90km (56 miles) SE of London
Under the arch of the ancient West Gate journeyed Chaucer's knight, solicitor, nun, squire, parson, merchant, miller, and others -- spinning tales. They were bound for the shrine of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was slain by four knights of Henry II on December 29, 1170. (The king later walked barefoot from Harbledown to the tomb of his former friend, where he allowed himself to be flogged in penance.) The shrine was finally torn down in 1538 by Henry VIII, as part of his campaign to destroy the monasteries and graven images. But Canterbury, by then, had already become an attraction.
The medieval Kentish city on the River Stour is the ecclesiastical capital of England. Once completely walled, many traces of its old fortifications remain. Canterbury was inhabited centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. Although its most famous incident was the murder of Becket, the medieval city witnessed other major events in English history, including Bloody Mary's order to burn nearly 40 victims at the stake. Richard the Lion-Hearted returned this way from crusading, and Charles II passed through on the way to claim his crown.
Canterbury "pilgrims" continue to arrive today, except now they're called day-trippers and they overrun the city and its monuments. Because it lay in the pathways of bombers heading for London during the Nazi Blitz of 1941, historic Canterbury suffered enormous damage to its center. After the war, there was some attempt at restoration, but the city no longer has its wonderful prewar medieval look. Yet there is much still left to intrigue today's visitor, who can easily spend a day there. The city has an active university life -- mainly students from Kent -- and an enormous number of pubs. Its High Street is filled with shoppers in from the country. We suggest exploring Canterbury in the early morning or the early evening, after the busloads have departed.