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Rochester: Kent's Other Cathedral Town

by Richard Crowhurst

Rochester CastleRochester is old. In Roman times it was called Durobrivae and the first Bishopric was founded by St Augustine in 604 AD. The city is mentioned by the Venerable Bede (731 AD) and Doomsday (1086 AD). The city's own municipal records date back to 1227 and the city's royal charter was granted in 1461. Traditionally the Mayor of Rochester has also held the post of Admiral of the River Medway, but the recent creation of Medway Council has led each town in the Medway conurbation to lose a little of its own character.

Rochester, one of two Cathedral cities in Kent, has managed to resist this process from its position in a loop on the southern bank of the Medway. Today it trades heavily on its history: military, literary and religious. With its Norman castle and cathedral, long association with the novelist Charles Dickens, a host of interesting shops and other historic features, the city amply rewards those who take time to explore it. This is easily achieved on foot, around the compact city centre.

The High Street

The Victorian High Street (which incorporates Eastgate Street) is the spine of the city. It runs northwest from the bottom of Star Hill to the distinctive bridge that crosses the river Medway to neighbouring Strood. The new visitor to the city can do worse than calling in at the modern Visitor Information Centre, about halfway along the High Street. Details of many attractions can be found here, along with a small coffee shop. The first floor houses the Rochester Art Gallery, with a changing programme of art and craft displays.

The High Street is also the best destination for weary visitors looking for refreshment. Whether you fancy a traditional English pub, chic bistro or afternoon tea, a wide range of pubs, cafes and restaurants line both sides of the main thoroughfare. Details of guided and self-guided walking tours around the centre of the city are available from the Visitor Centre.

The following description of the High Street assumes you are walking northwest towards the bridge.

Eastgate HouseThe first building of note is Eastgate House. Until 2004, this was the Charles Dickens Centre and housed an exhibition on the author and his life. The centre has now closed, but a new and much larger attraction is planned to open in nearby Chatham in 2006. The building was constructed between 1590 and 1591 by Sir Peter Buck, mayor of Rochester and Earl of Northumberland. The building became a school in the 18th and 19th centuries. For readers of Dickens' work, Eastgate House is immortalised as Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers and The Nun's House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In the small garden at the rear of the building you can see Dickens' Chalet, which was moved here from the garden at Gad's Hill Place, the house he owned at Higham (some four miles west of Rochester).

Further along, the High Street opens out to reveal a modern car park beside Blue Boar Lane. Of interest here are the remains of the old city wall visible at the rear of the car park. Dating in parts from the 2nd century AD, this is the only part of the wall that retains its original height (thanks to 19th century development). The line of the wall follows the original Roman defences and some Roman masonry remains.

The next landmark of note, also on the right, is the French Hospital La Providence. Today these imposing buildings carry on the traditions of the first 'Hospital for French Protestants and their Descendants Residing in Great Britain,' which was established by the bequest of Jacques de Gascony in 1708. He was a Huguenot refugee and Master of the King's Buckhounds. In 1960 the then Bishop of Rochester instigated the purchase of Theobald's Square, which was converted into private housing for elderly people of Huguenot descent.

A few doors further up, opposite the Visitor Information Centre & Art Gallery, one of the classic views of the Cathedral, with its imposing triangular tower, comes into view behind the War Memorial Garden.

The Poor Travellers House was founded by Watt's Charity on the instructions of Richard Watts at his death on the 10th September 1579. The existing almshouse was upgraded with 'six good matrices of Flock Bedds and other good and sufficient furniture to harbour and lodge in poor Travellers.' Travellers were allowed to stay for just one night, and were given fourpence when they departed the next morning. This meagre amount was finally increased to a shilling in 1934! The house continued to provide temporary lodgings until the Second World War. It was closed in July 1940. In 1979 the ground floor, garden and traveller's bedrooms were converted to a museum. Exhibits and literature tell the story of Richard Watts and his charity. The house is generally open Tuesday-Saturday, between March and October. Like many buildings in the city the house proved inspirational for Charles Dickens, who wrote his short Christmas story The Seven Poor Travellers after a visit in 1854.

Baggins Book BazaarFurther west, the pedestrianized High Street forms a crossroads with Boley Hill and North Gate, under the watchful gaze of the castle. Two famous inns -- the King's Head hotel and Ye Arrow -- can be found here, as well as the distinctive stone and timber gate structure known as Jasper's Gate. More correctly called Chertseys Gate; it dates from the early 15th century, when it was constructed to guard the cathedral precincts. The timber house was added to the top of the gate about 300 years later.

Just up from the crossroads, Two Post Alley reflects how Rochester must have looked in years gone by, with its mixture of shop fronts and old architecture. A few doors further along on the opposite side of the road is a place of pilgrimage for bibliophiles around the world: Baggins Book Bazaar, the largest second-hand bookshop in England. Anyone with the slightest love of books or reading can't help but lose themselves in the maze of rooms and shelves that occupy two very uneven floors. From genuine collectibles to cheap paperback novels, you're sure to find something of interest inside.

The last two buildings of note to tourists before the bridge are the Guildhall, now a museum (see below), and the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel. Although the exterior suggests the latter is now somewhat past its prime, this was a typical and busy coaching inn in the 19th century. Princess (later Queen) Victoria slept here in 1836, and it too has Dickensian links, the most famous of which is arguably in The Pickwick Papers.

The Esplanade

The junction between the High Street and The Esplanade has been spoilt, for modern visitors, by the busy road junction, where the main A2 road through the Medway towns crosses the river. The green iron bridge on the southern side (carrying London-bound traffic) was built in 1856 and modified in 1914. The bridge is maintained by the Bridge Trust (known locally as the Bridge Wardens), which has ensured endowments for the upkeep of a crossing here since 1391. In 1970 they built the less impressive bridge alongside the older structure.

Rochester Bridge

Just around the corner on the Esplanade is the Bridge Chapel, the 14th-century home of Sir John Cobham. Cobham was fundamental in the founding of the medieval bridge and the house is fittingly used as the meeting place of the Rochester Bridge Trust to this day.

Further along the wide road of The Esplanade, which runs alongside the river below the outer wall of the castle, a pier juts out into the muddy banks of the tidal river. In the summer months it is possible to take a trip on the restored paddle steamer Kingswear Castle. Details and timetables can be found at http://www.pskc.freeserve.co.uk.

Rochester Castle

Rochester CastleNo visitor to Rochester can fail to spot the imposing remains of its Norman castle. Rochester was one of the first towns to be fortified by the Normans after their invasion in 1066. The first castle was largely constructed of earthworks and timber, built using recycled parts of the city's Roman defences. In 1087, William the Conqueror's best architect, Bishop Gundulf, began the reconstruction of the castle entirely in stone. However, it wasn't until some time after 1127 that Archbishop William de Corbeil finished the masterpiece of the keep with its prestigious accommodation. The resulting castle was one of the finest in England, and even today the great keep remains one of the tallest in the country at 113 feet high. In order to support the massive weight of the building, the walls extend up to 12 feet in thickness.

Today the quiet, landscaped gardens within the outer wall fail to evoke the castle's violent history. In 1215, King John, brother to Richard the Lionheart, laid siege to the castle, taking it after demolishing the southwest tower by undermining it. The miners dug a tunnel under the wall and then used the fat of forty pigs to burn the tunnel's timber supports and collapse both it and the huge tower above it. The tower was rebuilt around 1226 with a cylindrical shape to strengthen it against the possibility of missiles from siege engines.

Visitors can climb to the top of the walls, but be warned -- this is not a trip for those afraid of heights. The castle is open to the elements, and the flimsy pigeon netting strung across the top doesn't even seem to be able to keep the birds out. An audio tour is available to guide you around what's left of the keep, and, after several sets of uneven steps, the battlements offer spectacular views across the river and over the cathedral. An exhibition in the former chapel shows the construction and evolution of this great castle, and the lack of floors provide visitors with a better understanding of castle construction than many better-preserved defences. The Visitor Information Centre in the High Street houses a free 'virtual tour' of the castle as it would have been in its Norman heyday, and this provides an interesting contrast with the atmospheric and brooding stones that remain.

Rochester Cathedral

The main entrance to the Cathedral is located in Boley Hill, opposite the watchful gaze of the castle walls. Another side entrance by the Deanery Gate allows access to wheelchairs, pushchairs and the like. This was the route used by pilgrims visiting the shrine of St William of Perth, and today it brings visitors close to the pilgrimage steps within the cathedral. William was on a pilgrimage to Rome when he was killed. In time his shrine, which dates from before the reformation, became a place of pilgrimage in its own right.

Rochester Cathedral

The impressive portico is guarded by a vast catalpa tree, whose hundred-year-old branches are guarded by railings. Once inside the impressive nave, you get a sense of the scale of this great religious building. The Norman cathedral, constructed by Bishop Gundulf between 1080 and 1100 AD, was built on the site of the older, and by then decaying, Saxon cathedral. The decorative carvings on the arcades and columns were added later by Bishop Ernulf (1115-1124). Until 1423 the nave served as the parish church of St Nicholas, when a new church dedicated to the saint was built next door. Today the Diocese of Rochester stretches from Penge in south London in the west to Rainham in the east.

Catalpa Tree, Rochester Cathedral

Entry to the Cathedral is free, although visitors are invited to make a donation of £3 and photography permits are also available. The Cathedral may be closed for certain religious ceremonies and festivals, and it is as wise to check opening times before travelling. Highlights of the building include the Baptismal Fresco (dedicated in 2004 after eight years of preparation), the Crypt, and the Presbytery with its vaulted sedilia. The fresco is the first to be painted in an English Cathedral in 800 years and features images of John the Baptist, Saint Augustine and the Saxon Bishop Justus. The Sanctuary Lamp comes from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and was donated in 1920. It hangs over the impressive high Altar, designed by Gilbert Scott in 1880. In early September, evening visitors to the Cathedral and castle are treated to a son et lumiere display, as both buildings are lit by a seasonal light show.

The Guildhall Museum

Rochester Guildhall MuseumThis free museum is one of the jewels in Rochester's crown. The displays housed in the small Guildhall and neighbouring Medway Conservancy Board Building chart the history of the Medway area from the Neolithic to the present day. A model of the castle keep shows the techniques used by Prince John to undermine the southwest tower. Another exhibit illustrates extracts from the diary of Samuel Pepys (who was a Clerk to the Navy Board) at the time when the Dutch Fleet broke the defensive chain across the river and threatened the naval dockyards at Chatham and Upnor.

It is impossible to separate the river from the towns lying along its banks, and a variety of river vessels are represented, from shallow-hulled sailing barges to Nelson's Trafalgar flagship, HMS Victory (which was built in the dockyards at Chatham). There were other vessels, however, with a darker side. The Hulks Experience takes you back to the Napoleonic era when prisoners-of-war and convicts were crammed into old warships moored in the river estuary. Despite the appalling conditions, many prisoners managed to create exquisite works or art and some of this 'war work' is on display.

As well as temporary exhibits, there are permanent recreations of domestic rooms, from a Victorian drawingroom to a 1900's kitchen and scullery. You can also see a bird's-eye view of the high street using the camera mounted to the weather vane on the roof of the Conservancy Board building, and watch the video exhibition on the history of Medway's music halls. All in all, no trip to Rochester should be allowed to pass without spending an hour or so in this free museum.

Other Attractions

If you have time during your visit, check out some of these other buildings and areas just beyond the city centre.

Behind the Cathedral, in Minor Canon Row (originally built to house members of the clergy) you can see the Cloister Garth, where the monastery was originally attached to the chancel of the Cathedral. The Prior's Gate dates from the 15th century and is the most complete of the monastic gates that still surround the cathedral precincts. Further along the road, after passing Oriel House and some of the buildings of King's School, you come to The Vines. These quiet gardens were originally the monastery's vineyards. The wooden carving of a monk was formed from the stump of a plane tree damaged by the hurricane force storms that swept Kent in 1987.

Rochester High Street

Overlooking The Vines, in Crow Lane, is Restoration House. Although the house has entertained both Charles II and Samuel Pepys, today it is best remembered as Dickens' model for Satis House, home of the bitter and jilted Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.

The real Satis House was the home of Richard Watts; founder of The Poor Traveller's House, and is located behind the Castle. Richard Watts entertained Queen Elizabeth I here in 1573, and Old Hall (believed to be the original east wing) still retains some Tudor features. St Margaret's Street runs south from the castle, where a short walk brings you to Bishopscourt, official home of the Bishop, and the former Poor House. The more adventurous visitor may wish to continue further along the road to St Margaret's Church, whose tower dates back to the 15th century. About a quarter of a mile further along the road you come to the Napoleonic tower of Fort Clarence.

Festivals and Events

Rochester plays host to a number of festivals through the year, all of which feature a great atmosphere and a chance to experience the British sense of eccentricity. However, be warned these events can prove extremely popular and the streets and venues fill up very quickly. Parking is even more restricted than normal, and you would be well advised to use public transport.

The Sweeps Festival is held in early May to celebrate this holiday, which dates back more than 400 years. Traditional Morris, Clog and Sweeps dancers perform folk dances and there's plenty of modern music on offer too. June sees the popular annual Dickens Festival, and the Victorian theme is carried on at the Dickensian Christmas in early December.

Full details of the annual events calendar can be found on Medway Council's website at http://www.medway.gov.uk/index/leisure/events.htm.

More Information:

City of Rochester

Medway Tourism

Baggin's Book Bazaar

Rochester Castle

Rochester Bridge Trust

Rochester and Canterbury son et lumiere shows

Richard Crowhurst is a freelance writer and author based in Lincolshire, England. He writes on many subjects, including history and heritage topics. More details can be found on his websites, http://www.freelance-writer-and-author.co.uk and http://www.enagri.info.
Article and photos © 2006 Richard Crowhurst


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