I was born in and grew up in the beautiful university city of Cambridge, here in England, and I’ve spent most of my adult life living in the medieval town of Shrewsbury (with a short 3-year stint in Chester, whilst I studied for a B.A (Hons) degree in English Literature). Yet I realised recently that I’ve explored very little of my home country in favour of hopping on a plane to explore somewhere further afield.
After all, just a short flight from England is the promise of better, more reliable weather, and the excitement of unfamiliar surroundings. Travelling abroad can also be a darn sight cheaper than holidaying in England. An increasing number of budget airlines will fly me to an array of European destinations for significantly less than the cost of a return train ticket to visit my friends up in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Yet in spite of all those facts, I almost feel like I’m doing beautiful old England some kind of injustice by repeatedly choosing to flee the country at any given opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I still intend to travel abroad as often as I can (there’s a big wide world out there and I plan to see as much of it as possible), but I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to explore a lot more of my home turf in the meantime.
This probably would have been a decision better made at the start of summer (given the weather here in England), but at the same time the fading autumnal colours, crisp, clear mornings and twinkling fairy lights of the approaching festive season, can make November a beautiful time of year to explore the UK.
I started gathering recommendations from family and friends for English towns and cities they thought I’d enjoy, and eventually decided to go with one of my mum’s suggestions – Canterbury.
Described by Lonely Planet as “England’s spiritual heart”, Canterbury is steeped in tradition and history (its cathedral is the oldest in England), and packed with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
It’s also home to four universities, and when you consider that the city has a population of just 55,24 (that’s half the size of the TOWN I live in!), that’s an incredibly high number of students in relation to Canterbury’s diminutive size.
As a result, the city feels vibrant, with a modern, youthful vibe, and is overflowing with independent coffee shops, bars and restaurants.
As soon as we arrived in Canterbury (after a four and a half hour drive from our hometown) and entered the compact network of cobblestone streets that make up its historical core, I immediately felt a sense of joy, of eager anticipation and excitement, and I couldn’t wait to start exploring.
When we checked into our hotel, a historic building dating back to 1438 that was located literally right next to the city’s cathedral, I couldn’t have been happier. It had beamed ceilings, sloping floors, and crooked doors, and a cosy, intimate, friendly atmosphere.
What’s more, our room overlooked The Buttermarket, the city’s main square, and as we gazed out of the old sash windows the Christmas lights twinkled back at us from darkness of the busy streets below.
The temperatures had plummeted that afternoon, so we wrapped up in the warmest clothes we’d brought with us, and ventured out in search of some food. A tiny little Spanish tapas bar called Salt caught our eye, its windows steamy from the chill of the air outside.
Inside we found a cosy little room with beamed ceilings and exposed brick walls, full of warmth and inviting aromas. We snagged the only remaining table just in front of the door, ordered a large glass of house red each (which actually turned up to be one of the nicest house wines I’ve ever tasted), and salivated over the menu choices, handwritten in chalk on the large blackboard just inside the door.
I ordered seaweed crusted trout and roasted pumpkin with cavalonero and sage and walnut pesto, and Stu ordered smoked haddock with mustard creamed leaks, and some wild boar meatballs. We added some caramelised red cabbage as a side and a selection of crackers and local cheeses as a dessert, and congratulated ourselves on such a wonderful little find, and a perfect introduction to Canterbury.
If you’re only in Canterbury for the weekend (as we were), I thoroughly recommend that you make it your mission to enjoy a meal at Salt. But, assuming you’re not just visiting to tour the city’s restaurants (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea!), here are a few other activities not to miss.
Visit the oldest (and possibly the most beautiful) cathedral in England
Just like the Alhambra in Granada and The Acropolis in Athens, it would be criminal to visit Canterbury and not step inside its incredible cathedral. Founded in 597 and rebuilt between 1070 and 1077, it’s most famous for being the site where Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Thomas Beckett, was murdered in 1170.
Beckett was venerated after his death and as a result the cathedral became a place of pilgrimage, its eastern end significantly extended to accommodate the constant flow of pilgrims visiting the archbishop’s shrine.
It’s probably the largest and most impressive – both architecturally and aesthetically – cathedral that I’ve ever set foot inside, and you’ll need to dedicate a good few hours of your day in order to thoroughly explore it.
Photography is permitted everywhere apart from The Crypt, which is a shame because that was my favourite part.
Entry fee: £10.50
Opening hours: 09:00-17:00 Mon-Sat / 12:30-14:30 Sun
Visit the last surviving city gate in England
Built of Kentish ragstone in 1379, this 18-metre-high western gate of the city wall is the last survivor of Canterbury’s seven medieval gates.
The Grade 1 listed building was used as a prison for many years and now houses the Westgate Towers Museum, and a few of the original jail cells. There’s also an impressive panoramic view of the city from the battlements.
Entry fee: £4
Opening hours: 11:00-16:00 daily
Dine inside an old prison cell at The Pound
In 1820 the Westgate prison was extended and this extension has now been converted into a quirky, upscale café bar/restaurant called The Pound, which comprises of felon’s day cells, 1868 Police Station cells, and a former exercise yard.
We didn’t sample the food here but there’s a vast array of drinks available and it makes for a fascinating spot to grab a coffee and learn a little about the history of your surroundings. There’s even an inviting roof terrace overlooking the river.
Grab a spot of lunch at the Farmer’s Market
Right near to the city’s railway station, The Goods Shed not only showcases a wonderful farmer’s market six days a week (it’s closed Mondays), but it’s also home to an on-site restaurant that serves up seasonal dishes using the local market produce.
Explore the cobbled streets of Canterbury’s historical core
Canterbury’s historical core is full of crooked buildings, timber-framed houses, boutique shops, independent cafés and coffee shops, and inviting restaurants, and having a wander through its streets and peeking in the beautifully decorated shop windows is an absolute delight.
Sample some local ales at The Foundry microbrewery
Located on Whitehorse Lane, The Foundry is a unique craft brewery, restaurant and bar. The industrial two-storey building was once a Victorian foundry. The ales are brewed on-site, in one of the huge metal vats on display, and I can personally recommend the Scrumpkin ‘pumpkin pie’ ale, the Foundry Torpedo and the Porter.
Get snap-happy in the medieval village of Chilham
Located just 10 kilometres southwest of Canterbury, the charming village of Chilham is built around a picturesque market square flanked by quaint timber-framed buildings dating back to 1742. There’s not a lot to ‘do’ here but it makes a pleasant stop on your way to or from the city. There’s a delightful little tea shop and a pub serving an inventive choice of sandwiches.
So, if you’re looking for a weekend getaway in the UK, to somewhere that blends a fascinating history, and some beautiful, well-preserved ancient buildings, with a lively, hipster scene, some quality restaurants, and cosy, independent cafés and bars, then Canterbury is a pretty good place to start.