A Journey Back in Time: A Day Trip to Historic Canterbury

West Gate Towers seen from the Westgate Gardens

I am back! I am back to my favorite city after a Covid induced hiatus of two years. And it’s as if I have never left. It still has the same crowds, the same smells mingled together to tickle my nose, and the same streets full of excitement to welcome me back. I am back in London.

I have a list of things I want to do. I want to do the walks that I had shortlisted and pored over on Google earth during the last two years. I want to visit one of my favorite museums. And so, the list goes on and on. There is also a list of places beyond London I want to visit.

In the end, we decide on the Medieval town of Canterbury – famous for its beautiful Cathedral. London is going through the worst heat wave in its history, so we keep an eye on the weather app to figure out when to go.

River Great Stout as seen from the Kings Bridge

Finally, the temperature is in the 80s and we decide to take an early morning train out of London. There’s a direct train from St Pancras national railway station to Canterbury West. It takes only an hour. Canterbury is in county Kent southwest of London. The train is crowded. Most people are heading to the beaches on England’s southeast coast to escape the heat in London.

The minute we get off on the station we realize with joy that it’s much cooler here. That would make it easy to explore this historic town on foot.

We make our way towards Westgate Gardens. It edges Westgate Towers and is maybe a ten minute walk from the station. With a mild breeze to keep us cool we quickly walk to the garden. The garden is on the banks of River Great Stour. We admire the flowers growing on the bank. The banks are riots of colors with a variety of flowers giving it a beautiful border. It was so beautiful that I just have to stand there and take as many pictures as I can! Finally, my daughter reminds me that there are other things to do and see! We walk further down the garden and take a look at a 200 year old Oriental Plane tree. Its girth is so wide that if I was a little child I would have loved playing hide and seek around it. Legend has it that the tree grew so wide that it grew over a bench that sat underneath and swallowed it whole. The garden also has some ruins from medieval times.

Westgate gardens

We make our way through the Westgate Towers, a well-preserved gate house, to the historic town center and High Street. The towers were built by the Romans in 300 AD and were part of the city wall. It contains the Westgate Towers Museum, battlements viewpoint, and an escape room. We have timed tickets for the Cathedral soon, so we pass through the gates and enter the historic heart of Canterbury.

Heart of Canterbury seen through historic Westgate Towers.

We admire the Tudor style Old Weaver’s House on one corner of Kings Bridge. It houses a restaurant now but, once upon a time, it housed a weaver’s center. Right next to the house is the River Great Stour and a dock from where you can take a river cruise. We have tickets for the cruise later in the day, but the first stop is the Cathedral.

The Old Weaver’s House

We cross the Kings Bridge and make a brief stop to take a look at the River Great Stour and admire one of the most photographed river views below. We pass by the statue of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of Canterbury Tales. The High Street is still empty. The crowds have not yet arrived. The cafes, patisseries, and restaurants are on both sides of the street. These charming businesses are still in the process of opening for noontime crowds. We can’t wait to try out one of these places after visiting the Cathedral. We stroll slowly towards the Cathedral admiring the historic buildings as we go. We pass The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge’s beautiful building. It houses a free museum and library. It’s cherry season in Kent. We pass a farmer who was setting up a stand with baskets overflowing with cherries.

The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge

Finally, we reach the Canterbury Cathedral. Most of the façade is enveloped in scaffolding and shrouded by canvas. Like any historical building you visit nowadays it’s under a long term restoration. A volunteer tells us that the restoration work is going to go for 10 more years. In my head I think by that time the climate change will cause more damage to this beautiful building and it will need restoration again. The Cathedral is a working Anglican church and seat to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s one of the oldest and most important churches in England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is considered the foremost leader of Anglican church, after the Queen. In 597 AD Augustine, a monk, arrived in England and established his seat in Canterbury. It became a place of pilgrimage after 1170 when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered within its walls and miracles began to happen.

Approaching the Canterbury Cathedral

The Cathedral is almost empty. We walk around slowly admiring the gothic architecture. The tall pillars reach high to the gothic roof. The symmetry of it draws the eyes. We slowly wander around admiring the stained glass windows, the nave, the quire, the Crypt and the chapels. We move to the Cloister and Chapter House. The cloisters have beautifully carved ceilings. The stained glass in the Chapter House depicts the history of Canterbury.

Inside of the Cathedral

Coming out from the cool dark interior of the Cathedral, the warmth of the midday sun hit us. We are in need of a cool drink and one of the sweet little things from a patisserie that we had seen on our way in. As we make our way down High Street, we realize that the street has become busy. The train must have brought in more day trippers down from London. The cherry farmer’s stand is doing brisk business.

It’s time for us to head to the river for our river cruise. We board a boat from the docks behind The Weavers House. The guy who is paddling our boat is also our guide. He paddles and regales us with history and stories about Canterbury. The river here is very narrow. So anytime you see another boat coming our guide takes the boat to the side to make way for the two boats to pass each other. The bridges on the river are low. Every time we approach one he warns us to bend down. I enjoy the cruise immensely. The river is edged with parks and ivy clad historic buildings. It’s beautiful. We see a bride and groom getting their wedding pictures taken. We peek into the windows of the restaurants that face the river. We see groups having picnics in the park. A guy jumps in the water in front of our boat, telling us it’s a hot day. All in all, a fun trip up and down The Great Stour. In case you do go to Canterbury, you can take a punting boat to cruise the river.

We sit under the awning of a cafe with strawberry lemonades. I order a scone, clotted cream, and jam. Though to my disappointment it’s a currant scone. They don’t have a plain one. My daughter has been looking forward to Victoria Sponge Cake. She had seen a sign on our way to the Cathedral. To her disappointment they don’t have it. We sit there, people watching. There must be quite a few weddings happening in town. I know there will be one at the Cathedral that afternoon. There are so many bridesmaids, grooms, and guests in their fineries rushing to churches. Canterbury has many historic churches dotted around town.

Finally, it’s time to say bye to Canterbury. We take an afternoon train back to London with hundreds of pictures captured on my phone and a lifetime of memories saved up.

Cathedral Cloister

Published by Neha Shah

Hi! I love to travel, I love art and architecture, I enjoy cooking, and, more recently, I've been bitten by the photography bug. My family has always respected my need to explore and observe the world outside the window. They always leave the window seat for me, be it in a car, train, or plane. They are always walking along side me when I am out exploring. I am shy by nature so I guess I am happiest when I see, observe, and imagine. When we moved to London, it was a dream come true. This city was one I read about in books and dreamed about as a child. I had visited it many times as an adult before we actually moved here, but being part of the life here has brought me out of my inertia and made me pick up the pen again. My ever present phone helps me capture the images of what I see. One fine day my pen and phone made me sit down to write my first blog post!

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