Town guide to Rochester
PUBLISHED: 09:49 23 May 2017
Rochester may have always been able to attract tourists - thanks to its castle, cathedral and a certain Victorian author - but its café culture, trendy shops and great commuter links also make it a popular place for young families
One of our county’s most endearing historic towns, Rochester’s past permeates its present. Set on the River Medway and still dominated by its Norman castle and 900-year-old cathedral, it’s little wonder it’s one of Kent’s most popular tourist towns.
But there’s almost no end to what Rochester has to offer. As well as its more well-known attractions, there is the Guildhall Museum, the fascinating Huguenot Museum, The Vines Park, the many places mentioned in the stories of Charles Dickens, boat trips from Rochester Pier and much more.
And a little further away, both the Historic Dockyard in Chatham and Upnor Castle are well worth visiting if you’re in the area.
In recent years Rochester’s quaint High Street has become home to many attractive boutiques, gift shops and quirky homeware stores. There’s more of a café culture here now too, with people sitting outside the popular coffee shops, tea rooms and restaurants in the summer months.
It’s a great place to visit at any time of year but it is best known for its hugely popular annual events. These include the traditional Sweeps Festival (held between 29 April and 1 May this year), the world famous Dickens Festival (9 to 11 June), a series of concerts held in the castle gardens each July, the Medieval Merriment festival in September, Dickensian Christmas (4 to 5 December) and the Christmas markets (25 November to 10 December).
And this June the Medway Towns will commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Medway with a spectacular river event and a series of exhibitions and activities. See the June edition of Kent Life for full coverage.
Bridge over the River Medway
The river crossing between Rochester and Strood has been a vital part of life since the Romans first built a bridge there 2,000 years ago. It’s easy to take it for granted, especially if you drive over it regularly, but here are a few surprising facts about Rochester Bridge.
The original Roman bridge was repaired many times, but eventually gave way to the combined pressures of ice and floods in 1382.
The Rochester Bridge Trust was established in 1399, in the reign of King Richard II. It is a charity and is still responsible today for ‘providing passage over, under or across the River Medway’.
A medieval bridge stood for almost 500 years. When it was replaced by the Victorian bridge, the Royal Engineers practiced their demolition skills by blowing the old crossing up with gunpowder.
It is actually a collection of four bridges: the ‘old’ bridge (taking traffic from Rochester to Strood); the service bridge (a separate covered structure taking pipes and cables across the river); the ‘new’ bridge (taking traffic from Strood to Rochester) and the Railway Bridge (owned by Network Rail).
The Strood end of the ‘old’ bridge is a different shape to the rest of the crossing. This is because in Victorian times the flat section was a swing bridge, which could be rotated to enable ships with tall masts to pass.
Bridge Clerk Sue Threader tells us about the organiSation which has been responsible for Rochester’s bridges for more than 600 years.
“The Rochester Bridge Trust’s remit may have evolved over time but its priority remains the same,” she says. “That priority is to provide passage over, under or across the River Medway. Long-term planning is vital for this, to ensure the bridges are well maintained and also that there are enough funds and expertise to replace them when the time comes – which is where our education programme comes in.
“One of the Trust’s objectives is to help ensure there will be enough skilled, experienced civil engineers to continue to maintain bridges for centuries to come.”
Sue is a chartered civil engineer and Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers. She has even written a book for Key Stage 2 children, called Learning About Bridges, with the aim of sharing her enthusiasm and inspiring young people to consider a career in engineering.
The Trust also lays on a number of free events for families and young people, where they can have a go at bridge building and gain hands-on experience in engineering. Visit www.rochesterbridgetrust.org.uk to find out more about the Trust.
It’s unsurprising that such an old river crossing, with such a limited capacity for modern traffic, has been joined by other constructions both further up and down stream.
Recently a new bridge has opened linking Snodland and Halling on the west bank of the river to Wouldham and Burham on the east bank. The project was completed by developer Trenport in support of its new 1,000-home Peters Village at the former Peters Lime and Cement Works in Wouldham.
There’s also the M2 motorway bridge at Borstal, opened in 1963, the Medway Tunnel under the river at Chatham, opened in 1996, and the high speed railway viaduct beside the M2, which was built in 2003.
A flagship project in Medway Council’s regeneration programme, the Rochester Riverside site comprises 21 hectares of brownfield development land, stretching from Rochester Bridge to Doust Way.
The main point of the development is meeting the council’s objective of providing new homes and jobs for Medway, but it hopes to bring other benefits along with it - including a range of open spaces for the public to enjoy, as well as new retail and leisure facilities.
The area will be developed over the next 15 years and will include the provision of approximately 1500 new homes, a riverside walk, a new primary school, leisure facilities, office space, shops and restaurants. The site will be well connected to the historic heart of Rochester and the new £26m railway station to the north of the site.
But it’s not the only regeneration project happening in the area at the moment, with funding also recently agreed for the development of two other important sites.
Having already freed up development land at Rochester Airport in 2015 a second round of funding will now go towards the installation of vital infrastructure on the site.
This will make it more attractive to potential investors and help to unlock the land for commercial use. At the same time, funding has also been found to make improvements to the flood defenses at the former Strood Civic Centre site, which has been identified as an ideal location for around 325 new waterfront homes.
Eating and shopping
Eating out in this small town is not a problem, with all sorts of places to choose from. For a special occasion try the highly regarded Topes restaurant (now open for coffee and cake in the mornings) or Elizabeth’s, with casual dining options including Mamma Mia, Thai Four Two, Olivers, Brettingtons, Don Vincenzo and The Quills. And a short drive out of town, in the pretty riverside village of Upnor is a new restaurant that is getting a lot of attention. Set in an old munitions warehouse once part of the Royal Navy Ordnance Depot, the aptly named Powder & Magazine opened in December.
For lighter meals and a relaxing cup of coffee, Rochester has a number of tea rooms and cafés. Try Tiny Tim’s Tearooms, Fleur de Thé, Mrs Tickit’s Pantry, Bruno’s, The Seaplane Works, The Deaf Cat and the charming Rochester Cathedral Tea Rooms. Our favourite places to enjoy a tipple are The Flippin’ Frog micropub and The Cooper’s Arms, with its tucked-away pub garden.
The joy of exploring all the quirky little shops in Rochester is that there really is anything and everything. Some not to miss include Rocket, Demelza Boutique, Mini Mi (see our postcard from Rochester), Capture The Castle, Fieldstaff Antiques, Pink Flamingo and Kiss Kiss Heart.
We also love old-fashioned sweet shop The Candy Bar, Francis Iles art gallery and Baggins Book Bazaar, one of the biggest secondhand book shops in the country.
Rochester’s property prices reflect its desirability and are the highest in the Medway Towns. Prices for a one-bedroom flat start at £110,000, with two-bed properties on the market for anything between £160,000 and £360,000. A three-bedroom semi-detached can cost between £240,000 and £375,000. Larger homes at the top end of the market are priced right up to £1.7m.
Postcard from Rochester
I’m Sarah Norris, a mother of two young daughters with a background of almost 20 years in the fashion industry before I had a career change four years ago when Mini Mi was established - my third child!
Mini Mi is slap bang in the middle of our historic High Street here in Rochester. We are a lifestyle store, not only a children’s shop, as many of our homeware, accessories and stationary appeals to us grown-ups too.
The best thing about my job is all the amazing customers that we have. We have a real community here in Rochester and we are able to reach out to the wider community through our social media channels.
The High Street has changed quite a bit in recent years. When I opened Mini Mi in 2013 there was a feeling that something was ‘happening’ and we have seen lots of new shops open. It is a great place to visit for the day; we have some great places to eat, things to do and of course a host of independent shops.
I moved to Rochester over 20 years ago when I came here to study at the art college, and I loved it so much I never went home. Living in Rochester means that you are only a short walk from everything - the High Street, the train station, schools.
Some of my favourite places are Topes restaurant (amazing food and a lovely atmosphere), the Cathedral Tea Rooms (they have a gorgeous, secure garden where children can run and play) and Nucleus Arts (the staff are so friendly and you can takes dogs in too).
For a spot of shopping for me, I love Copenhagen Blue and Capture The Castle.