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Past etched in stone

An ancient city, part of which is also a Unesco World Heritage Site, Canterbury, is consistently rated as one of the most visited cities in the United Kingdom.

Past etched in stone

From yore: Canterbury exudes plenty of old-world charm with its magnificent cathedral, cobbled streets and quaint cafes Photos by the writer

Rashmi Gopal Rao

An ancient city, part of which is also a Unesco World Heritage Site, Canterbury, is consistently rated as one of the most visited cities in the United Kingdom.  Steeped in history, Canterbury is one of the most beautiful cities in southeast England in the county of Kent and is situated on the Stour river.  Also known as a university and cathedral city, Canterbury is a little over 60 miles from London and is easily accessible by about an hour-long train journey.

A significant site of European pilgrimage, Canterbury’s earliest history records it as an Iron Age settlement that was inhabited by the Celtic tribe. It was later invaded by the Romans who were responsible for developing it into the town known as Durovernum Cantiacorum replete with temples, public baths and a marketplace. They also built a town wall around the settlement that was later rebuilt in the Medieval period.

After the decline of the Romans in the 4th century, Canterbury rose to prominence in history when St Augustine travelled here in 597 A.D. to re-establish Christianity in this part of the country. A monastery, whose remains are found even today, was built and the first cathedral in England was founded by St Augustine after which Canterbury was chosen to be the seat of the first archbishop in 603 AD.

The city flourished after this until it was raided and destroyed by the Danes between the ninth and 11th century. While its legendary cathedral was razed, it was rebuilt in the 12th century and the town once again grew from strength to strength with the woollen, leather and pilgrimage industry propelling its growth.  A bustling city today, Canterbury exudes plenty of old world charm with its cobbled streets, local markets, quaint cafes and stunning natural beauty.

Arguably the most famous site here is the iconic Canterbury cathedral.  The cathedral, along with the other historic sites of St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church, have been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Often described as “England in stone”, the cathedral is a totally awe-inspiring structure that dominates the city’s skyline. Synonymous with its classic Norman architecture, exquisite stained-glass windows and intricate cloisters, Canterbury symbolises 1400 plus years of faith and worship.

Established in 597 AD, the church was rebuilt completely towards the 12th century after it was destroyed a couple of centuries ago.  A highly revered site, the interiors of this Gothic styled church are an epitome of beauty and grace with the precincts being adorned with intricate sculptures and scriptures.  The highlight of the church is, of course, the shrine of Thomas Becket, who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170.  A pivotal moment in the history of this church, the assassination of Thomas Becket heralded an unprecedented flow of pilgrims into the cathedral. 

Apart from the cathedral, there is a lot to see and do in this historic city.  The Canterbury Heritage Museum is an insightful place where you can step back in time and trace the history of Canterbury, including the life and times of Thomas Becket. Apart from furniture, artefacts and several household objects, do not miss the Canterbury Cross on display. Another attraction that is not to be missed is the Canterbury Tales Visitor attraction where you can relive the celebrated stories by Geoffrey Chaucer who penned the popular series Canterbury Tales way back in the 14th century. A hotspot for students, the medieval city boasts of an eclectic city centre that is full of boutique shops, exclusive pubs and picturesque side street cafes.

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