Britain at its best: Praise the Lord for Canterbury

Perfect days out are few and far between. But here’s one to savour. Take a high-speed train to Canterbury West, get off and walk a few yards to The Goods Shed.

This is now a farmers market that contains one of my all-time favourite restaurants, cooking everything from fresh local ingredients sold in the Shed.

After a lingering lunch, followed by the purchase of local apple juice or (in season) Kentish cobnuts, stroll into town. If you’re lucky, a sale will be viewing at the Canterbury Auction Galleries, and you’ll be able to leave a low bid on a piece of brown furniture you didn’t know you needed.

All things bright and beautiful: Punting on the River Stour in the cathedral city of Canterbury

If not, press on to the historic Westgate, the last of Canterbury’s seven medieval gates: traffic still passes between the two mighty towers. Climb to the top for a roofscape view.

But don’t hang about. You have yet to saunter along the High Street, with its ancient timber-framed architecture, upper floors ‘jettied’ over the street. The Old Weavers’ House is typical: it dates from 1500 and we had a splendid tea there last year.

Cross the River Stour and admire the punting, go past the Beaney museum — no time to linger — and then comes the big reveal by turning left: the cathedral.You approach it via the Buttermarket and the magnificent early Tudor Christchurch Gate.

The cathedral itself is one of the wonders of Britain, which — as the mother church of the Anglican Communion — everybody should visit at some point in their lives.

With a house in Ramsgate, we often see it, if only as a silhouette, towering — quite literally, because it has several towers — above the surrounding city. Up close, I never fail to marvel at its size.

In the Middle Ages, thousands of pilgrims flocked here every year; Chaucer describes one outing in his Canterbury Tales. If you go at Easter, arrive early to hear the glorious choir. We normally sit on the other side of the screen that has the organ on it (the organ drowns out everything else), but we can look at the architecture. This is near the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered by Henry II’s knights in 1170. In just a couple of years, he’d become a saint.

But for balance, a great royal figure, in a splendid tomb, is also buried here: the Black Prince.

‘No, Dad — not another church,’ my children used to say. Now in their 20s, they have a different attitude. For example, they were keen to see St Augustine’s Abbey, near the Cathedral, which is a ruin now cared for by English Heritage. And they seemed taken by the 6th-century St Martin’s Church outside Canterbury, built before St Augustine even arrived and still going as a parish church.

The Fordwich Arms (above) where chef-patron Daniel Smith has notched up his first Michelin star

The Fordwich Arms (above) where chef-patron Daniel Smith has notched up his first Michelin star

Fancy a country walk? Follow the River Stour — not the one that Constable painted in Suffolk, though it can be just as charming — into the magical orchards of Kent. Commercial apple trees aren’t quite what they used to be, when the blossom looked like cloud banks and you needed a ladder to pick the fruit. They’re now grown like vines, unable to stand up by themselves — although they are still beautiful in spring.

This was traditionally hop country, hence the conical towers of the oast houses, capped with what look like witches’ hats, in which the hops were dried. After a couple of miles, you’ll get to Fordwich. Until the Wantsum Channel silted up in the late Middle Ages, Fordwich was a busy port. The town crane used to unload the Caen stone, out of which Canterbury Cathedral was built, can still be seen.

Trials were held in the diminutive town hall, built around 1555; juries retired into a cramped room thoughtfully provided with a small opening in the floor through which members could relieve themselves during lengthy deliberations.

Next to the town hall is the Fordwich Arms. Go there now, don’t wait to pass Go (though you may need to for the money). After only a year in business, chef-patron Daniel Smith, aged 27, has notched up his first Michelin star.

It’s not so much food as a conjuring trick, a work of art, a flight of the imagination. Every plate made me gasp with astonishment. This is real food. Everything is made on site.

End the day by visiting the Simpsons Wine Estate, newly established by the award-winning winemakers, Ruth and Charles Simpson. Their Canterbury rosé is becoming something of a cult. Perhaps pilgrims in a thousand years time will come and worship here, too.