Spotlight on: Rochester
PUBLISHED: 07:54 25 April 2015 | UPDATED: 07:54 25 April 2015
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
A favourite of Charles Dickens, Rochester boasts a fine castle and cathedral but also attracts many visitors for its quirky shopping, fabulous eateries and in May, the glorious Sweeps Festival
Rochester, which celebrates its vibrant annual Sweeps Festival this month, is the perfect blend of the past and the present.
Always aware of its important history and still drawing tourists from all over the world to its ancient streets and landmarks, it has also become a thoroughly modern shopping destination for fans of interesting, independent shops and trendy boutiques.
With its famous literary links and with its Norman castle and grand cathedral just yards away from each other, it has always had plenty to offer day-trippers.
But now a new mix of shops, cafés, restaurants, art galleries and museums has turned this Medway Town into the kind of place that makes visitors want to stay.
The changes are reflected in the current refurbishment of one of the town’s many imposing, historic buildings, Eastgate House. Once home to Rochester Museum and then the Dickens Centre, a museum about the great writer which closed in 2004, it was originally built as a home for a wealthy Elizabethan mayor.
Medway Council has put together £2.1m to transform the Grade I listed building, £1.28m of which was awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project began in February and is expected to take a year, with the re-opening due in spring 2016.
For the first time the story of Eastgate itself will be told, with a visitor experience focusing on the house and the people who lived there over its 400-year history.
Rochester Seige 2015 project
The Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded more than £37,000 for a series of events at Rochester Castle to commemorate the great siege of 1215. It took place over seven weeks while a group of rebel barons were held up inside the castle walls.
They were rebelling against King John, who had just sealed Magna Carta in an attempt to keep the peace. King John and his men eventually breached the southern curtain wall of Rochester’s castle, causing the south-east tower to collapse and the rebels to surrender.
The Rochester Seige 2015 project will involve Medway Council working with other local organisations to put on events focusing on Rochester’s medieval past, warfare and the role it played in shaping the future of Britain.
And to mark 800 years since the Magna Carta, Rochester Cathedral will exhibit its 12th-century Textus Roffensis, which is 100 years older than Magna Carta and is believed to have been its inspiration.
Looking to the future
Despite being famous for its history, Rochester is looking to the future. Plans for a major rejuvenation of Rochester Airport were cleared earlier this year, which will see £4.4m spent on breathing new life into the site. Changes include installing a paved runway and decommissioning one of the two existing grass runways for a high-tech business park, plus the building of a new control tower and office facilities.
It will not become a major commercial airport, but hopes to build on its current client base and the all-weather runway will mean it is in use for more of the year.
Eating and shopping
One of the most popular restaurants is Topes (ME1 1JY, 01634 845270) in an historic building beside the College Gate. A contemporary European restaurant, it blends old and new - summing up Rochester perfectly. Other favourites include Thai Four Two (ME1 1EX, 01634 840451), Don Vincenzo (ME1 1JT, 01634 408373), Elizabeth’s (ME1 1ER, 01634 843472) and Shozna (ME1 1RR, 01634 847847). Great places for lunch or coffee include The Deaf Cat (ME1 1LX, 07719 593960), Rochester Cathedral Tea Rooms (ME1 1SX, 01634 810076) and Café Moroc (ME1 1DA, 01634 405682).
Rochester is not short of pubs but for character, history, good food and real ale try the Cooper’s Arms (ME1 1LT, 01634 404298) in St Margaret’s Street.
Much of the charm of Rochester is in its independent shops. Browse the art and crafts at Francis Iles (ME1 1LX – see page xx), rifle through the curiosities at Fieldstaff Antiques (ME1 1LX), lose yourself in Baggins Book Bazaar (ME1 1PY) or pick out some quirky clothing at Rocket (ME1 1LX).
Then there are the new boutiques and homeware shops that are springing up. Don’t miss Pink Flamingo (ME1 1PT) or Demelza Boutique (ME1 1JY).
Lucy Horner, Francis Iles art and crafts shop and gallery
“We have been in Rochester High Street for more than 40 years now, and needless to say we have seen a great deal of changes. When we first came here, the High Street was the main through route for the Medway Towns - hard to imagine now as you walk along the cobbled streets that this was once the main artery.
I think Rochester is adapting well to the challenges facing many High Streets. We have a thriving artistic community and a great selection of independent shops – fashion, antiques, jewellers, galleries and of course Johnstones the hardware store, which has been in the High Street for as long as we have. They are a reminder of how the High Street used to be. It was a place to come and get all of your essentials before the days of supermarkets and Amazon.
These days, people come to Rochester to soak up the historic atmosphere, visit the cathedral and castle, enjoy our quirky coffee houses and browse around the interesting shops and galleries.
These changes have meant that while we still enjoy seeing plenty of people in the gallery, we have spread out from Rochester to cover art fairs throughout the country. We also connect to a vast number of people through social media by posting a daily picture on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
The other exciting development for us is that we are now working with 150 Russian artists, bringing their art to the UK and giving it the prominence that this quality work deserves.”
My Town - Vici Hodges, teacher
How long have you lived in Rochester?
I’ve lived in Rochester for 12 years. I originally moved to Medway from Liverpool 14 years ago after meeting my husband. When we looked to buy our home we liked the atmosphere of Rochester and being within walking distance of everything we needed. I love the history of the place. Even having lived here for over a decade, you can still find interesting bits of history you never realised were there.
What’s good about the area for families?
The kids have both learned to ride their bikes around The Vines. We often ride down there on a Sunday morning. They also love the castle; whether it’s relaxing with a picnic in the gardens or the moat in the summer, or climbing up to the top to look out over the river. They really enjoy the library too, it has a great family section, where they enjoy sitting and reading or playing games.
Your favourite shops in Rochester?
If you are looking for something unusual, then Rocket (ME1 1LX) is great for clothes, with its mix of retro and alternative fashion. But all the shops are always good for a browse as they are mostly independent, so usually have something interesting to offer.
Your favourite pubs, cafés and restaurants?
We enjoy a walk along the High Street on a Friday or Saturday evening. The Jolly Knight pub (ME1 1LD) has a good atmosphere, with karaoke, or Ye Arrow (ME1 1TE) has live music of a weekend. If you are looking for a range of real ale, then Man of Kent (ME1 1YN) always has lots on offer.
For food we enjoy a bit of spice. Thai Four Two (ME1 1EL) is lovely and always offers great service. If you are out and about during the day and fancy a snack then Tony Lorenzo’s (ME1 1EL) and the Cathedral tea rooms (ME1 1SX) both offer a lovely range of treats.
2-4 May: Sweeps Festival
A festival celebrating the traditional holiday of the chimney sweeps, it was revived in 1981 and is a mix of music, entertainment and Morris dancing. It’s the largest May Day event of its kind in the UK and attracts vast numbers of visitors. The High Street is closed to traffic and there is a parade through the streets so arrive early to get a good spot. Your wait will be rewarded with a glimpse of the seven-foot Jack-in-the-Green character and dozens of Morris teams dressed in their finery.
17 May-24 July: Medway Festival of Sport
A showcase for the excellent sporting facilities on offer in Rochester and the Medway Towns, it promotes healthy lifestyles and offers the chance to try out new activities. Visit www.medway.gov.uk
29 May: Rochester Cathedral concert.
The Sixteen perform Flight Of Angels to celebrate the music of Spanish composers Francisco Guerrero and Alonso Lobo. Tickets £10 from Medway Information Centre on 01634 338141.
In Rochester you can buy a five-bedroom detached house for between £390,000 and £750,000. Three-bedroom semi-detached homes are priced between £190,000 and £370,000 and there are many two-bed terraced homes, which you can pick up for around £150,000.
Mann (01634 933654) and Machin Lane (01634 933700) are two of the estate agents with offices in Rochester.
How to get there
Rochester is around 30 miles from London. It is easily accessible from the M20 or 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