At the extreme southeast corner of Britain is England’s premier cathedral city, Canterbury. As a rule a UNESCO-listed cathedral is more than enough reason for us to stop in a town for a couple of days. In this particular case a visit was particularly obvious; the next stage of our journey required us to load our leased car onto a train in nearby Folkestone for a trip underneath the English Channel to France. The odds that we’d miss staying a couple of nights in Canterbury were low.
Canterbury with its perfectly pleasant medieval plan and quaint shops is an agreeable place to wander and explore. Beyond the cathedral there are plenty of things to tour. At least that’s what our guidebooks say. With a late Saturday arrival and an early Monday departure we skillfully minimized the chances that we’d be able to see the inside of any tourist attraction. Some tourists check to see whether the sites will be open before they arrange their visits. We have not yet evolved to the “some tourist” stage. Thus as we roamed about from closed attraction to closed attraction we made yet another mental note to check ahead of time whether things would be open during our stay. And then we left ourselves a mental note to follow-up on our mental notes. (We’ll see how well that works. I have my doubts.) At least Canterbury’s cathedral was open.
Without doubt the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury, the full name for the Canterbury’s main church, is the town’s most fabulous sight. Though our ill-planned travel itinerary pretty much guaranteed that we could say this, it is likely true. After all Canterbury’s Cathedral is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England.
Consecrated in 1070 and then rebuilt and altered up to 1834, Canterbury Cathedral is constructed in a mix of Norman-Romanesque and Gothic styles. From the outside the building is large but not exceptionally striking. On the inside the church is spectacular. Detailed stonework highlights the ceiling vaults over the nave. Walls of stained glass windows bring colored light to the inside of the spacious structure. Canterbury’s cathedral is a jewel box of light and stone left to the future by artists and stonemasons of the past.
The church’s northwest transept is the location of the murder of archbishop Thomas Becket. Knights of King Henry II martyred Becket on the 29th of December in 1170. Posthumous veneration of Becket turned Canterbury Cathedral into a place of pilgrimage. For years Becket’s shrine brought in scores of pilgrims from afar and piles of money for the church. The funds enabled the rebuilding and expansion of the structure ensuring that Canterbury’s cathedral would be the masterpiece that it is today.
Then in 1538 Becket’s shrine was removed. Henry VIII summoned the dead saint to court to face charges of treason. Having failed to appear, Becket was found guilty in his absence and the treasures of his shrine were confiscated, carried away in two coffers and twenty-six carts. And I thought today’s politics are wacky.
The town of Canterbury with its shrine-less cathedral and its pretty half-timbered buildings is a pleasing place to layover. The historic district is compact and walk-able; a couple of days are sufficient to see the highlights just as long as a “couple of days” do not include a Sunday.