Sometimes the most clichéd destinations turn out to be the most rewarding. A case in point is Canterbury, a classic on the map of English religious history as well as a geographical landmark of south-east England. Its status dates from the Middle Ages when a trail of pilgrims found their way here. The reason? A spectacular cathedral whose origins date from the late 6th century and that was rebuilt 500 years later. But I didn’t visit it!

Eastbridge Hospital crypt – once a dormitory – built over the River Stour

Not quite a hospital

Instead I found myself in a little known offshoot – Eastbridge Hospital. Not quite what you think – there are no wards, no Emergencies, no ambulances, as this hospital (as in ‘hospitality’) is in fact a hostal built in 1190 for impoverished pilgrims visiting the cathedral. The entrance on St Peter’s Street is unassuming – blink and you might pass on by. This would be a huge loss as it is an eye-opener on religion, history, charity – and even horticulture.

A little bit of history is needed: after the Archbishop Thomas Becket was infamously murdered on the altar steps in 1170, martyrdom was instant. His shrine soon came to lure some 100,000 pilgrims a year, making it the most important ‘tourist’ destination in England. This influx lasted until Henry VIII’s Reformation in 1538 announced a radical split with the Catholic church – Anglicanism had arrived. In the process St Thomas’ tomb was destroyed and all mention of him obliterated. Much has changed since and the tragedy even inspired T.S. Eliot to write a verse-drama, Murder in the Cathedral, about the assassination and martydrom in general.

Pilgrims would sleep between the pillars in the basement of Eastbridge Hospital

The oldest church in the English-speaking world

Interior of St Martin’s with Roman bricks incorporated into the chancel wall

Pilgrim traffic went both ways, and signposts in town also point the way to the 1900km (1181 miles) route to Rome. This via Francigena was first taken in 990 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury on his return from Rome, covering 30km (20 miles) in England, from Dover. Still alive and well on this route is nothing less than the oldest church in the English-speaking world, St Martin’s. Dating from the mid 6th century, it is said to be the mother church of the cathedral.

When we eventually found it, modestly hidden away on the outskirts of town (a 15-minute walk, and few people knew the directions), the vicar was locking up for lunch. Luckily he was quite happy to let us in to admire the sober, ancient interior that includes recycled Roman bricks. Apparently plans are afoot to create a direct path from the cathedral to St Martin’s – bringing it to the forefront of the town’s sights as it deserves. An aging cedar-tree and peeling tombs surround it – all very evocative, silent and totally deserted. Extraordinary, considering its status.

To the Franciscan Gardens

The Friars’ Path – bordered by roses, myrtle, aquilegia, ivy, ferns and herbs

Then comes the biggest surprise. Back at the hospital we were directed through a back door to a secret not to be missed. I am a great aficionado of English country gardens – (see A meander through the Garden of EnglandA Sissinghurst springEnglish country gardens and Charleston Festival – & sunny Sussex – plus others) so was delighted to discover a different version.

Following the winding riverside path we entered a glorious garden originally created by Franciscan monks. It’s incredible to think that these friars, followers of St Francis of Assisi, arrived in Canterbury in 1224 when St Francis (1182-1226) was still alive and on the go in Italy. Taking vows of chastity and poverty, forbidden to accept money, the Greyfriars devoted themselves to helping the marginalised of society and of course preaching. Much of their survival was thanks to productive vegetable gardens, and this is a stunning example. I may be an Atheist, but still find it moving to picture these monks in their simple habits digging, planting and cultivating as well as preaching and helping the sick.

A stream runs off the Stour river to meander through the garden

Today’s Franciscan Gardens present impressive restoration. After the original friary was abolished by Henry VIII during the Reformation, the garden, too, was abandoned. Now undergoing careful revival (no pesticides, only hand-weeding, self-seeding) it borders the Great Stour river, lined with both tended and wild plants as well as a wall of climbing roses.

Finally it opens out into a verdant meadow of wildflowers, a herb and vegetable potager, a cherry walk and a small rose garden. Incidentally roses were symbolic for the Franciscans as their lush blooms and thorns represented, respectively, Mary and Jesus. Two full-time gardeners labour away – and declare how glad they were to work during lockdown in order to forge ahead in peace. Just like the old friars.

Greyfriars Chapel

Greyfriars’ Chapel creates an arched bridge across the stream

Right at the end of the garden stands the Greyfriars’ Chapel, an unusually tall, arched building straddling the river. This dates from 1267 when it is thought to have provided accommodation for the friars – although much later, post-Reformation, part of it became a rather cramped prison. Services are still held in the upper hall – and in fact when I poked my head through a doorway I found myself face to face with a genial friar in brown habit, Bible in hand, about to launch into a service. It felt much like a journey back in time. Long may those gardens and the ghosts of the friars (or real ones) flourish!

The upper floor of Greyfriars’ Chapel where services are still held – beautiful half-timbering and beams