A pilgrimage to Canterbury- site & museum review

This past weekend I took a fairly last minute trip to Canterbury. It was great to get out of London for a bit, and to explore another city more. I’ve been to Canterbury before, very quickly as part of a tour that only stopped at the Cathedral, but with no time to explore the medieval streets, or see any of the other sites.

First was a stop to St Augustine’s Abbey. It’s an English Heritage Site, that is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes the cathedral. The site is largely in ruins, but there is still lots to explore, and of course, ruins are just kind of cool on their own. It also has a very long and important history, representing very early Christianity in England- from the 500’s- and was built in parts with Roman materials. There is also quite a good audio tour which is free with admission, giving lots of information, but also leading you around the site in a way that makes a lot of sense. If you’re really not an audio tour fan, there are also posted signs throughout. The audio tour takes about an hour to complete, which was a little bit longer than we expected, but there were lots of interesting stories. My only criticism was that it did not always point out interesting features- like some remaining wall paintings on one of the crypt altars, which I almost missed. Unfortunately that means I don’t know anything about it, and I can’t imagine many other people are attuned to see it.

We then went to take a look at Canterbury’s museums- the Roman Museum, Canterbury Heritage Museum, and Beaney Centre of Arts and Heritage. All of them are nice, little museums telling the story of Canterbury and its history, with some great artifacts (like some rare Elizabethan wall painting!), and tons of activities. All 3 of the museums are great for families and kids, with lots of things to do, including crafts, dress up, and artifact handling,  related to both the permanent collections, and temporary exhibitions. And while I say for families and children- there were plenty of people in their 20s ‘making a mosaic’ and dressing up like a Roman! They really were great hands on activities, with a wide range of visitors engaging with them. This is something we noticed about a lot of Canterbury too- it seems to be a good place for families in particular, with lots of themed playgrounds- viking ships, castles, climbing walls…

The Roman Museum was also great because it incorporates the real remains of a Roman house in situ. So you can learn about mosaics and what they are, see one reconstructed, design your own, and see the real thing, all in one place.

Other places in Canterbury are also great about leaving things in situ too- like the Waterstones! What a bonus to go into a bookshop and find that there are Roman remains on display?! They even did some interpretation too. I wish this happened more often. It didn’t take up much space, and actually is what brought us into the shop, and talking about books and browsing around. You know that in cities like London or Canterbury there must be remains like this all over the place- it would be super cool if more places put in glass floors or viewing windows to let you see them.

Besides good interpretation and activities at the museums, they were also doing things right in other ways. The Beaney currently has a temporary exhibition related to collecting Star Wars. While not really my thing- it was packed. And it’s just great to see museums taking on things that are contemporary. There were also activities and dress up stations to go along with this. I also noticed some great ways to use your collections in the gift shop- like these hilarious post cards! We had just seen these doll house displays upstairs, but here they’ve given all the vignettes witty captions, which makes it a bit more contemporary and appealing.

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We also went through ‘The Canterbury Tales’- an immersive type experience with live actors, audio tours, and various effects, which gives a sense of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It takes about 35-40 minutes to do this. We found it worthwhile and interesting, but I think anyone really familiar with the Canterbury Tales may not? (I haven’t read them yet)

Of course, we also popped into the sweet shop, admired the cathedral, and stopped for tea and a scone at a medieval tea shop. Overall, a great day out.

Been to Canterbury? What did you think of the museums and sites? Any other sites you can think of – in England or beyond- that are great for hands on activities and interpretation?

 

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