A couple of months back, I was in Europe working on a few travel campaigns when I found myself back in England. I have to be honest and say that even after 8 trips there, England has not ranked high up on my favourite list of places to explore. I previously lived in the South West and in London and did a fair bit of traveling when I was 19 & 20. On this trip something different happened and I gained a new found love for it after exploring the Kent country side with England Experience Tours a sub division of Highlander Experience Tours.
I was invited along on their Catherdrals, Cliffs and Castles day tour. They focus on small groups with a maximum of 16 people. What’s really special about this one is that it takes you on a journey throughout time, while you explore the countryside, dramatic coastal cliffs and incredible English landscapes and take in a few historic buildings along the way.
The tour departed from a local coffee shop, one that my google maps had a hard time trying to find. The meet and greet was really fun, and we had a great bunch on our tour.
We left London and headed towards Canterbury, following in the footsteps of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales characters who journeyed to visit the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket, regaling stories to one another along the way.
A visit to UNESCO World Heritage Site of Canterbury
Our first stop was to Canterbury – famed as the historical cathedral city of Britain, and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was most excited for this leg of the trip, and had spent a few days there with my sister and friends the week before. I was instinctively drawn to its medevil celtic heritage and needed to explore more of it.
The Monarch of the United Kingdom has granted Cantebury city status as a result of its diocesam cathedrals. The Canterbury Cathedral where St Augustine became the first Archbishop in 597AD and served as an apostle to the pagan kingdom of Kent. I fell in love with it’s breath-taking mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
The cathedral became a major focus of pilgrimage and draws more than 1 million visitors per year making it the most visited place in all of England. Services here are held 3 or more times per day depending on the session and the demand.
The city has first been recorded as the main settlement of the Celtic tribe of Cantiaci, and then later the Romans rebuilt the city in a grid pattern. Since then, many historical structures fill the area including an eroded city wall formed by the Romans, the ruins of St Augustine Abbey, the Norman Castle and the oldest extant school in the world.
16 & 17th Century Houses
The medieval streets are dotted with pretty black and white timber-framed 16 & 17th century Weaver houses. The most iconic of these buildings is the Old Weavers House along the River Stour that takes its name from the influx of Flemish and Hugenot weavers who settled in the area after fleeing from religious persecution during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Our tour guide was just incredible and he gave us such an informative free walking tour around this warm and mellow city. I learned from him that the first floor of this double story house was built in the 16th Century and the second floor the 17th Century. I cant off hand remember the reasons why.
While most of the tour group explored the inside of the Catherdral, I opted for something a little bit different – The ruins of Augustine Abbey.
The ruins of St Augustine Abbey
I always have this tendency to search for the most eroided ruins in nearly every medieval place I visit. It’s now become such a big inspiration around my blog posts. Not only do I think they all look absolutely beautiful but also that they tell us a story about the heritage of mankind and share historical facts with us about the past.
I followed the eroided roman wall for a couple of km’s when I reached the St Augustine Abbey.
This was the most important Monastery in medieval England. For almost 1000 years it was the centre of learning and spiritulality. It was originally established in an effort to bring Christianity to England but was reduced to ruins when King Henry VIII’s broke with Rome and declared himself head of the church of England. He brutally executed a mall numbe r of abbots and monks who resisted the closure of their monasteries. Not all the parts of the Monastry was destroyed. The remaining parts were renovated and turned into a Royal Palace with a walled courtyard and a private garden. A few years later under new ownership parts of these ruins became a Inn called the Old Palace, and the chamber over the great gate was turned into a cockfighting pit. In 1840s the St Augustine missionary college was built here. This single site carries such in depth history, and as a result UNESCO declared this as a World Heritage Site.
The crooked Sir John Boys House
This is possibly the most photographed place in all of Canterbury and one of my favorite sites on this tour - Sir John Boys House. Often referred to as the Crooked House, King's Gallery, or Old Kings Shop, this delightfully skewed 17th century half-timbered building ‘s most noticeable feature is the bright red skew front door. Alterations to an internal chimney caused the structure to slip sideways resulting in this immaculate art piece.
Walking the White Cliffs of Dover
The next stop was the world famous White Cliffs of Dover. These 110m high coastal cliffs mark the closest point to France from mainland Britain. I will never forget the amazement I felt when I first experienced them back in 2004 . I was taking a ferry crossing from England to Paris when the sun illuminated the white chalk against the contrasting bright blue ocean. On a clear day the cliffs are noticeable from the French coastline.
This time around I had an opportunity to walk a section of them. The cliffs stretch along the coastline for 13 km throughtout the county of Kent – the home for the ancient and still important English port.
In geology terms these cliffs have offered the most fascinating, accessible and complete records of the story of Chalk formation. The cliffs are made from a soft white chalk: a very finely grained pure limestone that is 300 – 400m deep and made of calcium carbonate. These chalk layers have built up gradually over millions of years. Interestingly the shapes of the cliffs were formed from the skeletal remains of minute planktonic green algae combined with other creatures. Over millions of years the once below seabed has become exposed and is now above sea level.
Each year the cliff face weathers about 1cm. There has been two instances where large pieces the size of a football pitch, fell into the Channel so its advisable that you stay clear from the cliff edge. Because you are so high above sea level it gets pretty windy up there especially along the small paths on the cliffs edge. There were moments when the wind came over that I got a little bit nervous. At one point the path was rather close to the edge and in most tourist spots there would be multiple danger signs.
The view from up here was absolutely stunning. Along the way there are a few information boards highlighting the importance these cliffs had during World War 1 & World War 2 and including its use as a railway.
After taking a short walk around, I had a delicious lunch at the resturant at the National Trust Centre, and learned more about the geology of the cliffs at their information centre.
This is a beautiful area to take in and you can quite easily hike to multiple towns along the cost line from this point, so if you are visiting you should try and set aside a full day.
We ended the tour at Leeds Castle: a breathtaking spot that was built in 1119 upon two islands in a lake. This most visited property in Britain was home to six of Englands Medieval queens and King Henry VIII who lived with his first wife Catherine of Aragon.
We arrived at the ticket counter and paid our entrance fee of £24,90 per person. It is a bit on the steap side but take into consideration that this ticket allows you access for 12months from date of purchase. It also allows you to go just about everywhere on the property and you can quite easily spend an entire day here. You cannot gauge the size of the property on arrival, but I can tell you it is massive so be prepared for a lot of walking. There are 500 acres of parkland and a range of interesting gardens. The woodland garden is along the river bend and filled with vibrantly colored flowers. Many peacocks and black swans have made themselves a home here.
The Culpeper Garden has an informal layout with low box hedges and very picturesque. There is also a really challenging but fun walk through a maze of 2400 english yew trees. Here you can find the birds of prey centre that offers a 30minute demonstration on a wide variety of birds like hawks, vultures, falcons and owls.
When you are walking through all these gorgeous gardens you almost forget that you are there to experience a 11th century castle that has been standing for over 900 years. Its a beautiful and contrasting site when you first experience it. If you have some time, consider taking a ride on an elegant wooden punt and experience the ancient arches and castle exterior from a. different perspective.
You can enter into the castle by walking over a drawbridge that was used back in the day to protect from attacks. Walking inside the castle at a slow pace will immerse you in the Medieval and Tudor periods which are still evident in these rooms today. The helpful dialogues on boards in each room will give you ample information that will make you feel like you are living through these centuries. There are also plenty of artifacts that you can enjoy.
After an interesting day, we hurried our tired bodies back to the mini van. What did I love the most? Thats a hard one! Every place visited was incredibly different and offered such rich insight into English culture. Be prepared for a really long but fun day with this crowd. They are incredibly laid back, fun, informative and offer a unique perspective to their tours.
Out of this list - Which is your favourite? We would love to hear why!
If you would like to have this experience get in touch with England Experiences by filling out their online booking form available on this link: https://englandexperience.com/england-tours/book/London/102
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