A weekend in Rochester

PUBLISHED: 16:40 24 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013

Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral

As the weather warms up and Bank Holidays beckon, what better place to spend a weekend than in Dickens' favourtie city of Rochester?

Rochester has romantic city walls, a sensational castle with panoramic views across the county, the second largest cathedral in England and a High Street packed with fascinating, individual specialist shops.

Dickens loved the town and reminders of the great writer are everywhere, from 'Pip's of Rochester' and 'Mrs Bumbles' Tea Rooms' to the museum's 'Dickens Discovery Room'.

And if you happen to come across a life-size cardboard cutout of Lawrence Dallaglio, please put the charismatic rugby star out of his misery - his doppelganger was kidnapped from the Who'd Ha Thought It pub in town and is currently being held to ransom!

This month, the Rochester Sweeps Festival (01634 843666) takes place in the town. This three-day Festival (2-4 May) is the largest Mayday celebration of its kind in the UK and combines a parade with music, entertainment and dancing; more than 60 Morris dancing teams and entertainers take part. Look out for folk singer Kate Rusby's concert on 2 May.

Not far from the cathedral and just off the High Street, you'll notice a handsome Regency square, home of the French Hospital. But in 1958, when the square and the adjacent house fronting the High Street were bought by the hospital from Rochester Council, the 19 two-storey houses were in a poor state of repair. The hospital converted them into flats to give sheltered housing for residents of Huguenot descent, and what had been an eyesore became a place of which Rochester could be proud.

Today, the French Hospital enjoys a special link with Rochester Cathedral. Since 1958, the Anniversary Evensong is held there on the second Saturday in June to commemorate the hospital's royal charter. This is followed by a strawberry tea in the cathedral crypt.

From Romans to Royals

The Roman name for Rochester was Durobrivis, meaning The Stronghold by the Bridge, and the present town was built within its walls, some of which still remain. The settlement was strategically vital, marking where the Roman Watling Street crosses the Medway en route from London to Canterbury and Dover. The Castle was rebuilt in 1089 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, and was one of earliest castles fortified in stone.

Henry VIII first caught sight of Anne of Cleves as she walked into the cathedral's cloister garth, and said the memorable words: "I like her not, this Flanders mare." Queen Elizabeth and Charles I also visted Rochester, both choosing to stay at the Crown Inn.

Charles 11 visited the town on the eve of his restoration, staying at the subsequently christened Restoration House, while King James II spent his last night in Britain in Abdication House (now Lloyds Bank).

Rochester's most famous citizen is Dickens; the great writer was born in the area and moved back to nearby Gad's Hill for the last 13 years of his life. Rochester features in several of his novels, most notably his last: The Mystery of Edwin Drood, where Rochester is renamed Cloisterham.

There are spacious car parks along the waterfront, from where it's a short walk to the long High Street and its many antique shops and bookshops, arts and crafts collectibles, giftware, souvenirs, china and even a dolls' house shop. There's a traditional bakers, grocers, delicatessens, and a Farmers Market is held on the third Sunday of each month.

You'll find plenty of splendid pubs, including the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel (01634 846266), featured in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. Almost opposite the Six Poor Travellers' House (01634 845609) is Carter's Antiques, an Aladdin's cave of delights.

Look out for Mollycoddles, a natural organic body and skincare shop whose walls slant so alarmingly it's hard to believe the building is still standing. And after a tour of the cathedral there's no more welcoming sight than Goldings Bakery and Tea Rooms.

Lively Saturday

Visit Rochester Castle

Principally defensive, it was also a palatial residence, with evidence of fireplaces and decorated arches. The keep is one of the tallest in England, offering amazing views across Kent. There are extensive gardens and a moat, plus events all the year, including open-air concerts.

Tel: 01634 402276

Explore the ancient Cathedral

Built in the 11th century by Bishop Gundulf, the Cathedral has one of the finest Romanesque facades in England. It became a major place of pilgrimage in the 13th century after miracles took place at the shrine of William of Perth, a Scottish baker buried there. Take tea in the 18th-century deanery and stroll The Gardens, in what was originally the monastic herb garden.

Tel: 01634 810073

Enjoy top-class cuisine

Topes Restaurant has won two AA rosettes. Based in an ancient building by the Cathedral, it was referred to in Dickens' The mystery of Edwin Drood as 'the home of Mr Tope, chief verger of the Cathedral'. Although the exterior is medieval, Topes is a modern European restaurant with an up-to-date interior, where all ingredients are bought fresh daily from local suppliers.

Tel: 01634 718742

Relaxing Sunday

Spend a day at Upnor Castle

Originally an Elizabethan artillery fortress, this quaint castle in the riverside village of nearby Upnor commands stunning views. Events are staged here, such as Tudor games, archery and swordsmen's practice, plus outdoor theatre. Next door is The Tudor Rose (01634 715305), a great pub with fine food and the 2008 Shepherd
Neame Master of Beer award winner.

Tel: 01634 718742

Visit the Guildhall Museum

See exhibits of local history with visual displays, sound effects and interactive exhibitions, plus the partial reconstruction of a Napoleonic Hulk. There's a Dickens' Discovery room, impressive oil paintings, andthe Seaton Tool Chest, the world's most complete example of an 18th-century tool chest.

Tel: 01634 848717

Go on a guided walking tour

Organised by the City of Rochester Society, see historic sights such as Restoration House (01634 848520), a magnificent 16th-century home open to the public (Jun-to Sep), Eastgate House and Gardens, plus The Six Poor Travellers, an Elizabethan house endowed by the will of Richard Watts in 1579, to give a night's board and lodging to six poor travellers.

Tel: 01634 721886

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