I recently took a cycle trip along the coasts of Kent and East Sussex, starting in Canterbury, going north to Whitstable and largely following the sea-wall from there – it’s a largely traffic-free route as far as Rye, which makes a lovely two- or three-day excursion. And there are interesting towns every hour or two, which appeals to me more than just crunching the miles.

Canterbury was the capital of the Cantii, a Celtic people who, as you might expect, occupied what is now Kent; the Romans called it Durovernum Cantiacorum, and it then became the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Kent. It became England’s’s ecclesiastical capital due to the arrival of St Augustine in 597 to begin the country’s conversion to Christianity. The cathedral still dominates the centre, at the heart of a religious complex that’s less permeable than the Vatican or Kremlin. To get close, you have to pay £14, or attend a service – morning prayers are pretty austere, held at the far end of the crypt, but you can then wander around the cathedral, whereas choral evensong is more interesting but you won’t be allowed to linger for long.

In 1170 Augustine’s successor Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral by four knights incited by Henry II, partly because he resisted the king’s view that the church should be under his control; so it’s no surprise that Henry VIII, who definitely did want the church under his control, tried to wipe out all evidence of the martyrdom cult that had developed and had led to Canterbury being a major destination for pilgrimages. It was also the starting point of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim route to Rome that I recently cycled part of. Nevertheless Thomas is now a saint in the Anglican church as well as the Roman Catholic one, and the site of his death (known as The Martyrdom), in the north transept, is marked with a new altar, installed in 1986, beneath a metal sculpture of a cross and two swords.

The stained glass images of the Ancestors of Christ, in the Great South Window, are mostly from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but recent research suggests that some pieces may pre-date the great fire of 1174, which would make them among the world’s oldest examples of stained glass. There are also some interesting similarities with Cambridge, as the central tower was built (from 1491) by John Wastell, who went on to build the fan-vaulted roof of King’s College, Cambridge.







Not far away are the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, outside the cathedral precincts but enclosed this time by English Heritage. Founded by Augustine in 598, this became one of the great Romanesque abbeys of Europe (and possibly where the Bayeux Tapestry was created), but was destroyed by Henry VIII, who else. A bit further from the centre is St Martin’s church, thought to be the oldest church in Britain that’s still in use – some of the stonework survives from a Roman building used as a church from 597 by Augustine and Bertha, the French Christian queen of Kent. The nave was built in about 600, with the east end and tower added between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. It’s hardly ever open, but you can clearly see the different types of stonework on the south side. A few days later, in Lydd, I came across the second-oldest church in Britain that’s still in use, also with Romano-British stonework – but of course there’s no comparison with what I was seeing in Rome and Ravenna just six months previously.

St Martin’s, Canterbury

Up against the Roman walls in the southwestern corner of the city (near Canterbury East station – go figure), the Dane John is a Roman burial mound that became the motte or base for the keep (or donjon – whence the name) of the first Norman castle. This didn’t last long, and in 1123-35 a second castle was built just to the north; this has been closed since 2018 due to falling stonework, ie after nine hundred years it’s been abandoned due to our government’s wonderful austerity policy.

There are many other fine medieval buildings here, from churches and city gates to half-timbered inns, but one which caught my attention was the Hospital of St Mary of the Poor Priests on Stour Street, founded circa 1220 and rebuilt in 1373; the hospital closed in the 17th century and the building was then used as a workhouse, a school, a police station and then as the Canterbury Heritage Museum, until it closed in 2017. Now it houses The Marlowe Kit, the studio space of the Marlowe Theatre (the main theatre is a decent modern building opened in 2011) – the name is a pun on Christopher (‘Kit’) Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great rival, who was born in Canterbury in 1564. A few days later, in Rye, I came across the birthplace in 1579 of Shakespeare’s collaborator John Webster.

The Canterbury Heritage Museum may have closed, but there’s still a Roman Museum, and what is known as The Beaney (The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, in full), incorporating the former Royal Museum and the Beaney Institute (opened in 1899), with educational spaces and the city’s library and tourist information centre. I couldn’t quite pin down why I liked it, but the seemingly random mix of displays is actually well thought out. There are lots of interesting items from around the world brought back by travellers from Canterbury, such as clubs from Nootka Sound, acquired during Captain Cook’s second voyage, and Indian pieces from Stephen Lushington (1776-1868), who was MP for Canterbury and Governor of Madras, sometimes at the same time – Jane Austen wrote ‘I am rather in love with him. I dare say he is ambitious and insincere.’

One small gallery covers the output of the Smallfilms animation studio (run by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin), including children’s classics such as Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, Clangers and Bagpuss. There’s also quite a lot of decent art, both in a gallery and mixed in with other displays – a Virgin and Child by the workshop of Perugino (late 15th century) and a Baptism of Christ after Perugino (circa 1700) and others attributed to van Loo and Van Orley, as well as actual  authenticated works by Aert van der Neer, van Dyck and Gainsborough, plus several Murders of Becket, including one by Opie. Twentieth-century art includes works by Lucien Pissarro, Walter Sickert, Laura Knight, John Bratby, Gillian Wearing and Elizabeth Frink. The gallery next to the main entrance is devoted to TS Cooper (1803-1902), a local icon who spent his life basically painting cows (the last at 99 years of age) – I was largely unmoved, but there is one view of Canterbury cathedral across the meadows that’s reminiscent of Constable’s views of Salisbury.

Canterbury is now a student town, but it’s a younger more arty crowd than I’m used to in Cambridge, with lots of dyed hair and ripped jeans. The ‘historic’ university (founded back in 1965!) is the University of Kent at Canterbury, somewhat isolated on a hill north of town (above the world’s first railway tunnel, completed in 1826, as it happens), but Canterbury Christ Church University is far more visible, with multiple buildings in the city centre – it was founded as a teaching training college in 1962 and became a university in 2005 (without passing through a polytechnic phase). And Canterbury College is now part of the University for the Creative Arts (which has several other campuses across Kent and Surrey).

There’s the odd decent restaurant and pub (eg the Parrot and the Dolphin, both on St Radigund St – which is a surprising link with Cambridge) but really I only want to mention the Goods Shed (closed on Mondays) next to Canterbury West station (the one north of the centre) – it’s a fine farmers’ market with a great café and restaurant and other stalls such as Cheesemakers of Canterbury, Docker (sourdough and craft beer) and the splendid traditional Butchery (and you won’t hear me say that very often).

Canterbury’s stations

Don’t get me started on Canterbury’s rail links – perfectly functional, but very confusing for historical reasons. There are two stations, Canterbury East (which should really be called Canterbury South), on the Faversham-Dover line, and Canterbury West (which should really be called Canterbury North), on the Ashford-Ramsgate line. Both have trains from London Victoria, which set off claiming to be heading for Dover, Ramsgate or Margate, but in fact continue on a couple of loop routes around Thanet returning to Victoria (with route announcements changing as they proceed). Then in 2009 a High Speed service was added, using the HS1 Channel Tunnel line from London St Pancras as far as Ebbsfleet or Ashford, from where they also take a loop around Thanet, some calling at Canterbury West – so if you don’t mind paying the surcharge for this service, the hourly Ramsgate via Ashford High Speed service is the fastest way to get here. Therefore it’s possible to get a train to Canterbury from almost everywhere on the Kent coast – with the exception of Deal and Sandwich which are reached from Canterbury only in the rush hours (change at Ramsgate otherwise).

North to Whitstable

I headed north on the Crab and Winkle Way, the northern half of which follows the route of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway (known as the Crab and Winkle) – this was the world’s first passenger railway, opened in 1830, four years before the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Because the C&W didn’t use steam engines throughout (static winding engines hauled the trains up a couple of hills), the L&M has become more famous, but its claim to be the first passenger railway is a bit weak. The southern half of the Crab and Winkle Way actually follows the Saltway, a far older trading route from the salt pans of Seasalter, just west of Whitstable. The route passes through The Blean, a large area of largely intact ancient working woodland that now includes an enclosure for European bison (which I didn’t see).

The old fishing town of Whitstable was a popular escape from London for the more bohemian element long before high-speed trains opened up places further east such as Margate. It was known above all for its oysters (from Roman times) and whelks (not winkles, from the nineteenth century), and still has some gastro options, as well as excellent micro-pubs. Britain’s first micro-pub, in 2005, was actually the Butchers Arms, just to the east in Herne Bay, and Kent still has more of these tiny delights than anywhere else.

A few notes on Nepal

One of my favourite books on Nepal, A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, has appeared in an audio version, read by the author Jane Wilson-Howarth herself. It’s a beautiful evocation of a little-visited part of Nepal, the lowlands of the western Terai near the Indian border, but it’s also the moving story of the short life of Jane and Simon’s son David, and an enquiry into the limits of modern medicine.

 Jane (and Simon) and I both have our British bases in Cambridge, and of course we use the same hospital! I first met her when she was Bradt Travel Guides’ house doctor, providing medical text for some of my early books. She actually started out as a biologist, obsessed with creepy-crawlies, and then transitioned to medicine; she’s had a busy career since then working on health projects in the Global South (while Simon does irrigation work). At the same time she’s been writing about travel health, travelling with children and other topics – notable titles included Shitting Pretty and Bugs, Bites and Bowels (although their titles were later boringly watered down to How to Shit Around the World and The Essential Guide to Travel Heath). However, having been the travel health columnist at Wanderlust magazine since it first appeared in 1993, she was dropped by them in March 2022 (apparently they’d been wanting increasingly dumbed-down material anyway). Not a problem, as she has other interesting ventures afoot – she’s publishing a series of ‘Alex and James eco-adventures in Nepal’, Himalayan Kidnap, Himalayan Hideout and most recently Himalayan Heist, children’s adventure stories with a strong ecological angle (also based on her family, though perhaps not on real events). These and other books are being issued in electronic and audio formats, and are well worth looking out in whatever format suits you. (She’s also written about Madagascar, which, alas, I know nothing about.)

 The events described in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows took place in 1993-96, and the book took ten years to write, plus a bit longer to find a publisher, so she is partly looking back at her younger self. In 2014 she also published Snowfed Waters, a novel based on the same period living in the Terai. The backbone of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows (and you have to get to the end of the book to see the irony in the title) is the story of the short life of their disabled son David, with dreadful experiences of the medical machine in an English teaching hospital, with non-empathetic Clever Doctors who could only see him as an Interesting Case, and the happy life he was able to have once they reached Nepal, despite all its well-described challenges. But there’s much more to the book, with warm insights into the rest of the family, some very different Nepali characters and various expats too – her behind-the-scenes insight into development work is also valuable. There are descriptions of several hiking trips into the hills too – she has a great eye for nature, not just the wildlife but also the piles of shit that lie in wait everywhere (and she’s not afraid of the s-word!).

 I’ve also happened recently to read Into Thin Air – not the famous one by Jon Krakauer about disasters on Everest, but an older one by John Pilkington. I vaguely know Pilks, and I used his excellent An Englishman in Patagonia where I was first working in that part of the world. His Into Thin Air is about a trek in 1982 in western Nepal, not the Terai but real hills to the north, bisected by immense valleys. As he wrote, ‘The road west from Kathmandu ends after 150 miles, just beyond Pokhara, by the side of a lake. This lake, Phewa Tal, marks the termination of motor cars, electricity, hospitals, pizza – in fact all the elements of civilised life. Beyond Phewa Tal you enter another century, and you, of course, enter it on foot.’ He had some learning experiences along the way, but – of course – made it all the way across to the Indian border. Even today this area sees few foreign visitors, but this book would still be a useful introduction if you fancied a trek there. It’s entertaining, with excellent descriptions of both people and landscapes.

Community homestays

 For some years I was a trustee of Rural Assistance Nepal, which mainly supported nurses and teachers in remote villages, as well as village homestay projects. The charity no longer exists, but its founder Marianne is still working on community homestays, which ties in very well with the background focus of my career as a guidebook writer, trying to shift tourism from big hotels owned by big companies to local accommodation in less crowded places.

 At the moment she’s exploring the Taplejung area, north of Gorkha, and Phaleung, in the far east with great views of Kanchenjunga. This reminds me of the trek to Sandephu (or Sandakphu), also with wonderful views of Kanchenjunga, which I did from Darjeeling in India back in 1983 (my first real mountain hiking). Marianne (who also did it from Darjeeling in 2005) tells me that there’s now a trek from the Phaleung side too.

Trains in Nepal??

 And finally, quite by chance, passenger train services started a few days ago from Jayanagar in the Indian state of Bihar to Janakpur and Kurtha in Nepal – it’s not quite the first railway in Nepal, but the others have never been much use or lasted very long. This line should be extended within the next few years to Bijalpura and then Bardibas, on the East-West Highway, at which point it might actually be of interest to more than local travellers. (The very slow construction of the East-West Highway features in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, as it happens.)

Ukraine – a quick note

I don’t have anything much to say about Ukraine at the moment, beyond the general revulsion at Putin’s invasion and then horror after the massacres in Bucha and elsewhere. Surely our support will go up a notch or two now? I went there in 1992 to write a hiking guide, so I was mainly in the Carpathian Mountains, along the south-western borders, a forested area with hill-top meadows and lots of bears and wolves (not that I saw any) – but I also went to Kyiv and Lviv, and to Crimea, which were all lovely. I had to pay £50 for an emergency visa, clearly marked with the equivalent of ‘Access All Areas’ – a lot of money then, but life in Ukraine then cost almost nothing. Conversely, the next time I was there (in 2010) it was to check that visas weren’t required and I could cross with a British passport without problem – so I walked across the bridge from Sighet in Romania and spent an hour or so wandering around Solotvino. It was still pretty Soviet in feel, but it’s a pretty small unimportant village – I think one thing that Putin and his cronies have failed to notice is that in fact, in the thirty years since the end of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians have built a new nation that has moved far from the Soviet model and clearly has no desire to be part of the Greater Russia that Putin envisages.

 I have little doubt that the worst atrocities are being committed by Chechens and the like, but the Russian army as a whole is a shocking rabble, and the Russian state is also rotten to the core. As in the Soviet period, endemic all-pervasive corruption makes everything non-functional. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, are well organised and doing a wonderful job of repelling the orcs, as they call the Russian soldiers – we need to do more to help, and in the meantime, Slava Ukraini!