In Kent County, it seems, all roads lead to Thomas Becket. My road began in London, at St. Pancras station, with Becket meant to be a detour en route to a Michelin-starred meal. But no lover of Western history and politics could stay away Canterbury Cathedral, from the chance to walk on the very spot that was once slick with the blood of the man who fought to keep the church out of the manoeuvring grasp of King Henry II. This detour was the perfect appetizer for, as I would soon find out, without Becket's murder, the restaurant I'd heard such accolades about simply wouldn't be.
It's just over an hour on the high-speed train to Canterbury West, where I had planned to take a guided tour of the famous cathedral. At Canterbury – this, not Westminster, is the Mother Church in England – I meet Mike Evans, who is both patient and passionate as I pepper him with questions from the nave, through the Great Cloister (those crests on the ceiling? A medieval fundraising campaign: Make a donation, we'll display your coat of arms!), into the Chapter House (the stained glass windows on one side depict the cast of characters, the mirroring windows are their stories), at the site of the murder of Thomas Becket, and in the tombs (notice, among the statues and other works, that one saint who avoided getting his head lopped off? Even the Puritans, who raided the cathedral in the 1500s, couldn't behead St. Christopher).
At 11 a.m., the activity in the cathedral pauses for a service, and we say the Lord's Prayer together. It's a stirring moment, for a spiritual agnostic, and I hope that I'll have time to return for evensong.
For now, though, I'm off to Whitstable – if I had more time, I'd cycle, but the "triangle" bus or a taxi are faster – for lunch at the Sportsman, the restaurant that has chefs and foodies abuzz. It's an inviting gastropub, the kind of place you stumble upon at the end of a road (in this case Faversham Road) and wonder if you should give it a shot, oblivious to the wonders that await inside. In reality, though, you'll need a reservation – you'd best make yours long before your visit, and yes, the Sportsman is worth the hop across the pond.
I assumed a Michelin-starred restaurant would have a certain amount of pomp. That notion was put aside the moment the homemade breads landed on a simple cutting board on the simple wood table, sans serving plates. The Sportsman lets the local ingredients shine; it's utterly relaxed with its come-as-you-are, we're-confident-you'll-leave-enriched mindset.
It's after we eat that co-owner Phil Harris joins me at the table, and I compliment him on the salty butter (I haven't bought into the sweet butter trend). Salt is crucial at the Sportsman – they make their own (and their own butters, too). It's then that I remember the Sportsman is not actually in Whitstable, but in lesser known Seasalter village.
"The only reason the land we're on exists is because of the murder of Thomas Becket," Phil says.
If it weren't for his murder some 900 years ago, I wouldn't be besotted by silky poached oysters with pickled cucumber and smoky Avruga caviar, transcended by slip sole in seaweed butter, and filled with an almost childish delight by the capers atop the braised brill fillet and mussel tartare.
In the late 1100s, Phil explains, Seasalter was nothing but marshy seabed. Almost immediately after four knights struck Becket down in four murderous swings, the pilgrimages began.
"Onlookers, aware that a truly awesome event had occurred," John Guy says in his soon-to-be-released Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, a Nine-Hundred-Year-Old Story, Retold, "cut off pieces of their clothing and dipped them in his blood for use as relics. Some daubed their eyes with his blood, perhaps hoping that their defective sight might be cured."
Reports of miracles spread and, Guy writes, "a cult grew up around the tomb of the murdered archbishop with breathtaking speed."
Becket was canonized as a saint, the junior King Henry visited the tomb, and later even his father, the King whose spoken sentiments led to Becket's murder, was among the legions of pilgrims who prayed at Becket's tomb.
"The church," Phil tells me, "was responsible for feeding the pilgrims who were coming to see Thomas Becket. The monks were raising more and more pork to feed the pilgrims, and they had to preserve it. They extracted more and more salt. … All of this land was recovered because of that, over a period of a few hundred years."
The pilgrims, he notes, are still coming, but the church is no longer feeding them. Happily for us, that's a job for restaurateurs like him and his brother, Stephen Harris, the chef here.
So good are Stephen's offerings that I just couldn't save room for dessert, and found myself leaving the Sportsman to explore Whitstable without any pudding.
Once on the shoreline, I'm fascinated by the long wooden beams that stretch into the water, designed to stop the harbour from silting up, and to keep the stone-strewn shore from slipping into the sea. These groins also serve as handy breakers from the wind, as benches for families enjoying an ice cream, and as backrests for couples leaning into each other in the lazily waning sun.
After an invigorating walk along the beach, I meander into town, down some of the cleverly named alleyways, to poke around the inviting shops. You'll find one independent boutique, gallery, pub or resto after another, and scant few chain stores. As in Seasalter, homes closest to the shore in Whitstable were built on reclaimed salt marshes, and the friendly Kent greeter who is sharing some of his favourite tales about the town, alludes to moisture problems in the lowest-lying streets in this pretty outpost. Wet basements aside, it's easy to see why the town remains a popular getaway with Londoners.
I'm enjoying Whitstable so much I don't make it back to Canterbury for evensong, but I am in the nick of time for a quick look-around at the Goods Shed – a farmers market-type affair right beside the train station. I pick up a meal to go from the Living Larder for the ride back into London. (A rich and creamy vegan lasagna made with pine nut "cheese," raw pumpkin pie and other treats are so good I'm momentarily caught up in an "I could go vegan" fantasy.)
Though my journey into Kent County is meant as a day trip, I wish I had longer. I'd like to properly explore Canterbury, spend an afternoon on Whitstable's pebbly beach, and get back to the Sportsman for pudding. I'd time my pilgrimage to coincide with the start of rhubarb season. I'm willing to wager that Stephen's take on the lowly, leggy veg is positively saintly.
IF YOU GO
Where to go: Canterbury Cathedral. If you don't sign on for a guided tour, you'll find yourself eavesdropping on the lively lecture being given to those who did. Don't be that person! Unless you plan to attend a service, there's a cost to explore the Cathedral: $15 (£9.50) for adults, $10 (£6.50) for children – though you can print a free ticket for children off the website. For information call 44-0-01227-762-862 or visit canterbury-cathedral.org.
The Sportsman. Call well ahead of your visit to make a reservation. Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable; 44-0-01227-273-370; thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk. The Goods Shed: Check out the cheese, charcuterie, independent wines and local beers, locally sourced meat and game ... you get the picture. The Farmers Market and Food Hall, and the Goods Shed Restaurant, are closed Mondays (and the restaurant doesn't offer dinner on Sundays). Station Road West; thegoodsshed.co.uk.
Getting around: The "Triangle" bus – a nickname for Stagecoach East Kent bus service – zips passengers from Canterbury to Whitstable to Herne Bay on regular intervals. stagecoachbus.com
The Crab and Winkle Way is a 12-kilometre stretch of reclaimed railway line that's now part of the National Cycle Network Route 1. Need a bike? Drop into a Cycle Hire station in Whitstable (56 Harbour St.) or Canterbury (at the Goods Shed, Station Road West) or Herne Bay (at Le Petit Poisson, Central Parade). Daily ($24; £15) or weekly rental ($111; £70). For more information, call 44-0-0779-111-4529 or go to wcch.co.uk