Spotlight on: Rochester
PUBLISHED: 07:10 20 December 2014 | UPDATED: 07:10 20 December 2014
10 good reasons to visit this beautiful and historic city that was deservedly the favourite of Charles Dickens
1 Rochester Castle
Standing guard over the Medway since the 12th century, you can’t miss the greatest landmark in Rochester’s impressive arsenal. At 113ft tall, the ragstone keep of Rochester Castle (ME1 1SW) is ancient and imposing. But with a history that involved attacks and sieges, there is little wonder the building is in ruins, missing its wooden floors and roof. Visitors with a head for heights can still climb to the top thanks to steps provided by the castle’s modern-day guardians, English Heritage. The walled gardens provide a lovely spot for a picnic and in the summer they play host to a series of live music events, www.english-heritage.org.uk.
2 Rochester Cathedral
Just across the road from the castle is one of the UK’s most important cathedrals. Founded in 604AD, consecrated in 1130, much of Rochester Cathedral (ME1 1SX) is Norman. Although a big tourist attraction, it also remains a working cathedral with regular services throughout the year. Look out for the delightfully British tea rooms, tucked away in the 18th-century Deanery; a real little gem with a pretty, enclosed garden, www.rochestercathedral.org.
3 Baggins Book Bazaar
The shopfront doesn’t give much away, but Baggins Book Bazaar (ME1 1PY) claims to be the biggest second-hand and rare book seller in England, with an estimated half a million titles and sections on fiction, geography, history, biography and more – plus that intoxicating smell of old books.
4 The Medway River
The Medway towns have an illustrious maritime heritage and even today, with marinas, boatyards and Chatham Dockyard nearby, Rochester is a great place for watching the busy river. You will see tugs and barges bustling up and down, as well as pleasure boats and the odd restored vintage craft. Rochester has had the lowest crossing on the river since Roman times and today has bridges for pedestrians, cars and trains, and a pier which dates from the mid-1880s. The Esplanade and riverside park provide a peaceful, green space to take a walk or let the children loose in the play area – all with a perfect view across the muddy waters of the River Medway.
5 Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens lived in Medway for many years and used Rochester as the setting for a lot of his tales. Today you can visit Restoration House (ME1 1RF), which fired Dickens’ imagination so much he wrote Great Expectations – making it the home of the mysterious Miss Havisham.
There is also Eastgate House (ME1 1EW), which featured in two of his novels and where the little Swiss cottage he used as a writing studio was moved in the 1960s. It is currently closed for refurbishment.
Finally, if it’s information you want, there is plenty in the Dickens Discovery Room at the Guildhall Museum (ME1 1PY).
6 The Rochester Flea
Rochester’s monthly flea market, held at the Gordon House Hotel (ME1 1LX) on the last Saturday of the month, fills the gap left by the old market on Corporation Street. With vintage bric-à-brac and hand-made art and crafts, plus delicious cakes, entry is free and there is often music too, www.therochesterflea.com.
7 Rochester’s Festivals
The festivals begin each year in May as local chimney sweep, Morris and folk groups converge for the pagan celebration of the coming of spring. It’s a colourful affair with plenty of singing, dancing and entertainment.
December sees the city really step back in time, with roasting chestnuts, mugs of hot mulled wine and plenty of Victorian fancy dress for Rochester’s Dickensian Christmas festival, www.visitmedway.org.
8 Upnor Castle
Just a few miles away lies Upnor Castle (ME2 4XG), right on the water’s edge. Now maintained by English Heritage, it was built on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I in 1559 as a gun fort to defend her warships at anchor at Chatham Dockyard. A Dutch raid in 1667 proved how little defence it really gave and the catastrophe, which resulted in several Royal Navy ships being destroyed, is explained in an audio-vusual installation.
The High Street has updated in recent years without losing its unique qualities, retaining its independent speciality shops selling gifts, fashion, antiques, books and jewellery. Old favourites include Francis Iles art shop and gallery (ME1 1LX) and The Candy Bar (ME1 1JY), for traditional sweets. New boutiques include Pink Flamingo (ME1 1PT) for quirky ladies’ fashion, and Mini Mi (ME1 1JY) for childrens’ clothing and gifts. Demelza’s Charity Boutique (ME1 1JY) specialises in vintage, collectables and local art and craft. And if it’s antiques you’re after, Fieldstaff Antiques (ME1 1LX) and Kaizen Antiques and Jewellery (ME1 1JT) are two local gems.
10 Walk Rochester
Explore Kent has put together a delightful three-mile walk through this historic city, taking around 90 minutes. Starting out on the riverfront, where the remains of the original Roman bridge were found in the 19th century, the route takes you past the castle and the cathedral. Later on your journey you will see the Guildhall Museum, Eastgate House and Restoration House, www.kent.gov.uk/explorekent. n