Canterbury is a wonderful day trip from London.
Official Cathedral Links
The town of Canterbury is most famous for its stunning gothic cathedral, but this is not the only reason for its popularity with tourists. The narrow, medieval alleyways are a great pleasure to wander and the beautiful gardens along the river bank make for idyllic, “best-of-Britain” photographs. Many people can also be seen enjoying a relaxed day of meandering along the High Street filled with restaurants and shops.
Getting there from London is easy; just book a train ticket on TrainLine. The one way journey only takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.
We were in Canterbury because of a pending pilgrimage adventure, so we had only a single afternoon there. And because it was a cold and blustery day we chose not to do any of the sightseeing mentioned above. Instead, we chose to spend what free time we had eating burgers and sipping cider in a really lovely out-of-the-way pub.
The Via Francigena
Canterbury Cathedral has been attracting pilgrims for 800 years. And while the crowd of pilgrims has thinned and given way to tourists, this is still a starting point for those undertaking a journey and, as we mentioned, it was as pilgrims that we came to Canterbury.
Europe is rich with long distance walking paths, often called Via or Camino. One such route, the Via Francigena, starts at Canterbury Cathedral, with most people ending their journey at the Vatican in Rome. We were intent on walking the Italy portion of this route, but wanted to pick up our Pilgrim’s Pass at Canterbury Cathedral. While this building represents a lot of history and tradition, it is not a museum. The sense of living community and practiced faith is very strong beneath the soaring, vaulted ceilings. We were fortunate enough to have Father Andrew – the Cathedral Treasurer – have a delightful, meaningful talk with us and give us a blessing to start our own pilgrimage.
The Cathedral has a rich history:
The cathedral has a history spanning 1,400 years, making it the oldest church in England still in use. The foundations stones were first laid in 597 when Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine (at the time only a monk – sainthood came later) to England as a missionary:
“It is said that Gregory had been struck by the beauty of Angle slaves he saw for sale in the city market and dispatched Augustine and some monks to convert them to Christianity.” Canterbury-cathedral.org
Augustine would become England’s first archbishop. The present bishop is 105th in the line of succession.
Guided Tour: 3 times a day, 75 minutes long. Consider donating.
Multi-Media Guide: 5£
Audio Tours: 2.50£ per downlaod
Mini Talks: Start at quarter past the hour. Consider donating.
Library Visits: 8£, 45 minutes. Must be booked in advance.
The Cathedral would grow and change over hundreds of years. In 1011 Vikings raided, damaging it badly and kidnapping and killing the bishop. 473 years after its foundation, the Cathedral would be completely rebuilt over a seven year period (1070-77), reborn in the gothic style we see today. During this phase large eastward extensions were added to better serve the flow of Pilgrims coming to honour the shrine of Thomas Becket, an archbishop murdered within the cathedral walls by knights of King Henry II’s court. And speaking of pilgrims, another fire ravaged the building in 1174, with one historian firmly believing it was set alight by jealous monks who wanted it to be rebuilt grander than the cathedral of Durham which had become more popular with pilgrims!
The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket:
The history of the Cathedral’s popularity with pilgrims goes back to Thomas Becket’s murder. The bishop had been in a long running dispute with King Henry II, one that was particularly heated over the jurisdiction of criminal cases regarding clerics. Purportedly the King exclaimed “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights interpreted this as a veiled request to have him killed, and took it upon themselves to fulfil the King’s wishes. When the knights attempted to drag the bishop out of the church, he clung to the pillars. It was then that a knight raised his sword and sliced off the crown of his head. A clerk accompanying the knight is said to have “put his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and horrible to say, scattered the brains with the blood over the pavement. ‘Let us go, knights’ he called out to the others, ‘this fellow will not get up again.’”
Four years after the murder King Henry II performed a public act of penance, allowing each bishop present to strike him with a rod 5 times, and each of the 80 monks of the Canterbury Cathedral followed up with 3 strikes.
The place of his murder is still present in the Cathedral; that specific spot is called the Martyrdom. In the years that followed these extraordinary events, many miracles were said to have occurred here, ending in Becket being canonized. After the canonization pilgrims began to flock to the site.
Consider Donating to the Cathedral
The great building costs more than 18,500£ per day to maintain and run. The Church receives no state aid and depends on income from visitors. If you love what you see, and want it to be there for future generations to enjoy, please consider donating.
The Famed Stained Glass:
Along with being the oldest church in continuous use in the English speaking world, it has some of the oldest stained glass on Earth. These panels are part of a series that depict the ancestors of Christ and miraculously survived the 1174 fire. Beautiful 12th century stained glass windows illustrate the miracles and various stories connected to St. Thomas.
The Cathedral’s architecture is quite simply spectacular. Pillars soar into the sky, ending at graceful arches and intricate fan-vaulted ceilings. There are beautiful carvings of heraldic shields, captivating faces and animals. 19 stonemasons continue work daily to conserve the creations of the medieval craftsman, but also add to the space with their own stunning works.
Find this content enjoyable and useful? Buy us a coffee!
We put a lot of thought, time and financial investment into providing you with advice and creating content. If you feel that our advice has helped you make plans, or if you just enjoy our content, please consider supporting our work with a consideration (no amount is too small). Thanks again!
More Ways To Savour Life
Europe By Train: The Easy Way to Get Around
The train system through the UK and Europe is extensive and (usually) efficient, especially for North Americans. We discovered an app that made planning and booking train journeys a breeze!
More About London
London is both ancient and modern; complex and exciting. But it’s also very expensive. You can close your eyes and spend, or budget as best you can. We try address that as we share our London travel tips.
Authentic travel is like savouring new foods. Both require a sense of adventure and willingness to experience the “new”. We love sharing our experiences so come along and check this out.