Five Things You Didn’t Know About Canterbury (and Some You Did)

Published: Monday 7th Apr 2014

Written by: Sally Sims

Canterbury, the county town of Kent, is one of the most famous cities in the UK. Full of heritage, great architecture and fantastic attractions, this city in the garden of England is well worth a visit. But did you know …

1) It has one of only sixteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in England. The Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey and St Martin's Church together have been recognised by UNESCO for their historical importance. The Cathedral is the heart of the worldwide Anglican church, and was founded by Saint Augustine in 597. The murder of Thomas Becket (one of five archbishops to have been murdered) made the Cathedral a place of pilgrimage and this influx of visitors and wealth enabled the growth in size and power that made Canterbury so influential. Make sure you take one of the tours so you can appreciate this remarkable building.

2) Canterbury can claim to have added a word to the English language and as you might suspect, it’s the verb ‘to canter’, first used in 1755. Much like today, Canterbury was a destination for pilgrimage and worshippers from all over the country made journeys to the Kent city. Unlike today however, there was a curfew that hung over the city, and the gates were shut at sundown. Unwilling to spend a night outside the walls, many travellers forced their horses to go faster, into what was called the Canterbury trot, or a canter. The name Canterbury itself comes from the French Caen, and Caen stone was used to construct much of the city, including the Cathedral.

3) St Martin’s Church is the oldest in England still in use. Once the private chapel of Queen Bertha of Kent, it was turned into Augustine’s mission headquarters on his arrival. Bertha’s husband King Æthelberht was baptised there, but with once the Abbey and the Cathedral were established the importance of St Martin’s Church diminished. The Renaissance Mass is still performed in the church today as it was during the 14th and 15th centuries.  (Extra factlet: despite being the home of Christianity in this country, Christmas services were once banned in Canterbury. The decision by the Puritan mayor during the English Civil War caused city-wide riots.)

4) Oliver Postgate, creator of Bagpuss, The Clangers and Ivor the Engine had strong links with Canterbury. He did most of his work in a studio in Blean, just outside the city, and in 1986 he painted the 50 foot long Illumination of the Life and Death of Thomas Becket which is now in the Royal Museum and Art Gallery, Canterbury. He then created a similar work about Christopher Columbus four years later, and this now resides in the University of Kent at Canterbury. That same establishment awarded him an honorary degree in 1987. You can see the stars of his show, including that saggy old cloth cat, at the Canterbury Heritage Museum.

5) One of the most famous works in the English language is the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in 1387. It’s the story of a group of pilgrims on a journey from London to Canterbury. However, despite the two being inextricably linked, there is no actual evidence that Chaucer ever visited the city. This shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the Canterbury Tales attraction on St Margaret’s Street, a wonderful interactive tour with costumed characters and authentic sights and smells that brings the story to life.

Sally Sims
Sally Sims


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