My trips in the UK are few and far between, but I’m always pleasantly surprised by how beautifully manicured England can be and Canterbury is no exception. Aside from its grand status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it maintains a pleasant small-town charm, with a youthful energy brought in by a large population of students attending its four universities (which also keeps the price of drinks down!). Canterbury continues to be a popular pilgrimage, to and from Winchester, not only for people of faith, but for people wanting to enjoy the varied landscapes and castles along the ‘Pilgrims Way’ walking route. But I really didn’t have the recommended twelve days to spare, so for once, I chose to do things the easy way and took a train from St. Pancras, which got me there in little over an hour! Canterbury is the perfect place to relax and slow your pace. Here are 5 simple ways to unwind in this famous medieval town:
1. Relax on a chauffeur driven boat
If the sun is shining, the best thing you can do is to take a chauffeur driven punt boat down the Great Stour River. A vibrant green jungle of river plants keeps the shallow waters wonderfully clear, and tiny fish can be seen playfully darting around while ducklings hide in the bushes each side of the bank. We picked up a chilled bottle of wine and some pastries at the local Goods Shed, which is a market, come restaurant in a huge wooden barn, just next to East Canterbury station. Sipping a cool glass of rose, our boat glided blissfully through the oncoming Weeping Willows, drooping thick, leafy curtains for us to pass under. Children waved as our boat passed under low wooden bridges, our chauffeur ducking swiftly each time. It really is a magical and romantic experience, for both couples and families alike.
2. Soak up the nature in Westgate Gardens
For nature lovers, this is a must. An old stone archway from the Norman era picturesquely frames the entrance while fragrant flower arrangements line the banks of the river, wafting the delicate scents of Jasmine and Rose across the breeze. Rare trees from around the world grace its lawns, such as the twisted, triangular Dawn Redwood and the huge fat bellied Oriental Plane. Legend has it that this tree got its fat belly after swallowing a bench that once circled its trunk. These trees were imported over centuries and make up part of a special ‘Tree Trail’. The well-maintained lawns will make you want to sit and have a picnic, as long as you don’t mind scattering a few crumbs for the birds.
3. Take in some art and maybe even buy an investment piece
If you love art, then Canterbury has plenty to offer with 3 very unique galleries. The first is the modern Lilford Gallery, which drew us in with a huge oil painting of a glossy, wet cobbled street at twilight, by a local artist. We entered and the owner knowledgeably took us through the stories behind his collection, which include the likes of Tracy Emin, Anthony Gormley, Banksy and Blek le Rat (who was one of the artists who originally inspired Banksy). The second, and my favourite, is Conquest House, a 12th century historical building with a tudor-style facade. We entered and were warmly offered a glass of wine and some nibbles. The place has soft natural light coming in and a homely feel. A painting called “The Encounter” which depicts a holy man meeting with a soldier, captured our attention and our imaginations. The artist (and local historian), Catherine Robinson, happened to be standing next to us, and explained that this picture represents the meeting between St. Augustine, who had travelled from his monastery in Rome to introduce Christianity to King Ethelbert (the Pagan King of England in the year 597). The third is the popular Beaney House, which is a free museum as well as a gallery. Here talented local school children exhibit their paintings next to grand masters and established prominent local artists. On the stair-well sits a fantastic huge stained glass window, leading to a room filled with cool architectural sketches of Canterbury Cathedral in black charcoal.
4. Enjoy some locally-sourced British cuisine
Deesons is a great place for a quiet, unhurried, romantic meal. The owners not only grow and rear some of the ingredients, but there is also art by the Deesons on the walls. The food is reassuringly locally sourced and the focus is on traditional British recipes. Some of the more exciting options on the menu include ‘Stour Valley Wood Pigeon’, ‘Baked Chaucers Camembert’ and ‘Potted Rare Breed Pork’. As August is the height of blackberry picking season, we opted for the blackberry crumble, which came with a smooth, velvety, vanilla ice cream which really offset the tartness of the local berries (incidentally the berries can be freely picked from the heaving bushes alongside the river bank). This is also a great place to eat before perhaps taking in a show at the contemporary Marlow Theatre, which was rebuilt in 2011, and is named after Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe, who was born in Canterbury, and who’s work is said to have influenced the likes of Shakespeare.
5. Recline in your hotel room with a view of Canterbury Cathedral
We stayed at the Canterbury Lodge, which gave us our own personal view of the famous Cathedral from the privacy of our hotel room. As it’s built within the Catherdral grounds, you can take advantage of unlimited entrance to the jaw dropping interior of Canterbury Cathedral itself. The richly decorated coves, painstakingly carved from stone, bathe in gently filtered light coming in from the huge windows. For me, the best time to visit was the early evening, when it’s less-crowded. On the lower floors various tombs can be found, including those of Thomas Becket and Henry IV. A bonus comes in the form of the ‘Iron Man’ sculpture by Turner Prize winning artist Anthony Gormley. It floats like a silent swarm of bees and is made from hefty, old iron nails taken from the roof and has been hanging there since 2011. Before leaving the Cathedral, be sure to stop by the gift shop, where they have hand-painted, mini-stained glass windows, which make an excellent gift.