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The £1m museum tipped to be city's towering success

By This is Kent  |  Posted: February 18, 2011

  • Grand designs: Charles Lambie looks on during the building works at Westgate Towers Museum and new café GIAC20110204C-052_C

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WESTGATE Towers is often deemed the most iconic landmark in Canterbury after the cathedral.

It has stood at the entrance of the city for centuries and welcomed pilgrims, travellers and tourists alike.

The towers, transformed into a museum more than 100 years ago, were in danger of closing, but thanks to history lover Charles Lambie they now have a bright future.

Mr Lambie is ploughing in almost £1 million to convert them and the city's former Victorian jail next door into a state-of-the-art museum.

Work will include creating a glass-box café in the jail's old exercise yard.

It was the Romans who first built a wall around the city in AD300. The current towers were built in the Middle Ages to replace an Anglo-Saxon gate which had a chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross on top.

In 1378 both the chapel and gate were demolished and a new gate built with a church next door.

It was up to Archbishop Sudbury to raise the money for the rebuild, designed by Kings mason Henry Yevele, who also built the Great Hall at Westminster, the Bloody Tower at the Tower of London and Canterbury Cathedral's nave.

Yevele's paymaster became the "scribe" of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose role as a civil servant brought him to Canterbury.

But the archbishop came to a sticky end in 1381 during the Peasant's Revolt.

A group of insurgents from Kent and Sussex led by Wat Tyler marched to the Tower of London, where the archbishop was hiding, and dragged him to Tower Hill, where they beheaded him.

The King's mother, known as the Fair Maid of Kent, had been travelling from her estate at Wickhambreaux to London, and had been waved through because of her popularity.

Richard ll rode out and quelled the revolt, but the unpopular Sudbury, who had raised taxes to pay for Westgate Towers, had already lost his head.

His head was buried in Sudbury, Suffolk, where he was born, and his body taken to Canterbury Cathedral.

In 1473 King Henry VI allowed the city to have its own jail (or gaol) at Westgate, where prisoners were chained to the wall.

Its inmates have included peasants and aristocracy. The head of rebel Bluebeard the Hermit was displayed at Westgate in 1450 after he was caught by locals and sent to the king.

The gallows were popular with the crowd. Religious martyrs ended up being burnt at the stake in Wincheap.

In 1648, after the Christmas Day riots, Parliamentarians burnt down all the wooden doors of the city's gates. They were replaced in 1660 but eventually removed again at the end of the 18th century.

A new jail was built in 1829 on the north side of the gate, with a footbridge linking the towers to allow prisoners to be transferred.

This jail later became the city's police station, before becoming a music room for students at Christ Church University.

In 1906 Westgate Towers was turned into a museum with armour from medieval times to the Second World War.

Mr Lambie said: "Keeping the museum open and available to visitors is essential.

"It should be a key part of any visit to Canterbury.

"It provides the only high-level view of the city."

To celebrate almost 100 years of having a police station on the site, Mr Lambie is offering any former or serving police officers free entry to the museum.

Do you have old photographs of the Westgate Towers? Send them to me at the address on page 2 or e-mail Nerissa.blower@KRNmedia.co.uk.

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