Daytripper – Rochester

April 13, 2012

We’ve talked about the Medway town of Rochester earlier in the week as part of our Dickens series but it’s also worth talking about this town in Kent in its own right. 

While Dickens’ connection with the town is a key part of the reason for its charm, this town, which dates from as far back as Roman times and remained an important centre thanks to its strategic position on the Medway, has plenty more to offer.

Foremost among its attractions are the Norman castle and cathedral. Rochester Castle has its origins in a wooden castle built soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 with the stone defences following soon after.

The tallest Norman keep in England, from which there are spectacular views, was built around 1127 on the order of its then owner, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil. It was about 90 years later, in 1215, when King John laid siege to it during the rebellion of his barons, only taking the castle after a seven week siege when his sappers undermined the south-east tower of the keep (famously it was the fat of 40 pigs which stoked the fire they laid in the tunnels under the tower). The castle was repaired and continued to be used until late medieval times when it fell into disuse and while much of the keep – the highest in England – is now ruined, it remains a stirring sight.

Rochester Cathedral, meanwhile, was first built in Saxon times (there has been a bishop here since 604) although no trace remains of this above ground. The current building, rather, dates from the Norman era – it was consecrated in 1130 in a ceremony attended by King Henry I – and was extensively added to over the following centuries with the completion of the Lady Chapel in 1492 the last major work. Among the most famous bishops here were Bishop Fisher and Bishop Ridley – both of whom died for their faith.

Strolling through the cobbled streets of this historic town, about 30 to 40 minutes from London by train, you’ll also come across the Guildhall Museum, which is housed in the 17th century guildhall and features a range of displays and exhibitions on the history of the Medway including a Dickens discovery room.

Also worth seeing is Eastgate House, the model for Dickens’ Westgate House and now the location of the Swiss chalet in which he wrote, and Restoration House – created from two medieval buildings in the 16th or 17th centuries and the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s home  (see our earlier post).

One unmissable gem is the Six Poor Travellers – an atmospheric and well preserved almshouse in the High Street which dates from Elizabethan times and has an amazing backstory which you can explore as you make your way through its narrow rooms.

Part of the charm of Rochester (and for more on Rochester generally visit www.cometorochester.co.uk/visit/index.htm) lies in its close proximity to Chatham and Gillingham and here you’ll find much more to amuse and entertain including Chatham’s Historic Dockyards (see our earlier daytripper on this), Fort Amherst, Britain’s largest Napoleonic fortress, and for those who can’t get enough of Charles Dickens, Dickens World.

Just to the north of Rochester is Upnor Castle, a rare surviving Elizabethan artillery fortress built to defend the fleet at Chatham Dockyard.

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And so we come to the final in our series celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of author Charles Dickens. This week we thought we’d take a look at a few of the key places you can go for a daytrip from London to find more Dickens-related sites…

• Portsmouth. Dickens was born here on 7th February, 1812, and the modest home in which this took place is now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum (www.charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk). The house featured three furnished rooms and an exhibition room with a display on Dickens’ connections with Portsmouth and memorabilia including the couch on which he died at Gad’s Hill Place. Fans from all over the world will be converged in Portsmouth later this year when the International Dickens Fellowship Bicentenary Conference 2012 is held over 9th to 14th August (www.dickensfellowship.org/Events/annual-conference-2012).

• Chatham and Rochester, Kent.  Dickens spent five years of his childhood (from 1817 to 1822) living in Chatham and as a result it and the neighbouring Medway town of Rochester helped to inspire some of the characters and places in some of his most famous works. Restoration House in Rochester, for example, is believed to have been the inspiration for Satis House, where Miss Havisham lived in Great Expectations while Eastgate House (pictured) features as Westgate in both The Pickwick Papers and as the Nun’s House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Until 2004, the house served as the Charles Dickens Centre and interestingly, the Swiss chalet in which Dickens wrote was moved here in the 1960s from Gad’s Hill Place – it can be seen over the fence. The area has celebrated its connections with Dickens with an annual festival every year since 1978 – this year’s takes place on the 8th, 9th and 10th June. See www.medway.gov.uk/leisureandculture/events/dickensfestival.aspx for more. (Late addition: We neglected to mention Dickens World located at Chatham, an interactive experience which recreates nineteenth century England – you can find more about it here www.dickensworld.co.uk).

• Broadstairs, Kent. Dickens first came to stay at this seaside resort in 1837 when he was 25-years-old and already had a reputation on the rise. He repeatedly returned over the next couple of decades. The Dickens House Museum (www.dickensfellowship.org/branches/broadstairs) was once the home of Miss Mary Pearson Strong on whom much of the character of Miss Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield is believed to be based. It features a range of Dickens-related artefacts, including letters he wrote from or about Broadstairs. The Broadstairs Dickens Festival runs from 16th to 22nd June.

• Gad’s Hill Place, Higham, Kent. Dickens died here in 1870 after spending the last 13 years of his life living at the property. It’s now a school (www.gadshill.org) but the ground floor will be open to the public this summer, from 25th July to 19th August, for pre-booked tours of reception rooms and the study where he wrote Great ExpectationsOur Mutual FriendA Tale of Two Cities and the unfinished novel Edwin Drood. For more information on the tours, see www.dickensmuseum.com/news/gads-hill-place-to-open-to-public/.

This was the last in our series on Charles Dickens – next week we start a new series in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. For more events surrounding the Dickens celebrations both in London and elsewhere, see www.dickens2012.org.

Once a pivotal player in ensuring the UK’s navy remained on top at sea, the Historic Dockyard in Chatham has been involved in preparing ships involved in some of history’s greatest naval engagements – everything from England’s defeats of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Located 35 miles south-east of London on the River Medway, these days the dockyard plays host to tourists rather than hundreds of craftsmen who once worked there, eager to gain an insight into its rich history (as well as two film crews for movies and TV series).

While the history of the dockyard on its present site goes back to the 1600s, most of the surviving buildings date from between 1700 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, during which time the Chatham Dockyard built and launched 125 ships including Nelson’s Victory (which can now be found at Portsmouth).

The dockyard officially closed in 1984 and is now under the care of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust.

Attractions these days are many and range from the chance to ramble over historic warships permanently docked there – these include the sloop, the HMS Gannet – launched in 1878 it served as an anti-slaver and later as a training ship, the HMS Cavalier – launched in 1944, it was one of 96 emergency destroyers built during the Second World War and, having served in various places around the world until being ‘paid off’ in 1972, is now preserved as a memorial, and the last vessel built for the Royal Navy there, the Oberon class submarine HMS Ocelot – launched in 1962.

Other features include the Wooden Walls of England – an interactive walk-through looking at what life was like aboard England’s timber-hulled vessels of the mid-1700s, No 1 Smithery which now houses the maritime model collections of the National Maritime Museum and the Imperial War Museum as well as paintings and other artefacts, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s collection of historic lifeboats and The Royal Dockyard Museum which houses a large range of artefacts.

Also well worth a visit is the still working Victorian Ropery. Its curmudeonly attendants who provide a fascinating insight in what life was like for those formerly employed there and you can see how rope is still made in the 346 metre long rope house which, when constructed, was the longest brick building in Europe.

There’s also a cafe on site and a range of other odd artefacts at various locations – including the railway carriage used by Lord Kitchener in Sudan in 3 Slip – The Big Space – as well as the historic buildings of the dockyard itself.

There’s certainly more than can be seen in a day but thankfully all tickets are valid for a year.

WHERE: Chatham, Kent (nearest railway station is Chatham). For detailed driving instructions see website; WHEN: Open everyday until 12th December from 10am-4pm (check for times after that); COST: £15 an adult/£12.50 concessions/£10.50 children (aged five to 15 years)/£42.50 for a family; WEBSITE: www.thedockyard.co.uk