Canterbury is Hollyoaks with more church. It’s walled on all sides and powered in turns by attractive students, Christian pilgrims and publoads of locals who pine for the old days, the older ways. Groaning with guest ales and strung with flags, it’s also handsome city – though if you whisper, you can easily argue it’s a town.
I get into Canterbury East early evening, half expecting to find nothing but flower gardens, Chaucer graffiti and giddy vicars. Actually I don’t see a wrinkle for half an hour, surprised by the amount of road traffic, the number of fringes, and how green stuff is.
True to stereotypes and the ravings of smug southerners, green really is Kent’s theme — and Canterbury’s the masthead. If Monty Don pulled a coup at the Faraway Tree, he’d stick Kent at the top. It’s very rustic and very fairytale, and if you like flowers and plants and bushes, it’s where you’ll want to go. You set period dramas here – period dramas and classic science fiction. You can imagine triffids shuffling about; War of the Worlds unfolding. It’s a land of boarding schools and military compounds; St. George’s flags and hill rallies. But it’s friendly. It’s the place you get if you invert Derbyshire – it swaps bleakness for scrumpy grins.
Anyway, I don’t have much of an internal compass, so as soon as I’m in town proper, I get lost in the grid. In ten minutes I’ve covered most of it by foot – taken by the amount of Saints who live here, baffled by some of the niche shops set in original buildings, and getting damp on account of a fine drizzle.
Eventually I wind up the wrong side of town, pausing by the West Gate as if I need to make sense of my life. I want to take some photos, but in Canterbury, restaurants have spread like weeds, so if you want a decent shot you always have to aim up. And that’s when the biggest church – the elephant on the landscape – really steals your attention.
The cathedral, home to our country’s grandest wizard, rules Canterbury from the centre, as much a waypoint as a relic. As a symbol, I’m indifferent. It’s a lesson in status, and, leastways to me, little else. But as architecture, it’s beautiful: a gaggle of golden towers made much taller by the flat city spread-eagled below; detailed so finely you’d think every brick was filigree. I suppose it’s a grand signpost upwards, a very obvious biblical headquarters, and from so many spire tips, God looks down on everything.
If he’s real, he doesn’t miss a trick.
Students and tramps and affluent skinheads own the night. I hear about six different regional accents, most of them offensive, and everyone’s dressed down, so you know there aren’t really any clubs. One pub, the Parrot, has a real parrot. Another, the Dolphin, has a library of board games. Every pub is a variation on the friendly CAMRA-approved local, and in all cases the bar staff are real charmers. You’re allowed to try ales before you buy them. Do that in Manchester and you’ll wind up swallowing teeth.
By weekend proper, the market stalls open and church bells ring forever. We drink and drink. And then, with a thunderous hangover, I’m back into Victoria, always-brown Victoria — as sharp on the eyes as any broken bottle.
Photo credit: Galfred @ Flickr