Strolling Canterbury…Part 2
The best source of information I could find about the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral was a digital pamphlet published by CHAS (Canterbury Historical and Archaeological Society). It was called ‘The Precincts of Canterbury Cathedral…city trail Number 3’. It was a reprint of 1 of 30 guides published in the 1990s by local, interested groups. The map to the right is from the booklet; the purple dotted line is our trail around these beautiful grounds.
The most striking sight we encountered not long after we exited the Cathedral and walked along the side of the cathedral, was a huge cane horse that towered over the gardens. It was called the ‘Canterbury War Horse and it commemorated over 8 million horses who died in WW1 and who would have travelled through Kent on their way to the war. This project was completed by students from the Canterbury School of Visual Arts.
We were heading towards a section of the grounds that housed the Kent War Memorial Gardens and our ‘City Trail Pamphlet #3’ explained… “To the left…are the ruins of the Infirmary Chapel where the monks who were too sick to go to the church could attend mass. The chapel was built in the middle of the 12th century but was altered and repaired many times. Notice the magnificent windows on the north side dating from 1300 and the fine series of carved capitals along the southern arcade. You can also see bits of the destroyed building piled up along a flower bed, and part of the original floor.”
Entering the war memorial gardens takes you to another beautiful space in the precincts. Apart from a memorial column with a cross and sailing ship on top, there are flowering shrubs everywhere. The garden is surrounded on two sides by Canterbury’s medieval fortifications and in the middle of the garden’s wall there is a bastion tower built in the 15th century. There is a gate to the outside in the wall and if it was open, our guide tells us that “if you go outside and down the steps, on the right you will find embedded in the wall, a portion of an arch in red brick and stone. This was the Roman Gateway, and the tradition is that was the one Queen Bertha used when she went to church at St Martin’s.” We will meet Queen Bertha further along in our stroll.
Alas we could not go out through the wall and check the Roman remains of Quenin Gate so we returned to the gate of the memorial Garden and headed to explore the area to the right of the cathedral. Our guide told us we were “approaching the old monastic infirmary or hospital and on the right, one of the largest guest houses that the monks used for entertaining important visitors. The present house, called Meister Omers, was built by Peter Chillenden about 1395.” Yet again we were amazed at how beautiful an old ruin can look with its conglomeration of climbers, flowers and the building stones from so many different centuries.
This pathway through the remnants of the old monastery led us to the next highlight of the cathedral precinct which was the enclosed Infirmary Cloister and its garden. It was here the monks grew herbs and spices for use as medicine as well as for the kitchen. This was a very tranquil area with roses and ruined walls that generated a sense of the many centuries that people have worked here as well as continuing the ‘herbarium’ tradition today.
It was by entering this herbarium that we took a wrong turn and failed to walk further beyond the monks’ Infirmary Cloister and inspect a whole area of the precinct that included the Green Court and the significant buildings of the Deanery garden that ran along the city walls to the north-west of Canterbury. At least that gave us a reason to return to Canterbury next time we were visiting old England. Our missed turn was probably due to the fact that our horizon was dominated by the north side of Canterbury Cathedral and the various structures that had been added on to its walls over the centuries. One of the buildings that attracted our attention was the Water Tower that supplied drinking water to the whole monastery. It was built in 1160 and provided water from pipes all around the city to be stored in the upper tower. Waste-water was also used to flush the monks’ toilets.
Our route took us back to the walkway along the edge of the Cathedral building and into the Chapter House of the old monastery…it is apparently the largest Chapter House in England. It was built in the 14th century and is an open space where the monks met for prayer and other important monastery functions. This beautiful room was dominated by the light streaming through the stained-glass windows along the east wall. This building is the most complete structure to survive the destruction of the monastery and our CHAS guide pointed out that it “stands on the site of the Norman Chapter House of about 1080”.
From the Chapter House it is a short, covered walk to the magnificent Great Cloister of the monastery that dates from the early 15th century. Again it is best to share a few details from the CHAS guide. “The Cloister was the main road of the monastery, connecting all the major buildings with the church. It has been upon its present site since the earliest days of the monastery. The coats of arms in the vaulting are of families or individuals who gave money for the rebuilding of the cloister between 1396 and 1414.”
The cloister was the last stage of our fantastic walk around the ‘non-cathedral’ sections of the huge grounds that house Canterbury Cathedral. From the exit of the cloisters, we headed back out through Christchurch Gate to try and see as much of Canterbury before loss of daylight forced us into a local restaurant before dinner.
Our direction along Burgate Street was to find our way to St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church. Like much of Canterbury, the walk was its usual interesting process, passing two ageing churches along the way. The first was St Thomas Catholic Church (1851) and the next one was St Paul’s Canterbury, the original church being built early in the 13th century but the current building was refurbished in 1847.
Once outside the city wall we continued on until we got to the aptly named Monastery St. We arrived at the spectacular Fyndon’s Gate, the original gate-house of St Augustine’s Abbey. We were hoping to have a wander around inside the grounds but were firmly disabused of this notion by the guy on the gate. It is now private property, part of the King’s School campus, housing their boarders and their library.
St Augustine himself is meant to have started the monastery in 598 in the tradition of the Benedictines. As centuries passed, the old Saxon buildings were replaced by different generations of invaders such as the Saxons and the Normans but it continued as a functioning monastery for 940 years before it was ended by the English Reformation when all monasteries in England were closed, the monks sent packing and the buildings and land handed over to the Crown.
The monastery buildings were loaned and sold to various members of the English nobility until the 19th century when it was bought by a local , wealthy land owner with a sense of the need to preserve history. The site underwent quite some restoration when a missionary school was built there and the remaining ruins stabilised.
Despite being refused entry, we were very impressed by the condition of the gatehouse, despite the fact that in 1942, Canterbury was ‘blitzed’ again by German bombers and the photograph above shows the results of this process. Below are photographs of the ruins of the old monastery inside the grounds of the modern school that are still standing; images courtesy of Wikipedia.
The whole of the historical area that contains Canterbury Cathedral and St Augustine’s Abbey, also includes St Martin’s Church that is a further walk to the west on the other side of the abbey grounds. The three sites are all bound together and have gained UNESCO classification as a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately time was getting away from us so we had to turn back to the Walls of Canterbury and miss seeing the first church founded in England and the oldest church in the entire English-speaking world. It apparently was in existence in late Roman times and St Augustine himself used it himself as he organised his monastery next door. The image on the right (courtesy Wikipedia) shows the Roman pedigree of the church with its stonework of hundreds of Roman bricks.
The story of St Martin’s Church continued on for us, even though we walked in the opposite direction towards the Walls of Canterbury through Lady Wooton’s Green, a ceremonial way that leads from the Cathedral grounds to the abbey and St Martin’s Church. In this landscaped area are two large bronze statues of the King and Queen of Kent from the late 6th century. King Aethelbert of Kent had married a Christian Frankish princess from over the water who was a very religious woman. The King allowed her to practice her religion and so he renovated the old St Martin’s Church for her use. Apparently Queen Bertha’s regular route to mass was out the old Roman gate (Quenin Gate) and across the road through the abbey grounds and on to her chapel. The statues of the couple in Lady Wooton’s Green capture another significant story in the unfolding development of Christianity in England. The King inevitably converted to Christianity.
After inspecting the statues of Bertha and Aethelbert we decided it was time to head back to the Bus Station and meet friends and go out for dinner. It enabled us to admire the walls of Canterbury as we strolled along. The original walls were built by the Romans between 270-280 CE. After the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons retained the walls which were very necessary to resist the Viking invasions of the early 11th century. In 1011 the Vikings arrived at the gates but were paid-off to pass by and go on to sack other places in Southern England. Unfortunately, as Vikings do, they returned and this time were able to break down the gates and burn the city. The Normans, descendants of Vikings themselves, invaded in 1066 but Canterbury opened the gates. Fears of further invasions during the 100 Years War meant that the walls were restored again. They lasted until the 19th century when pressure of commerce for expansion meant that at least half the walls of the city were removed, leaving only one major gate in place, Kingsgate.
We were grateful for our opportunity for an afternoon’s stroll around the city and walls of Canterbury. It deserved a lot more time but beggars can’t be choosers…it was great to have the opportunity to walk this city of St Augustine, Queen Bertha, Chaucer, St Thomas Beckett and the Black Prince!