One of England's most venerable
cities, CANTERBURY offers a rich slice through two thousand
years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman
castle, and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren
of time-skewed Tudor dwellings.
The city began as a Belgic
settlement that was overrun by the Romans and renamed Durovernu
, from where they proceeded to establish a garrison, supply base
and system of roads that was to reach as far as the Scottish
borders. With the Roman Empire's collapse came the Saxons, who
renamed the town Cantwarabyrig ; it was a Saxon king, Ethelbert,
who in 597 welcomed Augustine, dispatched by the pope to convert
the British Isles to Christianity. By the time of his death,
Augustine had founded two Benedictine monasteries, one of which
- Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica - was
to become the first cathedral in England.
At the turn of the first
millennium, Canterbury suffered repeated sackings by the Danes
until Canute, a recent Christian convert, restored the ruined
Christ Church, only for it to be destroyed by fire a year before
the Norman invasion. As the new religion became a tool of control,
a struggle for power developed between the archbishops, the abbots
from the nearby Benedictine abbey and King Henry II, culminating
in the assassination of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in
1170, a martyrdom that effectively established the autonomy of
the archbishops and made this one of Christendom's greatest shrines.
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales , written towards the end
of the fourteenth century, portrays the unexpectedly festive
nature of pilgrimages to Becket's tomb, which was plundered and
destroyed at the orders of Henry VIII.
In 1830, a pioneering passenger
railway service linked Canterbury to the sea and prosperity grew
until the city suffered extensive German bombing in the notorious
Baedeker Raids , when Hitler ordered the destruction of the most
treasured historic sites described in the Baedeker travel guide
series. The cathedral and compact town centre, however, survived,
enclosed on three sides by medieval walls, and today remain the
focus for leisure-motivated pilgrims from across the globe.
Despite the presence of
a university and art college, England's second most visited city
is a surprisingly small place with a population of just 35,000.
The town centre, ringed by ancient walls, is virtually car-free,
but this doesn't stop the High Street seizing up all too frequently
with tourists, two million of whom arrive each year. Having said
that, the very reason for the city's popularity is its rich tapestry
of historical sites, combined with a good selection of places
to stay, eat and drink, and no visit to southeast England would
be complete without, at the very least, a quick stop here .