Kent is a county that’s full of green spaces; you can walk to Whitstable past fields of golden rapeseed along the Crab and Winkle way, or get wonderfully lost in the branches of Blean woods, or feel the rush of the wind through your hair on the White Cliffs of Dover.
But sometimes you don’t need to go away to find a retreat – you can find it here, on your doorstep. A city in name, Canterbury can often feel like a village in nature, with its narrow winding streets, church bells chorusing, and teacups tinkering on saucers outside coffee shops. One of its most beautiful features is the river Stour, and its surrounded by areas of peaceful quiet – if you know where to find them.
Here are some spots to relax in the sunshine – most of them just a five or ten-minute walk from the High Street.
A favourite and often secluded spot during the spring and summer months, Greyfriars gardens is home to the oldest Franciscan chapel in the UK (established in 1267) and provides a tiny island of tranquillity. To find it, walk along Stour street and you’ll stumble across two black doors on your right, with a pathway leading down towards the river. You’ll come to a small bridge, which will lead you into the gardens. Part of its allure it in its difficult-to-find-ness; it really does feel like a secret garden.
Throughout the past few years, the gardens have been host to Wise Words festival in Spring – a festival of music, poetry and performance. The festival is taking a break this year, but there is a quiet poetry to be found in just sitting amongst the wildflowers.
See if you can spot the garden robin, who is a particularly brave and rambunctious robin. He will sit next to you while you’re eating your sandwich.
Bingley island is encircled by the Stour and all of its tributaries. It’s a perfect nook to lie down in, and will often be completely undisturbed by passersby – you’re surrounded by trees and open stretches of grass. Firstly, enter Westgate Parks and keep to the left as you follow the river, walking along the grass.
Then go through the gate on your left, under the underpass and keep walking straight.
Then you’ll get to an area that feels as close to a bayou as you can get in East Kent, with its long willowy branches stretching down to the river verge, and rich earthy summer scent.
You will come to a bridge, where you can cross over into the gardens and spread out in the sun. To top it all off, on sunny days, there’s usually an ice-cream van nearby at Toddler’s Cove playground.
This area of land has been used for centuries as a meadow, first recorded in the year AD814. In many respects, it remains unchanged in its 1200 year history, with a similar range of plants as it has had for hundreds of years.
Tucked away at the back of the Marlowe theatre, Solly’s orchard has excellent views of the river and is a perfect spot for reading a book. Here you can eavesdrop on the guided riverboat tours as they move down the river, or sit amongst the flowers and have a picnic.
It’s one of the better-known parks of Canterbury, but it’s rarely hugely busy, and you can hear the pleasant whooshing and rushing of the water as it runs through the mill.
The Abbott’s Mill gardens
One often-overlooked green haven is the ‘arrowhead’ or ‘island’ of the Abbott’s Mill gardens. Just a stone’s throw away from the Miller’s Arms pub, you can walk along the woodchipped path and instantly feel a sense of calmness descend. The noise and chatter from the road dispels into the soft burble of the river and the chirruping of birds, and when it’s not wet, you can sit down and let the world roll on by with the river.
The garden isn’t very large, and it isn’t particularly cultivated, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a small piece of land that jetties out over the river, overlooking the pathways and the people that walk by on their way to the coach park, or to Sainsbury’s, or on their way home. Not only is it an excellent place for people-watching, but you can also spot ducks, trout, moorhens as they swish and glide through the water.
This area has also been key for the Abbott’s Mill project, who run educational workshops focussing on sustainability and have eventual aims to build a water wheel in order to use the river as a source of renewable energy for Canterbury. The ‘arrowhead’ area of land is an important part of the project, and eventually, the hope is for the entire area to be managed and used as a nature reserve and community education project.
The existing mills in Canterbury are ancient and date back hundreds of years, with many being restored and rebuilt as time goes on. Abbott’s Mill was so called because it once belonged to the Abbot of St. Augustine, being purchased in the 12th century by Abbott Hugh. It is likely that Chaucer based his portrait of the Miller from a labourer in Canterbury:
“The Miller was a stout carle for the nones,
Full bigg he was of braune, and eke of bones,
That proved well, for over all there he came,
At wrastling he would have away the Ram.
He was short shuldred, a thick gnarre,
There was no doore, but he would heve the bar,
Or breake it with the renning of his hedde,
His beard as any sowe or forre was redde,
And thereto brode, as it were a spade,
Upon the coppe right of his nose he hade
A werte, and thereon stode a tufte of heeres,
Redde as the bristles of a sowe’s eares;
His nostrels blacke were and wide.
A sword and buckeler bare he by his side;
His mouth as great was as a furneis,
He was a jangler and a golierdeis,
And that was most of sinne, and harletrise;
Well couth he steale corne and toll it thrise,
And yet he had a thombe of gold parde,
A white coate and a blew hode weared he.
A bagpipe well couth he blow and soune,
And therewithall brought he us out of toune.’
So, next time you have some spare time on your lunch break, or if you find yourself in need of a break from the crowds in the lanes, there is always a woodland escape, just five minutes walk away.