Day Out:Canterbury(part 2) There's a lot more to Canterbury than religion. The city's historical roots run deep and the riverside setting's lovely. There's culture aplenty, as befits a university town, while opportunities for independent shopping abound [photo][photo]. All that, and Bagpuss too. If you've never been, you're genuinely missing out.
Visiting...The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories told by a party of Kent-bound pilgrims is probably the most famous work of medieval English literature. No surprise, then, to discover a tourist attraction in the heart of Canterbury which recreates these tales for the benefit of modern-day visitors, based in a converted church up a sidestreet in the centre of town. A series of red banners attempt to lure punters inside with the promise of "dark stories", "desperate wives" and a "farmyard fable". I've heard more convincing advertising pitches, especially when entrance costs a whopping £7.75. But I'd been given a half price voucher when I bought my cathedral ticket, so I felt particularly smug when a party of five walked in behind me and forked out nearly forty quid. Before kick off a schoolmarmly operative offered each of us an automatic audio guide, then directed us through a door into tableau number 1. There was a very distinct medieval pong, which intensified when we ventured forth from the interior of the Tabard Inn to its stables. And then we were off along the pretend road from Southwark to Canterbury with five stories to stop and experience along the way. The commentary was light-hearted and accessible - most definitely not in ye olde Middle English - and the animatronics managed to bring each tale approximately to life. Chaucer would no doubt have smiled at the big cock and grinned at the bare backside, as did we, although most of the tales were rather less bawdy. Ejected after 40 minutes or so into the gift shop, the experience had been an entertaining introduction to the 14th century's most successful poet. Good value for half-price, I thought.
Visiting...Roman Museum Canterbury first came to the fore as a Roman stronghold, conveniently located near the Channel-crossing coast. The Romans were the first to construct city walls, in roughly the same location as those still seen today, and filled the enclosure with villas and all the trappings of a successful trading post. That street level is now below ground, so the city's Roman Museum is to be found in a basement alongside some recovered remains. Its child-friendly galleries explain what life in Durovernum would have been like (including a wonderfully revealing selection of market traders), as well as explaining the archaeological activities which uncovered them. Rebuilding after the Blitz confirmed the existence of an extensive temple and multi-storey theatre, for example, while a bathhouse was discovered during the construction of a modern shopping arcade. The museum's subterranean highlight is a complete L-shaped corridor complete with inlaid mosaic panels - no longer pristine, nor even flat, but highly evocative of a vanished era. Should council budget cuts be passed this week, however, localpeoplefear it may be this museum that vanishes.
Visiting...Museum of Canterbury Backing onto a braid of the River Stour, this charming civic museum recounts the post-Roman history of a fascinating city. It's housed in the timber-roofed medieval Poor Priests' Hospital, which adds an extra dimension to wandering around inside. And, if you're of a certain age, it houses some priceless very modern treasures in amongst the old. From the street, the first sight that strikes passers-by is of a family of white humanoid bears having tea in the window [photo]. For this is the home of the Rupert Bear Museum - a series of galleries given over to local girl Mary Tourtel's most famous cartoon creation. There are annuals and original Daily Express verses for the grown-ups, as well as more interactive hands-on exhibits for younger visitors. Pity the lady who works in the adjacent shop, because she has to listen to Paul McCartney's Frog Chorus on a loop throughout the day. But Rupert's not the most evocative creature in the building. In a much smaller gallery near the entrance desk is a tribute to Oliver Postgate, the much-loved children's animator who lived locally, and this is where several of his most famous puppets have their final resting place. Two Clangers for a start (that's Small and Tiny in all their knitted pink glory) [photo]. On the shelf above are The Pogles (I think you have to be of a certain age but, wow, that's Pippin and Tog). And then, joy of joys, there's Emily's shop window [photo] containing Bagpuss (dear Bagpuss, old fat furry cat-puss) sitting mute on a plumped-up cushion [photo]. Arranged round about are all his friends, from Professor Yaffle the woodpecker-bookend to those squeaky mice on the Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ [photo]. Each character is the genuine article, as seen in a mere 13 over-repeated TV episodes over the years. I found it all very special, although a young girl passing through with her grandmother was distinctly nonplussed. Upstairs there's another side of Postgate's work of which the world is less aware. In 1989 he illustrated a complete biography of Thomas a Becket in strip cartoon form [photo], and its beautifully illustrated panels now stretch around the walls of the Medieval Gallery, Bayeux-style. A national treasure was Oliver, now remembered in Canterbury with pride.
Not visiting... West Gate Towers: Canterbury's fortified medieval gatehouse forms part of the city's one way system, and bus drivers must pause before entering to ensure that they pass through its central arch with scraping their sides [photo]. Entrance to the interior and battlements is only available for three and a half hours a week at present, and I missed my chance. Royal Museum and Art Gallery: Currently in the middle of a major revamp, and due to reopen in summer 2011. Canterbury Historic River Tours: A 40 minute trip in a 12-seater rowing boat up and down the Stour in the heart of Town. Looks idyllic, in decent weather, which must be why they don't restart operations until 1st March. A good excuse to return.