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Staycation like a medieval pilgrim: a guide to exploring Canterbury this summer
With international travel restrictions not going anywhere any time soon, jetting off for an all-inclusive might be off the menu for a little while longer as we head towards another summer of staycations. Although they may not offer the pool-side drinks or tanning potential of a trip abroad, staycations are the perfect opportunity to explore the rich heritage and natural beauty that’s right on your doorstep!
Now we might be a bit biased, but we reckon Canterbury should be at the top of your staycation list for 2021. Not merely because of all the things to see and do in the City, but because Canterbury has been the UK’s ultimate staycation destination for over 800 years! Following the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, thousands of pilgrims from across the country, and Europe, began journeying to Canterbury to visit the patron saint’s shrine. However, these trips were not only an opportunity for holy worship. For some, as research and Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ suggest, these journeys were social occasions full of eating, drinking and shopping – just like a modern day staycation!
To mark the 850th anniversary of Becket’s death, The Beaney opened the ‘Saint Thomas Becket – World Celebrity Healer’ exhibition as part of a national programme of events. Although the exhibition has come to an end, the museum has tons of Becket and medieval related items in its permanent galleries along with a brand new interactive trail – The Case of Thomas Becket, making this the perfect time to explore the City’s medieval past! Here’s our guide to staycationing in Canterbury like a proper medieval pilgrim (in 21st century style) this summer.
Lodging like a pilgrim
Pilgrims to Canterbury would have had to find accommodation for their stay, all without the help of AirBnB! Although many of the establishments frequented by pilgrims no longer function as accommodation, our little City boasts a number of historic lodgings that will make you feel like you’re kicking back in medieval Canterbury.
The House of Agnes Bed and Breakfast dates back to the 13th century and is positioned along the pilgrims’ route into the City on St Dunstans’s Street, which features in Chaucer’s famous ‘Canterbury Tales’. Just a little further down the road also sits the 15th century historic Falstaff Hotel. Enjoy a tipple from their cocktail bar as you imagine the thousands of pilgrims that would have walked past to end their long journey at the city walls.
After travelling hundreds of miles on foot, horse and cart, pilgrims journeying from London or Winchester to Canterbury would have entered the City through the Westgate Towers, England’s largest surviving medieval gateway. Imagine you’re a medieval pilgrim as you walk through the towers, visit the Towers’ Museum and Battlements Viewpoint, and stop by The Pound Bar and Kitchen to refuel after your long journey.
Wine and dine in medieval style
Just like any decent 21st century staycation, a pilgrim’s itinerary would have included eating and drinking at the City’s pubs and inns. If your perfect city break includes being in the pub 90% of the time and living your best foodie life, then a visit to The Parrot has to be on the menu. It’s Canterbury’s oldest pub, having been built on Roman foundations in the 14th century! Expect medieval beams, marvelous morsels, open fires and a stunning pub garden.
For more pilgrim themed watering holes, grab a pint at the Thomas Becket or cosy up in the corner of The Canterbury Tales Pub.
Becket at The Beaney
There might be another slight hint of bias here, but we reckon a visit to The Beaney is a serious must for anyone staycationing in Canterbury this summer! Although our Saint Thomas Becket exhibition may have ended, we still have a number of significant Becket and pilgrimage related artefacts in our permanent galleries for those wanting to explore the City’s medieval past.
You’ll find our impressive collection of pilgrim badges, as well as marble capitals from Becket’s shrine, in our People and Places gallery. Plus, have a go at solving your very own medieval mystery with our brand new interactive trail – The Case Of Thomas Becket! Before you go, make sure to pick up your own replica pilgrim badge from the museum’s gift shop to commemorate your visit in true medieval fashion.
Follow The Pilgrims Way
There are definitely some aspects of the medieval pilgrim experience you may not want to recreate, like travelling hundreds of miles to Canterbury on foot! But, for those who enjoy a good rural ramble, you can get a small taste of the pilgrims’ ancient route by following The Pilgrims’ Way out of Canterbury, eventually leading to the North Downs Way. It might not be the sunny sands of Santorini, but we think the natural beauty of Kent’s North Downs holds its own pretty well.
The Eastbridge Hospital was originally built in 1180, following the murder of Thomas Becket, to provide shelter and help to poor pilgrims journeying to the City to visit his tomb. Unlike today, medieval hospitals were not only for the sick but were responsible for housing pilgrims, travellers, and the poor. You’ll find it on the high street through a low gothic door, where you can see where the pilgrims would have actually slept! Make sure to take a stroll around the peaceful Franciscan Gardens while you’re there.
Retail therapy but make it medieval
As well as eating and drinking, shopping played a big part in the medieval pilgrimage experience in Canterbury. The high street had lots of shops and markets to browse, with special pilgrim souvenirs being sold in the Cathedral’s precincts. Pilgrim badges depicting the patron saint were the medieval equivalent of a fridge magnet and ampullae containing a mixture of water and blood, claimed to be the blood of Becket himself, were sold for their magical healing properties! You can even pick up your own replica pilgrim badge, just like a medieval pilgrim, from The Beaney gift shop to commemorate your staycation.
Today Canterbury is jam packed with quirky, independent shops hiding amongst our cobbled streets, so you’re guaranteed to stumble across the perfect staycation souvenir or unique find. Get lost amongst the literature in the appropriately named Chaucer Bookshop or pick up a pottery piece from Canterbury Pottery, located in the Buttermarket opposite the Cathedral’s Christchurch gate. Plus, Whitefriars shopping centre has all your high street brand needs covered!
Explore the City’s historic buildings
One of the worst crimes to commit as a tourist in Canterbury is to not look up! This might sound a bit strange but it is so easy to miss the City’s many beautiful historic buildings that hide above the shops fronts. The old Chequers of Hope Inn, mentioned in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales‘, sits on Mercery Lane above what is now Hardy’s Sweet Shop and was a popular place to stay amongst medieval pilgrims. A stroll down Palace Street to admire the late Tudor exterior of Conquest House is also a must, where the four knights are reputed to have met just before murdering Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
To staycation in Canterbury like a pilgrim, a visit to the place of Becket’s martyrdom is pretty much obligatory! Canterbury Cathedral is steeped in medieval history and is at the centre of Becket’s story and the City’s legacy as a pilgrimage site. See these histories retold in the country’s most important collection of early medieval stained glass as well as visiting the site of the patron saint’s murder – The Martyrdom – and the Trinity Chapel, where a single candle marks the spot where Becket’s shrine once stood.
A little further afield…
If you’re wanting to extend the medieval antics beyond Canterbury’s city walls, the British Museum’s ‘Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint’ exhibition delves into Becket’s tumultuous journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, and from a revered saint in death to a ‘traitor’ in the eyes of Henry VIII more than 350 years later. Running until Sunday 22 August, you can hop on the high speed from Canterbury to London and arrive in just under an hour!