Gillian had not come over when the train pulled into Charing Cross Station to inform us that we were in London, I think we may have missed our stop! They were delightful, and I donít know if they remember us, but we will certainly not forget them.

We hurried back to the hotel to change our clothes. We had reservations at the Belvedere, an elegant restaurant situated in Holland Park; I had read that it was Elizabeth Taylorís favorite London restaurant. This was to be our entertainment for the evening, as we had decided to forego the theatre in favor of a long, leisurely dinner.

As we devoured our calamari and escargots in plush surroundings, we planned our activities for the following day. I thought how visiting London was similar to sitting down before a sumptuous feast - a banquet of gourmet treats for us to select, delectable offerings, each and every one, that never disappoint; and while one satisfies our bodies, the other fills our souls.

Candice Caster

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Re: A Day Trip To Canterbury

By James Gordon 01/09/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 13555 votes)

What a beautifully descriptive story. I also took a day trip to Canterbury in Janurary 2001,our only mistake was not taking an express train. This brings back so many wonderful memories. Thank you.

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Re: A Day Trip To Canterbury

By Rachel 24/10/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 13478 votes)

Being a HUGE fan of the Canterbury Tales I have always wanted to visit Canterbury. I certainly was not disappointed when I went last year! It is a gorgeous place and I happened to be there while they were holding an outdoor market. The Canterbury Tales exhibit (an elaborate walk through with headphones that recreates the tales) should not be missed. It was even better than I thought it was going to be!

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