City Break: A Canterbury Christmas
‘Twas the Thursday before Christmas and all through the house…
(Just kidding. I’m not talented enough to spin this tale in anapestic tetrameter.)
Last week, it was announced that the 24th would be a bonus holiday for federal employees. While we weren’t terribly surprised given the Christmas Eve Monday precedent, we hadn’t exactly planned on Joe getting an extra day off. And so we found ourselves on Thursday the 20th wondering what we should do with it.
It should come as no surprise that we interpreted the Executive Order to mean “Get Thee out of Brussels for your unexpected holiday.”
But where would we go? Short notice plus a short trip eliminated air travel right away. International train tickets were more than we wanted to spend (as they usually are without advance planning). And despite Joe’s best arguments, I didn’t feel the need to take a motorcycle trip in winter weather.
Neither of us is entirely sure how we ended up settling on a short road trip to Canterbury. It was probably some combination of reasonable EuroTunnel tickets, an interesting destination not far from the Channel crossing, and the chance to belt out Christmas carols in English.
24 Dec - 25 Dec, 2018
Travel to Canterbury
Driving + Eurotunnel channel crossing.
Yes, it IS as weird as it sounds: drive onto a train at Calais, ride under the Strait of Dover for 35 minutes, and pop back up at Folkestone (where you’re kindly reminded to drive on the left in England).
What we saw, what we did, and what we ate
Monday (Christmas Eve)
We loaded up the car and hit the road relatively early to make sure we made it to Calais for a 10:30am train. Joe wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about my most excellent passenger DJ skills as he could have been and might even tell you that I “subjected” him to listening to throwbacks from my youth. (He would be wrong.)
The lines for passport control were long and slooooow moving. By the time we finally made it to the UK border control booth, we knew we had likely missed our scheduled train but it’s hard to get annoyed with such things when you’re on a bonus break. After a short and pleasant exchange with an officer who assured us that our backpackers’ (hostel) in Canterbury would be nice, we were back in line waiting to load.
Now might be a good time to explain just how much I don’t enjoy the Channel crossing. I’m pretty OK if I don’t think about being under loads and loads of water but I get a bit nervous as soon as it enters my conscious thoughts. Plus, I had already spent a few hours that morning psyching myself out about passengering in our left-hand drive car on the “wrong” side of the road. The EuroTunnel is nifty in concept but I’m pretty sure I spent the 35 minute ride doing box breathing. (Spoiler alert: we didn’t die a watery death under the ocean.)
And almost as soon we had left France, we were in England.
By the grace of God and Joe’s most excellent motoring skills, we made it to Canterbury and parked in one of the lots on the edge of town to do a little exploring after grabbing lunch at Nando’s. The “main drag” in the city’s historic center felt rather festive as people wandered the Christmas market and got in their last-minute shopping. (I may have scored a pair of ridiculously cute and probably not-totally-necessary bronze Chelsea boots from the clearance rack at Clarks. Merry Christmas to me?)
Canterbury’s not terribly big though and the Cathedral was already closed for services, so we decided to head to Whitstable and poke around while there was still sun. We were glad we did — the light couldn’t have been more perfect.
We’re used to an early sunset in Belgium but it comes at an even earlier 4pm in England this time of year. So, we tuned the radio to BBC 1’s Christmas programming and made our way along slender country roads back to Canterbury. (It’s worth noting that the only thing more disconcerting than passengering on the wrong side of the road in the daytime is doing so in twilight.)
I suspect our Christmas Eve evening looked pretty similar to many of the locals’: a trip to Asda for a little last-minute shopping followed by dinner at the local Wetherspoons.
And then, because I’ve been a bit homesick and because I’ll always be a pastor’s kid deep down inside, we went to midnight service at St. Paul’s, one of the small parishes in town. Neither of us is terribly religious these days (or at all) but there was something really nice about singing Christmas carols and listening to the choir. Plus, it gave us the chance to hear a pretty good sermon that skillfully and apolitically wove together themes of peace, neighborliness and Brexit.
Tuesday (Christmas Day)
The morning was a bit chilly but we decided that we’d still head out for the walk that Joe found for us to do in the nearby Blean, a 11 square mile woodland with interesting natural and historical significance. I wish I had paid a bit more attention to planning — the website clearly says that the paths are relatively flat but are on heavy clay that can get wet and muddy. (I may or may not have complained for at least 45 of the 90 minutes we were out on our loop about how dirty my shoes were getting. I partially filled the other 45 minutes with worried mutterings about slipping and re-spraining the ankle I’ve been trying to nurse back to health.)
By lunchtime, we were both quite hungry and kicking ourselves for not packing more snacks. By an hour past lunchtime, we were both ravenous and desperately searching for somewhere open in Canterbury on Christmas Day. We were thisclose to settling for a convenience store “meal” when we found Olive Grove, a cosy restaurant with two distinct dining rooms matching two distinct menus — Italian and Lebanese/Moroccan. It was a lucky find. Our tagines were absolutely delicious and the meal was pretty reasonably priced even with a 15% service charge tacked on for Christmas.
Our ferry reservation back to the continent was scheduled for early evening, so we started making our way towards Folkestone via Dover right after lunch. The route along the A2 and A258 took us right past Dover Castle and I’m still kicking myself for not climbing into the backseat and hanging out the window to catch a picture as we drove past. Dover itself was absolutely dead — even the port was closed. We parked the car in town and began the trek up the hill to the White Cliffs site, not realizing that the lot at the top was open even though the National Trust concessions were closed for the day. For all my grumbling, I have to admit the hike up was worth it.
I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the cliffs. I was surprised to find them breathtaking. The light was perfectly golden and the skies clear enough to see all the way to France. I’m not usually one to find myself without words but I noticed myself just a bit quieter than usual as I took it all in. There were a few others on the footpaths winding through the park, but it was relatively peaceful and I got the sense that we were experiencing something just a tad more special than usual. We hadn’t been up there long when the sun started dipping towards the horizon. Joe and I caught one more picture and then we headed homewards.
Wherever and however this season finds you… peace and joy. (And adventure. If that’s your thing.)
Have I mentioned that we’re frugal, non-fussy travelers? Joe found us a room at Kipps, a backpackers’ hostel with good reviews not terribly far from the city center. £40.00 got us a private double room and a continental breakfast. Fair warning: for that price, you’ll have to be OK with a shared bathroom/shower down the hall.
Getting around town
We kept the car parked near our hostel for the most part — it’s an easy enough walk into town and parking would have been a pain.
His and Hers top Canterbury Christmas travel tips
His: 1) Head to one of the huge suburban markets — we went to Asda, but it’s not the only one — to load up on easy-to-make and properly spicy South Asian meal kits. You’ll thank yourself when you’ve gotten back home. 2) Wetherspoons may be a massive chain and you may not agree with the owner’s politics, but they tend to have local cask ale at very reasonable prices.
His & Hers: Many pubs are open on Christmas Day but that doesn’t mean their kitchens are. Pack snacks.
Hers: When that still, small voice inside of you says to pack your wellies for a trip to England in December, listen to it. You’ll regret it if you don’t. There’s room in the car.
Would we visit again?
Yes! It’s a short drive and a town with plenty more to explore.