A zippy new train service, in place two years early for the Olympics, has put Britain’s tranquil cathedral city in Kent within an hour of London, turning it into an easy visit from many people. I followed at high speed in the footsteps of the Canterbury Pilgrims – and the pawprints of Bagpuss. This is my must-do list.
1 Magic cat
Episodes of classic UK children’s TV shows including Bagpuss are to be shown via iTunes. They are available for download via Apple’s online store. The cost per series is £4.99. Individual episodes cost between £1.49 and £1.89.
“The most important, beautiful, magical, saggy old cloth cat in the whole wide world” — and the star of one of the most enchanting children’s TV programmes — lives in a display case at Canterbury Museum. Oliver Postgate’s pink and white-striped Bagpuss slumbers on with Professor Yaffle, Gabriel the Toad and Rag Doll Madeleine. And those busy menders of broken things – the mice. On my visit they screened the episode from the BBC animated series where the mice scurry around scrubbing and polishing the bottle. Also on display are other creations – Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and the Clangers – from the wonderful dynasty Postgate created with his friend Peter Firmin. There’s also a permanent display devoted to Rupert Bear, and the succession of artists who have drawn him.
Canterbury has come a lot closer since the new Javelin high-speed service from London St Pancras started in December (2009), using the same track as Eurostar trains. Journey times to the city have been falling steadily since Chaucer’s story-telling pilgrims made their fictional trip in The Canterbury Tales. Now, for the first time, you can get there from the capital in under an hour. I took one of the new Japanese-built trains, the fastest in Britain apart from Eurostar services to the continent. You pay more than on conventional trains, but it was worth it for the exhilarating 140 mph hurtle down into Kent. 57 minutes after leaving London, I walked under the ancient West Gate into this gracious old city. www.southeasternrailway.co.uk.
3 Tale story
Some of the city’s most famous “visitors”, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, the Miller, Pardonner and Knight, are convincingly re-created, with Chaucer as the first tour guide, picking a route through the C14th throng in Canterbury Tales. Among the real visitors to this spot were the invading Emperor Claudius. The Roman Museum contains intriguing finds, a facsimile Roman market place, and the remains of a Roman town house, with mosaics, uncovered by wartime bombing. The story continues in St Martin’s Church, the oldest in the English speaking world still used for worship. Parts date from the C6th. It belongs to the World Heritage Site, with the cathedral and nearby ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey. Mary Tourtel, creator of Rupert Bear, is buried here.
4 Saintly peace
The many reasons to visit Canterbury Cathedral include the wonderful mediaeval stained glass, sensibly removed during the war, when Canterbury was badly bombed. But the most striking feature is a big blank space, enveloped in a deep peace. The clue is in the stairs that lead to it, worn into grooves by the feet and knees of pilgrims, going up to the shrine of Thomas à Becket. The archbishop was cut down by four of Henry II’s knights one December night in 1170. Becket’s tomb was at this spot until 1563, when Henry VIII had it torn out. (Canterbury Museum displays the remarkable tapestry telling the story, designed by Oliver Postgate.) A single candle burns poignantly where the tomb stood, to the mood music of a gently purring organ. You have to pay. But guests at the cathedral’s own hotel (www.canterburycathedrallodge.org) on the precincts, may stroll around for nothing in the perfect calm of the evening or early morning, when it is empty of tourists.
5 Top tavern
In a perfect world we would save all old pubs from closing. But if there are to be new ones, let them match the high standards of Old Brewery Tavern (opposite the Canterbury Museum). It opened in 2006, putting an old building to very good use. I liked the smart but spare lounges, with a liberal scattering of comfy low sofas and wooden furniture. My leek soup, and homemade pork pie with ale chutney (with a glass of Whitstable Brewing Company’s East India Pale Ale) was superior simplicity. They offer two sizes: “ample – for a quick snack”; and “generous, for the really hungry.” At the catering helm is Michael Caines, the 2 Michelin-starred chef who also runs the restaurant in the adjoining Abode hotel, one of a collection of “lifestyle hotels.” www.michaelcaines.com
6 Water way
An unexpected delight of Canterbury is the boat trip on the Stour. A team of clued-up and engaging guides drift you along the quiet river in the heart of the city, where the banks are dense with history. They give a helpful oversight of the city. Highlights of the 40 minute tour, which begins at the bridge by the Old Weavers Restaurant, include Greyfriars, a C13th chapel which spans the river. It’s the oldest example of Franciscan architecture in the country, built in the lifetime of the order’s founder St Francis of Assisi. There are wonderful views of the cathedral. www.canterburyrivertours.co.uk. Afterwards the city offers soothing retail therapy, in the recently refurbished Kings Mile shopping district. Independent shops offer hand made chocolates, designer fashion, Fairtrade produce., and much more. Look for the remarkable, drunkenly- tilting C16th Sir John Boys’ House.