At one point in time, the city of Canterbury had seven gates. Over the following centuries, however, all were demolished with the exception of the West Gate tower, making it both the last surviving medieval gateway in Canterbury as well as the largest surviving city gate in the entire United Kingdom. While it was initially built for war, the stubborn structure has come to wear many hats across the centuries.
Because the tower was built during the Hundred Years War with France in 1380, the 60-foot tall structure’s defensive function was a top priority. The tower comprises several battlements, arrow and crossbow slits (with gun loops being added in the 15th century), a portcullis, and a drawbridge over the River Stour.
With international war behind it (for a time), Westgate’s role shifted to one of civil policing and law enforcement in the 15th century, becoming the City Gaol in 1453. It’s most famous prisoner, perhaps, was Robert Cushman, a Canterbury grocer of devout Puritan beliefs jailed briefly for printing anti-Church literature; he would later organize a rather consequential voyage aboard the Mayflower in 1620. The gaol was later shuttered, making room for Westgate to become the Canterbury City Police Station in 1870.
In 1906, the tower was converted into a public museum and has remained as such, shuttering only during the First and Second World Wars, when the edifice proved again militarily useful as a lookout position and air raid precaution center. Other segments of the structure alternately housed the Kent Music School in 1966, and later, the City Gaol Cafe in 2011. The building now also hosts movie nights as well as weddings by appointment.
Today, the museum displays artifacts relating to the history of the Westgate that range from the medieval era to its role as a jail and police station in the 19th century to its more modern function in the First and Second World Wars. Panoramic views of the city can be taken in from atop the towers’ battlements, as well.
Know Before You Go
The Westgate tower and museum is open from Monday to Sunday from 11 am to 4 pm and the entrance fee costs 4 pounds.
Some of the exhibits are interactive with visitors being able to sit in the jail cells or to try on replica medieval armor and to handle weapons.
Be sure to climb the spiral stairs to the top of the tower to enjoy a wonderful view of the surrounding city.