Museums, Visitor Experience and the Cathedral
Tourism, for centuries a source of canterbury’s livelihood, brings a million visitors to the Cathedral each year. Organised school and educational visits come not only from London, but from far beyond, including the near Continent. With the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1993, Canterbury became even more accessible for foreign travellers. Visitors became increasingly sophisticated, expecting higher standards of provision and presentation of the city’s heritage. By the end of the 20th century Canterbury had gained the ‘X factor” as a visitor experience.
The Westgate Towers
Completed during the Hundred Years War in 1381, the Westgate consists of two 60-foot circular towers enclosing the gateway and a chamber used for until 1829 as a prison for criminals and condemned persons. Situated on the river, the gateway was complete with drawbridge and portcullis, arrow slit windows and gun ports. In 1870 the West Gate housed the Police Station with an extension along Pound lane built in 1907, until relocation in 1966. The entire Gateway and former prison are now an exhibition and education centre, upgraded as a heritage complex by the owners of the enclosed Pound café. Access to the roof provides marvellous views over the rooftops of Canterbury. Nest to the West Gate, in a lovely setting by the river, Holy Cross church built in 1380 has served since 1972 as the council chamber for Canterbury City Council.
Eastbridge Hospital and the Greyfriars
Situated at the centre of the town The Eastbridge Hospital, Greyfriars chapel and Franciscan gardens are managed as one for visitors. Founded as the Eastbridge Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr and one of the oldest buildings in Canterbury, the entry through a Norman arch leads to a 12th and 13th century time capsule in the chapel, refectory and other chambers. Steps lead down to a 12th century stone crypt where pilgrims slept on rushes in the bays. A place of hospitality since 1190, the Eastbridge is in part an almshouse and visitors are asked to respect the peace of the residents, known as Indwellers, who live in eight self-contained flats. A short walk along Stour Street leads to the adjoining properties of the Greyfriars and Franciscan Garden. Standing on the island of Binnewith, formed by branches of the Stour, the stone and flint Greyfriars chapel is the oldest Franciscan building in Britain (c 1267). It is difficult to imagine a more peaceful place within a minute’s walk of the High Street. Although known to be one of Canterbury’s hidden secrets, for most of the 20th century access to the the Greyriars was restricted. The gardens are now open to visitors in the summer months.
The Canterbury Heritage Museum (1986-2018)
The Canterbury Heritage Museum, opened in 1986 by Queen Elizabeth II, was housed in the 12th century Poor Priests Hospital, to tell the history of the city. The magnificent medieval interior, with an oak-beamed roofs, a great hall and labyrinth of period rooms was the perfect place for displays in a ‘time walk” from the earliest to latest times. The displays on 20th century subjects included a Canterbury wartime Blitz experience, a Rupert Bearexhibition, celebrating both Rupert and the comic bear’s creator Mary Tourtel (1874-1943) who was born and lived in the city, and a Bagpuss and Clangers display, in tribute to Oliver Postgate (1925-2008). Working in his studio at the nearby village of Blean with his associate Peter Firmin, Oliver Postgate produced the most wonderful children’s animation programmes, Ivor the Engine being my favourite, all greatly loved by anyone who grew up in the 1960s, ‘70s or ‘80s.
The Museum was closed in 2018. Most displays were transferred to the redeveloped Beaney Institute on the High Street or, in the case of Roman exhibits, to the Roman Museum. A wonderful 20th century museum, the closure of the Canterbury Heritage Museum was a sad loss for heritage and for the 21st.
The amazing Beaney Institute in the High Street, now redeveloped as the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, was opened in 1899 thanks to the generosity of an Australian, Dr James Beaney, who was born in Canterbury. The Beaney served as Canterbury’s Royal Museum and Free Library throughout the 20th century. In recent years the building has been impressively enlarged and completely refurbished to transform this part of the city into “a vibrant, cultural quarter”, in conjunction with the rebuilding of the nearby Marlowe Theatre.
The Beaney has long been the place to admire the life sized paintings by Thomas Sidney Cooper (also known as “Cow Cooper”) of cattle and sheep, the huge painting of “Separated but not Divorced” or “Charlie the Bull” ruling the herd. It also housed the East Kent Regiment, the Buffs, museum, although this was later moved. The redeveloped building now hosts exhibitions, provides a new home for the Rupert the Bear, Bagpuss and Clangers displays, and runs a lively educational programme.
The Marlowe Theatre
The history of the Marlowe theatre in Canterbury began when a small theatre opened in St Margaret’s Street, just before the Great War (1914-18). Between the wars it became a cinema and then a theatre again. It became the city’s first Marlowe Theatre in 1949 and ran as a repertory company until closure in 1981 to make way for redevelopment as the Marlowe Arcade. The city council purchased the former Odeon Cinema in the Friars, converting it into a theatre bringing the Marlowe to its present site. The building operated successfully for 25 years, but by the 2000s owing to the deficiencies of the converted cinema the council took the bold decision to re-build the theatre. The 3rd Marlowe theatre opened on 4 October 2011. This superb theatre brings world-class theatre, ballet and orchestral companies to the 1200 seat auditorium, as well as providing superb studio and workshop spaces for artists.
The Marlowe Memorial statue, dubbed “Kitty Marlowe” by locals, originally located in the Buttermarket but moved after the First World War to make way for the War Memorial, suffered neglect in the Dane John Gardens and was blown off her pedestal in the air raid of 1 June 1942. Fortunately “Kitty” was rescued from recurrent vandalism and in May 1993 (the 400th anniversary of Marlowe’s death) was rededicated by Sir Ian McKellen in the appropriate setting outside the Marlowe theatre. To the other side of the theatre the statue of a local star of the Marlowe pantomime, David Legge (1947-2012), known as Dave Lee, who did wonderful work for disadvantaged children, is seated on his panto bench, enhanced by the special charm of the riverside setting at the Friars bridge and overhanging willow.
Each step down into The Canterbury Roman Museum from the entrance in Butchery lane to a subterranean world beneath the Longmarket represents 100 years of archaeological excavations. Although Victorian engineers building sewers had encountered the impassable foundations of the Roman ampi-theatre beneath St Margaret’s Street, It was not until World War 11 and the bombing of the area that large scale excavations in the city centre became possible. Excavations in 1946-47 under the direction of Sheppard Frere and Audrey Williams exposed the Roman city that Canterbury people had always known lay unseen beneath the surface. The Roman theatre, forum, temple precincts and hypocaust heated houses were revealed. Further excavations by Dr F Jenkins and the discovery of a Roman silver hoard during road works, provided more material for the Roman Pavement Museum, first opened in 1961 and refurbished for greater visitor provision in 1994. Canterbury’s Roman Museum sets out the map of ancient Durovernum. The Mosaic pavement (c 300 AD) to a Roman house courtyard is still the central feature.
For a family seeking an experience trip, the Canterbury Tales Centre, established as a visitor attraction in the 1980s in St Margaret’s Church on the lines of the Jorvik Viking Centre at York, offered the sounds, sights and smells of Chaucer’s nine-and-twenty pilgrims. The Miller’s Tale of a fart “as greet as it had been a thunder-dent” was among the experiences to be savoured. After 35 years the time came to close the attraction, though the stories live on in Chaucer’s immortal tales. Promoted by the Canterbury Commemoration Society, a larger than life statue of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400) was unveiled in October 2016 on the corner of the High Street and Best lane. Chaucer faces the Eastbridge Hospital where many pilgrims were given lodging and holds the writing on vellum of the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales. The figures depicting the story tellers round the plinth were modelled on local characters, with Canterbury-born actor Orlando Bloom (born 1977) as the Young Squire.
St Augustine’s Abbey
In 1901 St Augustine’s College, founded in 1844 as a missionary college, owned or rented the greater part of the grounds of St Augustine’s Abbey, apart from land occupied by the Kent and Canterbury Hospital (built 1793) adjacent to the Longport. The College commissioned, under the direction of the Kent Archaeological Society, the systematic excavation of the abbey church (1901-03), followed by excavations of Wulfric’s 11th century Rotunda, portions of the Saxon church, the burial place of early Archbishops, and part of the north aisle of the Romanesque church (1903-14). Excavations continued between the wars and a complete plan of the abbey church and monastic buildings was published in 1934. Although the hospital moved to new buildings in 1937, the austere and ugly building was used to house the Technical School for some years and was not available for demolition until 1971. It was then possible to create a public garden on the former hospital site and make the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey accessible to the public by an entrance to the grounds from the Longport.
In 1976 the abbey grounds were taken over by English Heritage and in 1989 UNESCO declared St Augustine’s Abbey together with the Cathedral and St Martin’s Church to be a World Heritage Site. In 1997 as part of the 1,400th anniversary of St Augustine’s arrival in Kent, the new Museum and Visitor Centre were constructed at the abbey. With the aid of an audio guide, visitors can explore at leisure the ruins of the largest Benedictine abbey and the most impressive collection of shrines to have existed in medieval England.
The 20th century saw a huge increase in the number of visitors to Canterbury Cathedral and in the corresponding Welcome imparted by the Cathedral to modern pilgrims. George Bell, Dean of Canterbury, 1924-1929, was responsible for making the Cathedral more accessible to visitors and for promoting the arts. The first service broadcast from the Cathedral was in 1925. Dean Bell started the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral, which commissioned John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, to write a nativity play, The Coming of Christ, with music by Gustav Holst. This was a great innovation in church life and led in the 1930s, to the commissioning of new plays, including T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, Murder in the Cathedral. The Friends carried out restoration work to the Water tower, the Great Cloister, reproducing the heraldic shields on the vaulted roof, and Christ Church Gate.
One of Dean Bell’s achievements was to stage-manage the enthronement of Archbishop Lang in 1928, in the chair of St Augustine, which was placed in full view at the east end of the Cathedral, where all enthronements have since been made. Broadcast on the radio, the service of enthronement was deemed a great success. The music for the service was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Dick Sheppard (Dean, 1921-310) was one of the 20th century’s greatest communicators and in his two years helped to bring the Cathedral to terms with the 20th century. One of his first actions was to discard gaiters, much to the dismay of other priests in the Chapter! Communicants quadrupled within a year of his arrival, and on Sunday evenings he preached to congregations of two thousand people, Sadly, ill health took its toll and his doctors ordered him to resign, but he continued the social work he had started in London St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. When his coffin lay at St Martin’s a hundred thousand people passed by. Dick Sheppard is buried in the Cathedral Cloister.
Although Canterbury Cathedral was the primary target of two air attacks in World War II, the building escaped significant harm. But as high explosive bombs fell to either side, buildings in the Precincts were heavily damaged. Part of the medieval monastic Great Dormitory is now the Cathedral Library, rebuilt after World War II, when the building received a direct hit. The names of the 121 civilians who were killed in the bombing raids on Canterbury are recorded in the Cathedral’s Book of Remembrance, displayed in the south-west transept.
The Cathedral Visitors Book, which runs from 1902 to 1996, contains the signatures of royalty, Prime Ministers and other leaders who attended major events. On the visit of King George VI for a Service of Thanksgiving for “The Preservation of the Cathedral from Destruction During the Late War”, held on 11th July 1946, the signatures of the King, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, appear.
Among the visitors invited to Canterbury by Dean Hewlett Johnson (1931-63), aka the “Red Dean” on account of his pro-Communist views, was Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. Gandhi travelled to Canterbury with his handloom and a goat provided milk for him to drink. On Easter Day, 1956, George Malenkov, the former Soviet Prime Minister, had lunch at the Deanery. A little later the Dean received a furious letter from Archbishop Fisher for bringing an unbeliever into the Cathedral on Easter Day. But at the time Malenkov had been heard to say to the Dean, “You take this all for granted. To me it is all entirely new and wonderful.” While the Red Dean aroused many emotions, none could criticise his commitment to Canterbury during the war, when he remained in the city despite severe bomb damage to the Deanery. He too is buried in the cloisters.
Also shown in the Cathedral Visitors Book, are the signatures of the Pope Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie for a service entitled “A Celebration of Faith” on the Pope’s visit. The event on 29 May, 1982 was held on the eve of Pentecost. Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, knelt together in prayer at the place where Becket was murdered. The place where Becket fell was marked by a striking memorial, known as the Altar of the Sword’s Point. The 14th century Chapter House was the setting in June 1935 for the first performances of T. S. Eliot’s drama on the death of Becket, Murder in the Cathedral. Fifty years later, also in the Chapter House, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Mitterand of France signed the treaty for the construction of the Channel Tunnel (12 February 1986).
On October 1990 the Archbishop of Canterbury unveiled the statue of a ‘Welcoming Christ’ in the central niche of Christ Church Gate, the main entrance to the Cathedral. The original statue was destroyed by the Puritan onslaught during the Civil War and for nearly three hundred and fifty years had remained empty. The bonze figure is the work of the German sculptor Klaus Ringwald, shows an enthroned Christ, Ruler of the World, with His hands outstretched in welcome. The Cathedral Lodge, a hotel and conference centre built within the grounds of the Cathedral, was opened in 2000. A 250 seat Auditorium is complemented by a Refectory, Library and other function rooms, affording access to the Campanile Garden and stunning views of the Cathedral. A new Visitor Centre has also been built next to the Christ Church Gate. With a million visitors a year Canterbury Cathedral is truly the mother church of England.