We wanted to take a Canterbury tour to make the most of our short time in this fascinating and historic cathedral city, less than an hour from London by train using the fast service. We’d heard about the Kent Greeters service, which is unique in England as it’s the only such scheme which runs across an entire county. Greeters schemes are familiar in the USA, where New York set up its Big Apple Greeters way back in 1992. Here in the UK, though, they’re not as common, and currently only London and Brighton have Greeters as well as Kent.
Canterbury City Walls
All Photos (c) Donna Dailey
Kent now has almost 100 Greeters, across the whole county, with naturally a large number of them in and around Canterbury, Kent’s only city. They can offer Greets in a wide range of languages, and covering lots of different topics. Whether you’re interested in beer or bicycling, Kent can find a Greeter for you. Other popular subjects include history, archaeology, art, folklore, walking and even shopping.
So what’s the difference between a Greet and a guided tour? Well, Greeters are all volunteers and their service is provided free. They are not qualified tour guides and do not claim to be. It is a personal service intended to show you their local area, and make you feel welcome. Some people hire Greeters if they’re thinking of moving to an area, but mostly they’re used by visitors like us, and particularly by foreign visitors – about half the Greets are for people from outside the UK. Apart from the fact that the service is free, you are also not tied down to being with a large group, which inevitably means you move more slowly. If you want to speed up or slow down or change your plans with a Greeter, then you can.
Canterbury has such a long and fascinating history that we requested a Greeter with a special knowledge of that history. The scheme (see Fact Box below for details) fixed us up with a historical expert, Tricia Baxter (right). We met as arranged outside Tiny Tim’s Tearooms, just a short walk from our hotel, and before we knew it Tricia was regaling us with entertaining tales about the lion-baiting that used to take place in what is now the tea room’s courtyard.
We were immediately immersed in the realities of Roman life in Canterbury. ‘Let’s just pop into Waterstone’s,’ Tricia suggested. Down in the basement, appropriately enough in the History section and behind a glass wall, are the remains of a 2nd century Roman bath-house (left). It was something we’d probably never have heard about if we hadn’t used the Kent Greeter service. In fact Tricia kept giving us fascinating snippets of information throughout the rest of our afternoon tour. (The average Greet lasts about 90 minutes but there’s no set time and some have lasted 4-5 hours. The choice is up to you.)
The particular theme of our tour was Canterbury’s Old Roman Walls, but to get to and around the walls involves passing other fascinating sights on the way. It really was like being shown around the city by a very knowledgeable local friend. Tricia’s stories included pointing out the house that was the model for Dr Strong’s House in David Copperfield (Dickens has many Canterbury connections), the site of the oldest male toilet in the city (in use until 1979!), the Parrot Pub that dates from 1370 and is one of the oldest buildings in Canterbury, and the location of the garage where the first two Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cars were built, till they were banned from the city for making too much noise.
Canterbury Tour with a Kent Greeter
All in all, the tour was a total delight, a perfect blend of fun facts and serious history. Tricia kept drawing attention to things we would definitely have walked right by, such as scary wooden carvings on one of the city's many old buildings (right), or a rather cheeky stone carving done by a stone mason above Christ Church Gate on the Butter Market (below).
Because it’s a personal tour you can ask all the questions you like, and we really felt we got to know what it was like to live in Canterbury, not just to visit it. If Tricia’s was a typical Greet then we’ll definitely be using the service next time we go back to Kent – and the all-too-short time we had there certainly made us want to do that.
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