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Brothels, butchers and bears: Canterbury's secrets hide in plain sight

By Alex Claridge

Look closely at the city’s historic buildings and you will notice they are studded with curiosities and relics of the past.

Signs, plaques, figures and paintings adorn places of work, leisure and home throughout.

It’s just a case of looking for them and trying to work out why they’re there and what they mean.

An unhappy gargoyle in Mercery Lane
An unhappy gargoyle in Mercery Lane

In some cases it’s obvious – like the old RAC road signs above Vision Express in the High Street. In the days when Canterbury’s central thoroughfare ran through the heart of the city as the A2, one sign points the way to Dover, the other to Chatham.

More intriguing, however, are the pair of gargoyles which sit on the wall of Pret a Manger in Mercery Lane, the ancient narrow road which leads to the Buttermarket and Christ Church Gate.

One of the figures bears an unhappy grimace, the other a look of contentment. An apocryphal tale that does the round is that this is the site of a former brothel. The first gargoyle has yet to be serviced, the second bears the appearance of a satisfied customer.he next road up is Butchery Lane, where many a tourist stands to take a picture of the Cathedral’s Bell Harry Tower.

But who has noticed the cow’s head protruding from above the Timpson’s shoe and key shop? It’s a nod to the lane’s past when it was literally a row of butcher’s shops.

The more recent past is commemorated on the bay window above the front of the Kashmir Tandoori in Palace Street, where a bowl of curry with the year 1966 beneath marks the date of the opening of the city’s first Indian restaurant. Today, it is Kent’s oldest curry house to be run continuously by the same family.

A reminder of when Canterbury high street was part of the main A2 route from London to Dover
A reminder of when Canterbury high street was part of the main A2 route from London to Dover

Most people in Canterbury will know Mary Tourtel, who lived from 1874 to 1948, as the local author who created Rupert Bear. Fewer may know that she spent her days in the building which sits at the foot of Ivy Lane, now as the Chaucer Hotel Travelodge.

Elsewhere, a plaque on the front of a building in Castle Street tells us that William Somner, who lived from 1606 to 1669, was born there. An antiquarian, he produced the first dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon language and also worked on a translation of Anglo-Saxon laws.

The bull's head marks the days when Butchery Lane was just that - full of butcher's shops
The bull's head marks the days when Butchery Lane was just that - full of butcher's shops
Mary Tourtel is well known the world over as the Rupert Bear creator
Mary Tourtel is well known the world over as the Rupert Bear creator
The oldest curry house in Canterbury in Palace Street
The oldest curry house in Canterbury in Palace Street

Crumbling signs on the almshouses in Hospital Lane belie an older history. They tell how the original hospital was built in 1317 during the controversial reign of Edward II, when hospitals were places of worship where the sick and infirm could be cared for while praying for salvation and good health.

Also particularly interesting is the huge steel slab – dated 1932 – which lies on the floor of the entrance to the former Tannery off Stour Street. It speaks of the end of what we know to be the great industrial era in this country which lasted from the late 18th to the early 20th century.

History in Canterbury, it seems, abounds even in the most unlikely places and things. It’s just a case of finding it.

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