The cathedral itself is a towering building that has demonstrated remarkable resilience through the years. The church here was founded in AD597 by St Augustine, who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. His original cathedral lies beneath the floor of the nave. The cathedral was completely rebuilt by the Normans in 1070 following a fire, and then severely damaged by civil war during the 1640s. It survived – albeit with regular repair and restoration – through the 20th century when it escaped World War II bombardment with relatively minor damage.
As a result of its long and tumultuous history, there have been many additions to the building over the past 900 years. Regardless, some of the 12th century stained glass windows have survived, as has the building’s exceptional gothic architecture.
The cathedral costs £9000 a day just to secure and maintain. While a £6 entry fee goes some way to meeting these basic costs (the fee was introduced after voluntary donations peaked at a miserly 12p per visitor), a fundraising campaign is currently under way to find an additional £50m to support an extensive conservation programme to ensure Augustine’s original ambition to evangelise England – still arguably a work in progress – is achieved.
It’s not just in the cathedral building that Augustine left his mark. A school – known today as King’s School – was established in 1541 to provide education for Canterbury’s religious community. As the security man on the gate was at pains to point out, it claims today to be the oldest educational institution in England.
The school’s buildings and grounds are as impressive as those of the cathedral and the strong ties between the two mean that the school is still considered part of the cathedral precinct, which has Unesco World Heritage protection.
Education of another kind can be found at the Canterbury Tales Museum in St Margaret’s Street. Here, the city’s religious history joins the literary world in an exhibition paying homage to poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The tales, written between 1387 and 1400, tell the stories of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral to see the shrine of the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, himself a legendary figure in these parts. Visitors to the exhibition can listen to the five tales on headsets as they wander visual recreations of the stories – much more modern than the pre-printing press manuscripts on which Chaucer’s words were originally written.
When you’re done with poetry, it’s only a short walk to the Thomas Becket pub, an atmospheric and traditional pub serving the best Sunday roast in town (even the landlord at a neighbouring watering hole recommended the Becket over her own pub grub). It’s the perfect place to digest the history of one of England’s most fascinating cities. ?
WHAT TO DO
Visit the cathedral
If you’re reluctant to part with your £6 entry fee, think of the cost of upkeeping this monolith and you’ll realise it’s money well spent. The cathedral opens to sightseers at 9am each day except Sunday, when it opens at 12.30pm
Take a punt
There are few more relaxing ways to take in the scenery along the banks of the River Stour than being chauffered by a boatman. Don a boater and unfold a rug over your knees as you watch the landscape float by. £7 will buy you a ticket for a 30-minute punt with the Canterbury River Navigation Company (07816-760 869).
Walk the streets
If you’re struggling to get your bearings, or just fancy learning a bit more about the history of Canterbury, take a walking tour around the cathedral city. Tours leave the Loft Kitchen & Bar, St Margaret’s Street on Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm. Tickets £5. Call 07779-575 831.