Tag Archive | Touring Kent

Canterbury, UK

On this first day of March, snow over two feet deep, temperatures hovering in the 20s F with a bracing northerly breeze here in Maine, I think back to March a year ago when I was in warm England.  My mum and I spent a delightful couple days in Canterbury.  This town is one of the larger in Kent and the seat of the English church since the 600s.  Although it is a religious center and the destination for thousands of pilgrims over the centuries, Canterbury is much more than its cathedral.

River Stour as it flows through Canterbury

In ancient times the site of Canterbury was a settlement at the mouth of the River Stour.  It was situated on the banks of the river’s large estuary opening into the Wantsum Channel, a wide arm of the sea that once formed an island out of Kent called the Isle of Thanet.  Great storms over the centuries silted in the channel, creating dry land.  The river now runs about twelve more miles to join the sea beyond Sandwich.  The Romans built a town called Durovernum Cantiacorum after their invasion in the year 43.  By the year 200 they had completed a wall around the town.  The wall was rebuilt in the Middle Ages and portions of it still stand for the strolling pleasure of tourists today.

image courtesy L. Winslow

In the late 500s Canterbury was the capitol of the Saxon king of Kent who married a Christian.  Her influence likely brought about the mission of St. Augustine, sent to England by the Pope to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.  Augustine founded the cathedral after he was made Bishop of England in the early 600s.

The current building dates from medieval times.  It has been repaired on several occasions:  after various fires, following periodic neglect, and the depredations of the Puritans during the Civil War when stained glass windows were smashed and horses were stabled in the Nave.  The oldest section is from around 1077 and is called the Martyrdom.  It is a staircase and parts of the north wall, the area reputed to be the site of the murder of the Archbishop Thomas Becket.  After his death on 12/29/1170, rumors of miracles brought a flow of pilgrims to Canterbury that has not fully abated.  The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer tell of life on the pilgrimage and are a popular motif in the town.

image courtesy L. Winslow

 

After the obligatory visit to the cathedral, the remainder of the town beckons.  My mum and I stayed the weekend in one of the oldest buildings in the town, constructed in the 1500s as an inn, and currently the Pilgrims Hotel.  The place is charming and transports one back in time with its large common room, narrow stairways and cozy rooms.  Our room was situated above the taproom and the ambient sound of chatter and music drifting from below was undoubtedly much the same as it would have been in the 1600s.  In the photo below, our room was the one with the double windows overhanging the entry and sign.

The Westgate

After a lovely cuppa tea and some biscuits, we explored the famed high street shopping area of Canterbury.  Extending about one-third mile from the Westgate (the only remaining medieval gate in the city wall) to Whitefriars Shopping Centre, the streets are closed to traffic during the day, creating a bricked pedestrian way often crowded with shoppers. The thoroughfare is lined on both sides (and down side streets) with shops.  It is such a great draw that at times navigating through the crush can be difficult.  Buses disgorge large groups of tourists, often from non-English-speaking places, who traverse in impenetrable packs.
Buskers strum guitars and play other instruments, adding music to the scene. Street vendors sell roasted nuts, hot snacks, nick knacks and trinkets, further narrowing the congested ways with their carts.  Yet, it is a congenial crowd, well fed at the numerous restaurants and sated by endless purchasing opportunities.

So many of the buildings lining the pedestrian way are ancient, dating from the 1600s or earlier.  They jut over the sidewalks, providing a window-shopping experience similar to that of long-ago.  Although, I’m sure the streets are much cleaner and better smelling than they would have been when horses were the mode of transport and chamber pots were emptied from upper windows with a call of “guarde loo!”

After a strenuous day of shopping, I enjoyed a lovely roast of lamb in our hotel’s taproom restaurant.  With a nice glass of rose, it was a scrumptious way to relax.  Canterbury is such a fun town that I hope to return for another stay and to perhaps catch a performance at the Marlowe Theater, a popular playhouse just across the street from our hotel.

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Tudor House, Margate, UK

Tucked onto a quiet way called King Street in the seaside town of Margate in Kent is a neat house built around 1525 and maintained as a museum.  The Tudor House has withstood all the centuries of storms, modernization and even a close strike during the second World War when the place next door was destroyed by a bomb.  It is one of the oldest mostly complete buildings on the Isle of Thanet.

The close-set timber frame construction is typical for the late 15th to early 16th century.  The timbers are likely oak. There is evidence the building underwent some changes early on when the ground floor in the front was extended to be more in line with the first floor above.  In Tudor design the first floor usually overhangs the ground floor by several feet.

The house was subdivided into three units and covered with plaster and lathe in the 1770s.  In the 1930s it was scheduled to be demolished to make way for new housing.  Some of the locals realized the old place had historical significance and informed the authorities.  An inspector of ancient buildings soon comprehended the significance of the house and it was spared.  Throughout the 1950s the Tudor house was carefully restored.

The original timbers of the frame and the stones of the foundation are visible in their weathered condition.  Over the years, the house leaned a bit toward the front and one side.  It also settled a little when the bomb hit beside it.  Luckily, the building did not sustain any major damage from the strike.  Metal strapping and bars have been discreetly applied for support and the structure is stable.

The layout consists of a long, narrow entryway leading on the right to the main hall with a large fireplace (beside which my mum is having a break,) and on the left a servants’ area.

The main hall has a ceiling about eight feet high while the domestics’ space (pictured below) has a clearance of barely five and one-half feet. The doorway that the photo was taken through is just over four feet high, rather claustrophobic for most modern humans.

In its time, this house would have been a splendid manor, the home of local gentry.  The two chimneys, second floor and glazed windows were at the cutting edge of residential architectural technology.  The beautiful leaded windows, some with colored glass inserts, are original.  Much of the old wood paneling, some carved, also remains.Beyond the main hall is the parlor where the family would gather around another great fireplace.  The floor is all flagstone and a large set of windows opens onto the front garden and street.  The ceiling has ornate plaster decoration.

A narrow circular stair leads to the next floor.  Here the family would have slept, dressed, had sitting space and stored their clothes and other belongings.  The toilets would have been outside, of course, except for chamber pots.  The chimney and additional fireplaces provide heat upstairs.

The second story is floored with massive boards at least 18″ wide.  There are three large rooms and several closet-like spaces upstairs.  The ceilings are high, soaring to twelve feet or more.

The last room upstairs holds a collection of period costume.  The mannequin beside the doorway is about 5 ft tall.  Several lovingly reproduced ladies gowns are displayed along with hats, bags and undergarments.

The cellars are reached through a trap door.  These were used for cool storage of food and drink.  A small brew house associated with the main building stands in the back garden.  The brew made for home use was probably kept in barrels in the cellar.

The grounds include a Tudor knot garden, although it is unknown what the original gardens featured.  The north side of the house was built with wings that are completely gone.  When it was constructed, the home was situated on the banks of a brook that ran into the harbor.  No evidence of the waterway remains.

The Tudor House had some close calls over its life and is lucky to still be here today.  It provides an invaluable example of ancient construction and an enjoyable place to visit.