Spotlight on: Rochester
PUBLISHED: 08:49 02 May 2014 | UPDATED: 08:49 02 May 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
May is festival time in Rochester, with dancing in the streets, lively entertainment and costumed characters. But any time of the year it's a town with masses of atmosphere, charisma and magnetism
With a fine castle and the second largest cathedral in England, top-notch shops and history everywhere you look, Rochester is a truly memorable town.
The Sweeps Festival is the largest mayday celebration of its kind in the country, while the Dickens Festival focuses on Rochester’s myriad links to the great writer, who arguably had more Rochester connections than he had to any other town. Royalty has visited regularly: Henry VIII first saw his future wife Ann of Cleves as she walked into the cathedral, while Queen Elizabeth, Charles 1, Charles 11 and the young Princess Victoria were also visitors.
An apparent administration error lost Rochester its 800-year-old ‘City’ status in 1998, but the City of Rochester Society is battling tirelessly to correct this absurdity.
The central artery of town is The High Street and Eastgate, a long thoroughfare packed with welcoming shops, café and restaurants, and it’s relatively quiet, isolated from the traffic on Corporation Street.
On top of a steep hill at the northern end of the High Street is Rochester Castle (0870 333 1181, ME1 1SW), and from its grounds there is a fine view across town, and of Rochester Bridge and the river.
The High Street’s Guildhall Museum (01634 848717, ME1 1PY) is packed with displays, including a Dickens Discovery Room, and a 19th-century prison hulk.
Also in the High Street is the Six Poor Travellers’ House (01634 845609, ME1 1LX), almost opposite the grand Rochester Cathedral (01634 843366, ME1 1SX), which has one of the finest Romanesque facades in England.
Along Crow Lane you’ll find Restoration House and Gardens (01634 848520, ME1 1RF) (immortalised in Dickens’s Great Expectations); this is open to the public after June, however historic Eastgate House is closed for renovations until 2015.
Shop then dine
The shops are mainly small interesting independents rather than chain stores, featuring chiefly speciality shops, including arts-and-crafts suppliers, giftware and souvenir shops, antiques and vintage stores, restaurants, bakers and delicatessens.
Don’t miss a visit to Francis Iles Galleries (01634 843081, ME1 1LX), a family business with two outlets specialising in fine art, art and craft materials, run by three sisters Nettie, Alayne and Lucy running.
Excellent restaurants include: Topes (01634 845270, ME1 1JY), King’s Head Hotel (01634 880568, ME1 1LD) and the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel (01634 778335, ME1 1PX).
Pubs to choose from are: The Tudor Rose (01634 714175, ME2 4XG), The Eagle Tavern (01634 409040, ME1 1JT) and The Coopers Arms (01634 404298, ME1 1TL).
Dates for your diary
3-5 May: Sweeps Festival. Music entertainment and dancing in the streets, with more than 60 Morris sides. Established in 1981, this recreates the traditional annual holiday of chimney sweeps
30 May-1 June: Rochester Dickens Summer Festival. Costumed parades, street acts, competitions, readings and a fun fair, celebrating the great writer’s association with the town
Opens 20 June: Summer Exhibition at Francis Iles Galleries featuring the Artists of Russia, www.francis-iles.com
6-7 December: Rochester Dickensian Christmas Festival
An artist’s view
Wendy Daws (07989 264768) created a bronze fresco that’s on display in Rochester cathedral – an interpretation of an original painting, made especially for visually impaired people, allowing them to experience the artwork by touch alone.
Wendy describes herself as a ‘creative practitioner’ rather than an artist, explaining: “Although I’m an artist, it’s my artistic skills I’m trying to sell, not my own artwork. I believe that everyone, not just artists, can create art.
“I work with Kent Association for the Blind and the Kent Autistic Trust. It’s all about using my skills as an artist to help other people have an experience.”
Examples of Wendy’s collaborative art include memory blankets, representations of people’s photographs, picked out in a raised outline that casts a shadow under direct light.
‘Shadowplay’ is a concept whereby a group of people are photographed posing in various guises, the resultant pictures incorporated into a mural.
Wendy’s favourite Rochester: “I particularly love the Cathedral and the river. Rochester has a real mix of people and a wonderfully rich history.”
High Street Heroes
Bruno’s French Bakes (01634 7870506, ME1 1PT)
This wonderful piece of food heaven offers among other delights splendid cakes, tarts and deserts, savouries and quiches.
French-born Bruno Breillet, who lives in the town, has won a three-star award from the Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste Awards (2013) for his chocolate and salted butter caramel tart.
His carrot cake has also won a one-star award, and his salted butter caramel sauce won a Master Chef Live BBC Good Food show bursary award in 2011. He was also featured in the January 2013 edition of Delicious magazine.
“Even as a child I’ve always loved baking,” says Bruno. “I believe that the right way to end a good meal is with a good dessert.
“I love the selling and the contact with customers, as well as organising the decoration and seasonal offerings. I’d say we’re a Franco-American (my business partner is American) bakery/coffee shop with a lot of cross-over bakes, but also classics from each country.
“I love it when a bake comes together and is assembled in the end, the glazing, sugar powdering and dressing with cream.”
Bruno’s favourite Rochester: “I like St Margaret’s Street, it’s a really pleasant walk, so much charm. I love Rochester’s skyline seen when you walk over the bridge from Strood, the wonderful antiques shops, and The Coopers Arms pub. Rochester is a very friendly town, I’d describe it as the ‘up and coming Canterbury’s little sister’.”
Baggins Book Bazaar (01634 811651, ME1 1PY)
A bookworm’s dream, Baggins claims to be the largest second-hand bookshop in England. The vast range of books on two floors range in price from £1 to £1000, and included are works on local and Kent history, ordnance survey maps, natural history, marine, military, fine art, literature, travel, children’s books and fiction.
Owner Godfrey George says: “My personal interest is in illustrated books and the subjects of modern art and local topography. We’re not rich in money terms; our richness is in the great heaps of trivia and knowledge gleaned from the thousands of tomes which pass through our hands.”
Godfrey’s favourite Rochester: “The historic City of Rochester is a fantastic place for unusual shops, good eateries and of course the Norman castle and cathedral. Baggins is nestled between Pizza Express and the Guildhall museum – an arrow’s shot from the castle, and a duck’s quack from the river Medway!”
Rikard Osterlund, photographer (07990 516767)
Tell us a bit about you
I’m a professional photographer, originally from Sweden, but I’ve lived in Rochester since 2001 and am married to a Medway girl, Zara Carpenter, who is a milliner. I also plays the drums in a local post-rock band and I’ve started a small bakery project called Fikabröd, selling classic Swedish bakes at local markets
Are Swedish towery different?
Swedish towns are much newer; we don’t have many old buildings as you do here
Is your professional work local?
No, most of my clients are in London, but I really appreciate the good travel links, meaning I’m able to come back to calm Rochester to work on the images
Favourite local scenic views?
There are endless locations around Medway and Rochester: everything from rural greenery to Dickensian buildings and industrial wastelands
Are you working on any local projects at present?
Yes, a project called Variance, www.variance.co.uk, portraits of young adults who are into alternative subcultures (especially where an interest in music is expressed through someone’s clothes). I am looking for people to photograph for this.
Favourite places in town?
The Watts Almshouses on Maidstone Road is a beautiful building.
Favourite pub or restaurant?
Our local pub the Who’d Ha’ Thought it (01634 830144, ME1 3DN) is small and friendly, and Limehouse Thai (01634 813800; ME1 1DA) is great for fresh Thai food; we both love Bruno’s French Bakes (see above).
What’s best about Rochester?
The people, plus there’s a vibrant arts scene, with a good community of artists who all support each other.
Rochester is in northern Kent, beside the river Medway, around 30 miles from London. From the M20 (junctions 3 or 5 from M25) take junction 4 (A228) or junction 6 (A229) - or reach Rochester via the A2 /M2. The stations have rail links to London Victoria and the south Kent coast and there are good bus and coach links.
Satnav postcode: ME1 1LX town centre