One of England’s most venerable cities, Canterbury offers a rich slice through two thousand years of history, with Roman and early Christian ruins, a Norman castle, and a famous cathedral that dominates a medieval warren of time-skewed Tudor dwellings. The city began as a Belgic settlement that was overrun by the Romans and renamed Durovernum, from where they proceeded to establish a garrison, supply base and system of roads that was to reach as far as the Scottish borders. With the Roman empire’s collapse came the Saxons, who renamed the town Cantwarabyrig; it was a Saxon king, Ethelbert, who in 597 welcomed Augustine, dispatched by the pope to convert the British Isles to Christianity. By the time of his death, Augustine had founded two Benedictine monasteries, one of which – Christ Church, raised on the site of the Roman basilica – was to become the first cathedral in England. Canterbury, like any other city with such rich history, has its fair share of spooky ghost stories, including the Girl in Grey in St Margaret’s Street, the mysterious figure in white at the Marlowe Theatre, and the Robed Man of Sudbury Tower.
At the turn of the last millenium Canterbury suffered repeated sackings by the Danes until Canute, a recent Christian convert, restored the ruined Christ Church, only for it to be destroyed by fire a year before the Norman invasion. As the new religion became a tool of control, a struggle for power developed between the archbishops, the abbots from the nearby Benedictine abbey and King Henry II, culminating in the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, a martyrdom that effectively established the autonomy of the archbishops and made this one of the greatest shrines in Christendom. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written towards the end of the fourteenth century, portrays the unexpectedly festive nature of pilgrimages to Becket’s tomb, which was plundered and destroyed at the orders of Henry VIII. It is said that Nell Cook, once a servant, discovered his niece was having a relationship with a canon of the Cathedral, and killed them both. His ghost now walks in regret. Phantom plain chant has also been heard from the area, and the figure of a nun and the ghost of Simon of Sudbury – the Grey Robed Man – are also reported.
The city suffered extensive German bombing in the notorious Baedeker Raids, when Hitler ordered the destruction of the most treasured historic sites described in the Baedeker travel guide series. The cathedral and compact town centre, however, survived, enclosed on three sides by medieval walls, and today remain the focus for leisure-motivated pilgrims from across the globe. Despite the presence of a university and art college, England’s second most visited city is a surprisingly small place with a population of little more than fifty thousand. The town centre, ringed by ancient walls, is virtually car-free, but this doesn’t stop the High Street seizing up all too frequently with tourists, two million of whom arrive each year. Having said that, the very reason for the city’s popularity is its rich tapestry of historical sites. Perhaps fittingly, the city also boasts one of the most famous ghost walks in the country. John Hippisley, who runs the Canterbury ghost walk, tells the story of a phantom girl dressed in grey clothing who would be seen to enter the front door of a former residence (now an estate agent’s) along St Margaret’s Street every Friday morning at around 5am and ascend the staircase before vanishing. Eventually, so the story goes, a female’s skeleton was discovered under the floorboards, draped in grey cloth. The Girl in Grey has joined the ranks of the many ghosts who continue to haunt the streets of this, perhaps England’s most historic ghost city.