An insider's guide to Canterbury
Local insider Rose London explores Roman relics and amazing views in Canterbury, and recommends more art in Kent with a trip to Turner Contemporary.
The medieval city of Canterbury has continuously been a site of pilgrimage since the 12th century, and those of us who make the journey to appreciate the city in the modern day are following in the footsteps of the pilgrims of the Cult of Becket, travelling across Europe to visit Canterbury cathedral and pay respects to the famous martyred saint.
The University of Kent has not only flooded the city with students, but consequently filled it with a wealth of art and culture.
The city centre is buzzing and hectic during the day, crammed with fruit sellers, street food vans and tourist-trapping trinket stalls, but at night, the high street takes on an almost European atmosphere, with the late-opening bars spilling onto the pavements and echoes of live music floating from the tiny Victorian pubs.
Get a bird's-eye view of the city
The first glimpse of Canterbury’s history when approaching from the train station is Westgate Towers (pictured top), the last surviving of Canterbury's seven medieval gates, a legacy from the walling of Canterbury by the Romans in 300 AD. With a National Art Pass or Student Art Pass, you can get discounted access to climb the tower and appreciate a bird’s-eye view of the city.
It’s hard not to feel transported out of the 21st century when you see the spires of the cathedral loom over the city, hazy in the distance, reminding you of other, long-gone climbers of the towers who saw an almost identical view.
Don’t forget, once you descend back down the staircase – the old gaoler’s house below has become a moody, low-lit cocktail bar (The Pound), boasting a charming seating area right on the edge of the slow-moving River Stour, which carves its way through the centre of Canterbury.
Eclectic art and unusual finds
Following the winding high street down, you come across the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge.
The building exterior exemplifies Canterbury’s eclectic mix of architectural styles, rising above the high street stores in full Tudor Revival glory. The art collection takes you by surprise – on the ground floor, a room full of 19th-century oil paintings of horses, cows and landscapes by Canterbury-born artist Thomas Sidney Cooper. Walk upstairs, and find cases full of ancient clocks, a host of stuffed birds, a room dedicated to vintage Bagpuss toys, a room of scientific history…
My advice for exploring the Beaney is to bring along an equally inquisitive friend and compete to find the most compelling oddity. The victor of my most recent journey was a taxidermy rook wearing a red cloak, for reasons left undescribed.
Discovering Roman relics in Canterbury
Back to the high street, and a compelling reason to venture off it – down Butchery Lane, a tiny twisting street that feels like an alleyway in Victorian London, you’ll find Canterbury Roman Museum.
The galleries inside are wonderful, with Roman antiquities galore – but allow me to be an art history nerd for a second. Make sure you take a look at the entrance portal!
The mosaic on the floor is an asàrotos òikos, or an unswept floor mosaic; a modern version of a popular Roman floor mosaic intended to give the illusion of the remains of a feast – half-eaten fish bones, apples, walnut shells.
Linger for only a few minutes though, as inside the stunning excavations of a Roman town house await you.
Art by the seaside
These activities are more than enough for one day, especially if you head off for an early evening drink at the Pound.
However, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous and want to utilise your railcard to its fullest potential, get down to the train station again and head for Margate. A new gallery popped up in 2011 overlooking the beach – Turner Contemporary, a sunbleached block of modernist architecture housing an ever-changing collection.
The gallery is named after JMW Turner, the ‘father of modern art’ who particularly adored Margate for its huge, sweeping bay; and you’ll see why when you get there. On a dull day, the bay is a slate-grey and ocean-green gradient of sleepy tides and cloudy skies, captured in Turner’s Margate from the Sea. On a warm day, the beach is a scene from a 1950s seaside postcard – candy colours, funfairs, donkeys and surfers.
A National Art Pass or Student Art Pass gives you 10% off at Turner Contemporary’s shop, and it’s well worth taking a look to pick up some seashell jewellery or a sunny postcard.
Kent is littered with an ever-expanding art history, and Canterbury is the epicentre – when walking down the side streets, it's humbling to notice the worn-down cobblestone, and consider just how many feet have walked down these streets; and for how many this city centre was the culmination of weeks and months of walking.
The culture of the city has certainly evolved throughout the years – but it maintains a bohemian diversity of stories and ideas that leaves a lasting impression on anyone who visits.
Rose London is a History of Art student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, with a passion for poetry and gardening.
Rose is a winner of our 2019 student writing competition.