Canterbury in the footsteps of Knights and the Wife of Bath

by Tom Merchant

Canterbury is an ancient city with a World Heritage site at its heart. It’s one of my favourite places and I’ve blazed a trail which explores how Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans shaped the way it looks today.

The trail winds through narrow streets, beside the river, explores a castle and takes you along the city walls. Gardens on the route are open from dawn to dusk, so if you’re going to walk the trail don’t do so after dark!  It ends near the cathedral gate so that you can easily continue your exploration by going on to visit this breathtaking building.


The trail of discovery starts in the High Street at the bridge over the river at the Old Weaver’s House. I’ve spiced up the walk with a few trivia questions, with answers given at the end of the trail.

weaver houses

The Weaver’s House is one of the most photographed buildings in the entire country, There’s a medieval ducking stool over the river behind the building. This was a device to dunk “scolds” – wives who talked back as judged by their husbands. It was also used to identify witches – suspects were dunked for longer. If they did not drown they were proved as witches. If they did drown that was tough luck but at least they were innocent.

Julius Caesar considered the south-eastern corner of Britain to be occupied by the most advanced people in the land. He wrote, “Of all the Britons, the inhabitants of Cantium, an entirely maritime district, are by far the most civilised.”

We’ll pass the Roman Museum in Butchery Lane which contains real treasures from the period. Look out for the beautiful silver spoons! There were clearly wealthy people living in Durovernum Cantiacorum, which the Romans made the civil capital of the territory.

After the collapse of Roman Rule round 450AD the country was invaded by Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The settlement here fell into ruins and was revived only in 597AD with the arrival of Augustine, sent as a missionary by the Pope. He quickly established a cathedra (his seat) in a derelict Roman church which he named St Martin’s. It is still standing today; the oldest church in the English-speaking world.

So let’s set off! A few steps along the street is The Canterbury Pilgrims Hospital of St Thomas. The Saint commemorated is of course Thomas Becket who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170 – a defining moment in Canterbury’s history. This building was a hostel to provide accommodation for the many pilgrims who came to visit his tomb. Numbers peaked in the late Medieval and early Renaissance period when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, describing how pilgrims ‘from every shire end of England to Canterbury they wend, the holy blissful martyr for to seek’.


In the Tales, groups of pilgrims from various walks of life travel to Canterbury and compete to tell the best tale. The stories reveal a glimpse of contemporary life in England when pilgrimage had a prominent role in society.  For an essentially pious subject, the Tales are surprisingly earthy. They are also wide-ranging, with tales amongst others by the Miller, the Knight, the Merchant and the Wife of Bath.

Here’s the first trivia question:

  1. The Nun’s Priest’s tale is about Chanticleer who was a) a courtier b) a rooster c) the Dauphin of France

Opposite this spot, on the corner of Best Lane, a statue of Chaucer by the Kent sculptor Sam Holland stands on a plinth depicting characters from Chaucer’s writing, represented by more recent people connected with the city. A local auctioneer is The Knight, The Merchant is Hugo Fenwick of the well-known retail dynasty and also High Sheriff of Kent while The Squire is actor Orlando Bloom.

Along Best Lane, the tiny Three Cities garden celebrates visitors and pilgrims who flock to Canterbury from all over the world, no longer from just every shire in England. The other two cities are Vladimir, a former Russian capital city and home to Russian Orthodox Christianity and Bloomington-Normal in the corn belt of Illinois, USA. That strange name came from a teacher training college based on the French Ecole Normale.

If we continue along Best Lane and turn left at the next corner, the ultra-modern Marlowe Theatre is dead ahead. This big modern theatre has a packed programme of comedy and drama.

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The Stour at the Marlowe Theatre

It is of course named after Christopher Marlowe, the enormously successful Elizabethan playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare, who was born in Canterbury in 1564. The son of a shoemaker and one of nine children, he attended the renowned King’s School, often described as the oldest school in England, founded by St Augustine in 597AD. Marlowe was an enigmatic figure and supposedly at one time a government spy. Look for the 19th century statue of a Muse surrounded by small effigies of characters from Marlowe’s plays in front of the theatre.

Marlowe’s best-known play is based on the ancient legend of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power. He is urged to repent by the Good Angel but the man ignores the advice and, at the end of the play…

  1. the Devil a) collects his soul, b) throws him into the river c) pulls out his fingernails

west-gate-1596065_1920Continue on to the pedestrian zone and turn right. Ahead of you is Westgate, the largest surviving city gate in England. Canterbury was walled by the Romans and this gate, built in the 1370s, is a medieval replacement of the Roman original. It is one of seven medieval gates and the only one to survive. Originally it had a drawbridge over the river, a portcullis and wooden doors. The gunloops were added after muskets came into common use at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Head past the Kent Museum of Freemasonry and the Guildhall (a redundant 14th century church) and turn into the gardens next to the river.

There are five rivers in England called the Stour; in Worcestershire, Dorset, Suffolk, Warwickshire and here in Kent. The ancient Britons’ word for water was ‘dour’ (or ‘dwr’ in Welsh), with many rivers given a name derived from this. This was incorporated into the Roman name Durovernum Cantiacorum.

Coat of ArmsThis place is layered in history: Iron-age carts crossed the river here bringing salt from the coast and a hoard of Roman silver was discovered at nearby Tannery Field.  The river powered water mills in the Middle Ages. Tower House was built on one of the bastions of the city wall with the crest of the city displayed over the front door, featuring three birds from the arms of Archbishop Thomas Becket.

  1. What birds are they? a) Blackbirds b) Thrushes c) Choughs

Follow the signs to Greyfriars Gardens. The Grey Friars monastic order was founded in Assisi in 1208 to serve the poor and to teach through the example of their own simple lives and poverty. A number of monks arrived here in 1224 and eventually the Pope directed them to acquire 18 acres of marshland. They drained the land for crops and built a large stone friary on this spot between 1267 and 1325.

Canterbury 008The black death in the 14th century depleted their numbers but they continued until the friary closed with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540.  Most of the buildings were demolished except this lovely structure over the river. It was originally a mill, later a house, a gaol and then, from 1575, housed Walloons and Huguenots escaping religious persecution. Known locally as ‘strangers’, they were welcomed to Canterbury and did much to boost the local economy with the craft they brought with them.

  1. What was the craft? a) Baking b) Weaving c) Farming

Early Canterbury had developed around the river crossing. The Stour provided the Romans and medieval residents with a supply of drinking water, a defensive barrier, a sewage system and a source of motive power. The river was diverted into two channels with this fast flowing stream passing through the city to power numerous water mills.

A little further on you’ll find the Canterbury Heritage Museum, located in the Poor Priests Hospital with its superb medieval roof and massive chalk and flint walls. It is built on the site of a 12th century mint, one of eight in Canterbury, more than any other British city. The mint produced only one denomination between 1066 and 1279. This coin was cut in half or quarters for fractional amounts, although after 1279 other values were produced as individual coins.

  1. What was the coin? a) Groat b) Farthing c) Penny

If we follow the finger post to St Mildred’s Church past old and new buildings and little cafes we will soon come to this wonderful 8th century building.  Original Saxon masonry is visible in the south and west walls of the church, the oldest within the city walls. St Mildred, the Abbess of the Minster in Thanet, was canonised shortly after her death in 725AD. She is the patron saint of wild birds and is usually depicted with geese.

Walk on past the church and you’ll soon come across Canterbury Castle.

canterbury CastleAfter defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror marched to Canterbury, which surrendered without a fight. William ordered the building of a fort to secure his foothold here against a Saxon uprising. A simple wooden structure was quickly erected, a sort of ‘flatpack’ motte and bailey fort. Ten years later this robust stone structure replaced the fort to guard against the threat from Scandinavia.

The stonework extensively reuses bricks and tiles from the Roman city walls. The information board with Key Dates gives a good summary of events here, both significant and trivial. It mentions the Peasants’ Revolt of 1380, when Wat Tyler marched from here to London to protest to King Richard II in particular about the proposed…

  1. a) poll tax b) national service c) low minimum wage

Turn right on leaving the castle grounds, cross two roads and continue up the slope onto the city walls. The city walls you see today survive from many periods, from Roman until the last century, but most of what is visible is medieval. The wall became an obstruction as the city grew and all the gates except West Gate were demolished, many to make way for horses and carriages in the 18th century.

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Canterbury Cathedral from the city walls.

Further along the wall you come to Dane John Mound, a corruption of the French ‘donjon’ meaning a fortified mound. This feature was incorporated into the city wall by the Romans and, centuries later, used as the motte of the wooden fort built in 1067. From the top there is a wonderful view of the cathedral.

A little further is an impressive bandstand which is a 1999 replica of the Victorian original sold for scrap in World War II.  The war memorial commemorates the many men from here who lost their lives in the Anglo-Boer war (1899 – 1902). Many were killed in action but a large number died of disease.

Preserving the ancient city wall for posterity has been a struggle. In 1859 it took the casting vote of the mayor to thwart a legal attempt to demolish the West Gate to make way for a proposed …

  1. a) Hackney Carriage park b) new tram line c) circus elephant parade

As the wall gradually descends to street level, turn left at Fenwick’s and walk along St George’s Street. Turn right at Butchery Lane where you’ll find the brilliant Roman Museum.

Canterbury 007Further on, Burgate is one of only two streets in Canterbury known to have a name at least 1,000 years old and became one of the key medieval streets in the town. There is a tantalising glimpse of the cathedral from Burgate.

The cathedral has been a draw for pilgrims from the time of Thomas Becket. It has been described as, “after Rome, the chief shrine of Christendom”. The Canterbury Tales records pilgrimages from London while the Pilgrims’ Way, a footpath which has been walked by tens of thousands of people and is walked still, follows the line of a prehistoric trackway across southern England to Canterbury from another ecclesiastical centre.

  1. Which one? a) Winchester b) Bath c) Salisbury

Continue down Burgate to the end of the trail at the Buttermarket.

Outside cathedral

For centuries Canterbury has been a bustling market town as well as a key religious centre with this marketplace for farm produce at the heart of things outside the gates of the cathedral. The magnificent Christchurch Gate, built in 1507, leads to the precincts of the cathedral. The prominent statue of Christ is a replacement (347 years later) for the original removed from the gateway and destroyed by the Puritan Richard Culmer in 1643.

If you’ve not visited the cathedral: go! There is an entrance fee, but it is a spectacular and absorbing place to see. Don’t miss the scene of Thomas Becket’s murder, the tomb of the Black Prince and the crypt. Then carry on to St Augustine’s Abbey and the lovely St Martin’s church.

Canterbury has been a source of inspiration to many people down the centuries. It seems to have inspired writers in particular; Chaucer and Marlowe of course, and Dickens, whose novel David Copperfield has strong connections with the city. Joseph Conrad lived in the district and Jane Austen and Keats were frequent visitors. Mary Tourtel, who created Rupert Bear, lived here all her life and Ian Fleming wrote You only Live Twice at The Duck in nearby Pett Bottom in 1964.

I hope you feel inspired to visit Canterbury and perhaps even to follow this trail and see this magical place for yourself.

How did you do on the trivia questions? Answers:  1b 2a 3c 4b 5c 6a 7c 8a


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