Visit: 29th August 2015
Canterbury had been bugging me for a while, it being the only WHS in southern England that I had never been to. Since it’s not far from London I decided to put that right and invited my friend Ross along with Natalie and me for a day trip. The site consists, as you can see from the wordy title, of three subcomponents: the famous cathedral, a nearby abbey and a small church. We arrived in Canterbury on a fast train from St Pancras and found a pub outside the cathedral. I liked the Gothic decoration on Christ Church Gate, below, put up under Henry VII.
The cathedral is the seat of the spiritual head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is also a mixed Romanesque and Gothic masterpiece, though it looks quite different to another grand cathedral of that era, the one in Cologne. The top photo, below, shows its most famous angle – the Gothic western face – whilst the bottom photo is taken from the east and shows its older, Norman (ie. Romanesque) elements. I think you will agree that they look like two different buildings.
As with other C of E cathedrals, entrance isn’t cheap. We went inside nevertheless, taking in the stained glass, the cloisters and the site of Thomas Beckett’s murder. Behind me, below, is the area known as the choir. Here a candle burns for Beckett, who was thought to have worked miracles and prompted much pilgrimage to Canterbury.
The crypt held quite a surprise for me, as I was not expecting to see twelfth century frescoes in a C of E cathedral. The paintings, located in St Gabriel’s Chapel, were painted long before the C of E was created under Henry VIII, and the chapel was bricked up soon after its creation. It was discovered in the late nineteenth century, with restoration work finishing only in the 1990s. The frescoes put me in mind of the crypt at the Basilica of Aquileia – a northern Italian WHS we visited earlier in the summer.
Finishing with the cathedral we stopped for a pint and then headed over to St Augustine’s Abbey, which was wrecked by Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. His reason for destroying this building, along with hundreds of others up and down the land, was to weaken the power of the Catholic church in England, with whom Henry had fallen out over his famous divorce. Active from 598 to 1538, its inscription on the UNESCO list stands as testament to this period of English history.
The final part of this World Heritage Site is the oldest church in England: St Martin’s Church. Located a ten minute walk up the road from the abbey, St Martin’s is an unassuming little building that looks like any other English parish church. It dates back to slightly before the abbey – so old, in fact, that Roman bricks have been found to form part of its structure. Canterbury’s location in Kent, close to the narrowest point of the English Channel, meant it was a natural stopping off point for those early Christian messengers coming to Britain to spread the gospel.
St Martin’s is a quiet place, far removed from the crowds of the nearby cathedral and yet significant in its own way. I like to think of it as representing on the list all of England’s hundreds (if not thousands) of ancient parish churches, since they are an integral part of the story of ‘this blessed plot’. I found this plaque embedded into the road outside the church, bearing the symbol that many won’t recognise but is increasingly familiar to me as that of the World Heritage Site movement.