Spotlight on Rochester
If you are looking for somewhere that has a rich history, literary links, beautiful architecture, and fantastic road and rail links to the rest of the country, then Rochester is the place for you. Part of the Medway towns, Rochester has within its streets and buildings stories of battle, of romance, and of history. Visit Rochester and discover just what an important town it is, and how it helped shaped the county and the country around it.
by Lisamarie Lamb
History in Brief
Rochester dates back to Neolithic times (10,200BC to 2000BC) and archaeologists have discovered remains within the area to prove it. It is, then, an ancient town in the true meaning of the word, and it has been occupied by Celts, Romans, Jutes, and Saxons. It was popular with invading forces and homegrown peoples due to its position on the River Medway (at its lowest point, which meant that trade was good there as boats could land and goods could be sold), and soon grew from a small village into something more like the town we know today.
Once Rochester’s important position was realised and established, the castles (Rochester and Upnor) were built, as was the cathedral, and these fantastic buildings can still be visited today.
Things to Do
Rochester Cathedral has been on a site of worship since 604AD, although the present stunning building’s construction was started in 1080 on the instruction of Gundulf, a French monk. The building is Gothic in style and has been the subject of a number of studies on architecture in the past. Inside, and by special appointment only, it is possible to see the famous Chapter Library Door, one of the oldest doors in England which dates back to the 14th century.
In the 13th century Rochester Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage thanks to the martyr William of Perth, a baker who was murdered in the area around the cathedral. Once his body was taken to the cathedral, it is said that miracles began to occur, and people travelled for miles around to see for themselves.
People still travel, and if no miracles occur these days, then at least the building is a beautiful place to visit, and the fresco painted in 2004 – the first for 800 years – is worth coming to see.
The oldest part of Rochester Castle, the Norman keep, was built in around 1127 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Corbeil. Since then, it has stood guard over Rochester, protecting the one-time city from all who attempted to invade.
For those unafraid of heights, the top of the battlements gives you the ultimate view of Rochester, and for just one pound you can borrow an audio guide that will take you around the castle and give you a complete history of the impressive place. Rochester Castle may be a ruin, but it is a ruin with history and a tale to tell.
A mere baby in comparison to its companion Rochester Castle, Upnor Castle was built in 1559 on order from Elizabeth I. Its purpose was to protect the gunships that were sailing down the Medway and into the Chatham Docks. However, despite looking good, the castle wasn’t much of a defence, and in 1667 it completely failed to stop a Dutch fleet from attacking the Royal Naval shops stationed at the Dockyard.
Upnor Castle is full of winding staircases, large courtyards, and a sense of history that, rather than being airbrushed into perfection, shows the flaws and errors that our ancestors were perfectly capable of making.
This privately owned house is open to the public when the owners are not in residence, and is a wonderful example of what Rochester has to offer. With a number of different displays about the town’s history and its links with King Charles II, Charles Dickens (Restoration House was the basis for Miss Haversham’s House in Great Expectations), and a number of other famous personalities, beautifully maintained gardens, as well as a tearoom, this is a lovely way to spend some time.
This fascinating museum has free entry, but many a visitor would be glad to pay a fee to see the exhibits and information inside. The artefacts on display include a massive weathervane shaped like an 18th-century warship (found on the roof and weight a huge 51kg!), a 200,000-year-old axe (which it is possible to touch), a Victorian drawing room and kitchen, the Dickens Discovery Room, and a number of items from a Roman villa – as well as much, much more.
Rochester and Cobham Park Golf Club
Rochester and Cobham Park boasts a superb 18-hole, parkland course and hosts Internationals and Open Qualifying competitions. They are a members’ club, but are always delighted to welcome visitors and societies who enjoy golf and the friendly Clubhouse. Minutes from the A2, the Club is within easy reach of London and the M25.
Rochester is, it seems, keen on its food, as there are a number of different cuisines and restaurants to choose from. Our list showcases only a few, and if nothing here catches your tastebuds, then just a short stroll down the narrow Rochester streets will find you something delicious.
Whether you are looking for a sit down meal or an afternoon tea, TOPES can provide it. The building dates back, in parts, to the 15th century, and the owners have kept as much of the history as possible, combining it with a modern British menu that includes dishes such as poached smoked haddock with black pudding, garlic roasted rump of beef, and flourless orange and almond sponge.
Freshly made Italian food with an emphasis on flavour – that is Mamma Mia’s mantra, and this fabulous Italian restaurant serves up some of the most mouth watering dishes out there. Try the salmone al pepe rosa (salmon in pink peppercorn and brandy sauce), or the pollo Mamma Mia (chicken breast with ham, mushroom sauce, and mozzarella), or perhaps one of the freshly baked pizzas… The choice is yours.
The menu is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good – the flavours and food combinations are superb, and many a happy customer has returned again and again to sample the different menu items. With perfectly cooked steak, homemade chips, or frogs’ legs and scallops, there really is something for everyone here.
With its rich and varied history, it is no surprise that Rochester has a number of annual events to celebrate the fact that it has so much to offer.
The Dickensian Festivals – Summer and Christmas
With such strong links to Charles Dickens, it’s no wonder that Rochester has two annual festivals to celebrate the fact. Both festivals (in May/June and December) include re-enactments, costumed actors, and Victorian revelry. Whether you are a fan of the man or not, the festivals are great fun.
The Rochester Christmas Market is the highlight of the year for many. Combined with the December Dickensian Festival, this really is like stepping back in time one hundred and fifty years, and finding out how the Victorians did Christmas – after all, most of our traditions come from them. Stalls selling gifts, food, and drink line the streets and entertainers come from far and wide to make you smile.
The Sweeps’ Festival takes place in May each year, and is a colourful, vibrant – eccentrically and traditionally British – festival of dance, music, and fun. Sweeps’ Day is celebrated on 1st May, and the festival continues this theme and creates a full weekend out of it.
There is always a performance going on at Medway Little Theatre, so it is worth passing by to find out what you might be able to get tickets for at short notice. Past performances include The Graduate, The Memory of Water, Blithe Spirit, The Crucible, and Steel Magnolias – the cast and crew involved in Medway Little Theatre certainly aren’t afraid of trying new things. This 96-seat theatre with its integral bar is a traditional old theatre, and is a lovely building too.
Did You Know?
In 1998, Rochester merged with the rest of the Medway Towns to create the Medway Unitary Authority. However, due to an administrative error, the council forgot to appoint any Charter Trustees, which means that Rochester lost its city status. It wasn’t until 2002 that the council realised their error.