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     The Medway Area - Rochester & its Heritage                                                                                       BACK

Rochester's Norman Legacy

Rochester Castle - No one can miss the great square keep of the Castle as it towers above the River Medway, a daunting reminder of the history of the City. It was on this site that the Romans originally built the first fort to guard the bridge which connected the Imperial Route of Watling Street, leading from London to Dover.Many centuries later in 1087, Bishop Gundulf - one of William the Conqueror's finest architects - began construction on the Castle where many of the outer walls followed the same lines as their Roman originals. Now, the Castle is well known as one of the best preserved and finest examples of Norman architecture in England, measuring 113 feet high, 70 feet square and with walls 11 to 13 feet thick. The Keep is the tallest in the country; visitors can wend their way up the circular staircase leading to the battlements and take in superb views of the City and surrounding countryside.

The castle remained in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury until 1215 when it was seized after a two-month siege by King John who used every resource available to gain control of the castle.

Many of the curtain walls were built in the 12th and 13th century. Entry to the castle gardens from the Esplanade is via a mock Norman arch which was cut into the outer bastion by the Royal Engineers in 1872. The cannon at the top of the steps is a relic of the Crimean War.

The stark drama of this ancient and imposing castle, which evokes a rich tapestry of historic atmosphere, makes it well worth a visit in any season.

Rochester Cathedral - Originally founded in 604 by Bishop Justus, Rochester Cathedral is the second oldest in England and a regular place of pilgrimage for historians and worshippers alike.Between the years of 604 and 1080 when it was rebuilt by Bishop Gundulf, the Cathedral withstood numerous Viking raids. The nave and parts of the crypt are Norman; added to this are many styles of Gothic architecture, which blend perfectly with the building. In the crypt visitors can find an altar built for Ithamar, the first English Bishop. Graffiti is no modern invention; explore the crypt and you will find "holy graffiti" presumed to be the work of monks. The Cathedral also contains a large collection of medieval wall paintings; whilst many are now in fragments, the Wheel of Fortune in the Quire is well worth looking out for. The exquisitely carved medieval Chapter Room doorway, the 13th century choir stalls and the heads in the North Transept, which have been so finely carved by medieval stone masons, should not be missed.

The same sense of peace and tranquillity prevails outside the Cathedral as it does within. Visitors can stroll through the Cloister Garth Gardens where some of the recently renovated monastic remains can be found. Beside the garden is the St. Andrews Visitors Centre, which was the original Deanery, dating back to 1640.

Today the Cathedral serves the Diocese of Rochester (with 200 parishes in West Kent) and the London Boroughs of Bromley and Bexley with a population of well over 1,000,000 people.

Daily services are accompanied by a professional choir and one of the most magnificent organs in the country. Fourteen centuries of worship have created an atmosphere of peace and reflection. Temple Manor, a 13th century lodging house for the Knights Templar can be found at Strood.

Charles Dickens in the City he loved

Rochester, Chatham and the surrounding Strood countryside are where Charles Dickens spent many happy years, both as a child and later in life when he returned to live in the area he had grown to love so much. As a child, the characters he encountered and the places he visited had a powerful effect on his imagination. This is particularly true of Rochester, which appears frequently in both his novels and his journalistic work.

Charles Dickens was five years old when his father John Dickens, left Portsmouth to start work at the Navy Pay Office at Chatham Dockyard in 1817. They moved into No.2 (now No. 11) Ordnance Terrace, Chatham where Charles spent many of the happiest years of his life. In 1821 the family moved to 18 St. Mary's Place, The Brook. Here Charles could read his father's novels up in an attic room, looking up every now and again and seeing what would probably have been a superb view of Rochester Castle and Cathedral. Unfortunately, the house was demolished in 1941.

The Royal Dockyard was a constant source of fascination to the small boy. Trades and skills of the rope-makers, the anchors smiths and the blacksmiths all drew the attention of the young Dickens, as did the morbid sight of the convict hulks moored out in the Medway. Later, Dickens was to recall these sights and record them in one of his best-known novels 'Great Expectations'.

In 1856 Dickens bought Gads Hill Place, an imposing building which stands in Higham between Rochester and Gravesend. "This is Falstaff's own Gads Hill, and I live on the top of it... my house... is one I was extraordinarily fond of when a child", he wrote in 1860. After he separated from his wife, Dickens sold his house in Tavistock Square, London and lived mainly at Gads Hill. Walking was one of Dickens favourite pastimes. As a child he had strolled miles in the company of his father; often they would walk to Frindsbury and Chalk, passing through Cobham Wood and visiting the Leather Bottle Inn at Cobham on the way. Later in life, he followed the same route and would also walk along to Chatham Lines via Rochester. Dickens often visited Rochester and on Monday 6th June 1870, he walked over from Gads Hill accompanied by his dogs; when he reached Rochester he was seen leaning on the fence of Restoration House and apparently examining the old mansion with great care. Three days later on the evening of 9th June 1870, he died of a stroke after spending the day working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Although he had always hoped to he buried in the graveyard at Rochester Castle, it was decreed by Queen Victoria that he should he buried in Westminster Abbey.

Where to Find Rochester in The Novels of Dickens - Rochester, Chatham and the surrounding areas are rich in atmosphere and personality. Between them, they provided Dickens with many of his most memorable scenes and characters. "Great Expectations" was written in 1860-61 and was set in and around Rochester more than any novel since Pickwick Papers, which was published in 1836. In "The Mystery of Edwin Drood", Dickens last and unfinished novel, Rochester is depicted as Cloisterham.

The Charles Dickens Centre and Eastgate House

The Charles Dickens Centre can be found in Eastgate House, a delightful Elizabethan house which is of great architectural and historic significance in itself. The house acquired its name from Eastgate Street, the former name of the section of the High Street in which it stands. It was built in 1590 for Sir Peter Buck, once Alderman and Mayor of the City of Rochester and Clerk of the Cheque at Chatham Dockyard.

Sir Peter's Coat of Arms and those of his first wife can be seen in the building, principally on the fine decorative plaster-work ceiling on the first floor and on a carved wooden shield which is set high among the gables on the High Street frontage of the house.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the house became a boarding school for young ladies and remained so until well into the 19th century. Dickens knew the school and portrayed it in Pickwick Papers as Westgate House.

In 1897, the corporation of the City of Rochester decided to honour Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and establish a museum. Eastgate House was purchased for this purpose for the princely sum of £2,000!

In 1979 the City Museum was moved to the Guildhall and The Charles Dickens Centre was created. The Centre was completely refurbished for 1996 and uses the most up to date, state of the art technology to vividly portray the life and times of the great 19th century novelist and the unforgettable characters he created.

The centre also contains a dramatic tableau in which special effects are used to bring to life Dickens Dream', based on the famous painting in which many of his characters visit him whilst he dozes in his study.

Dickens' Chalet

Standing in the gardens of Eastgate House is the Swiss Chalet from Gads Hill Place, Dickens' last home. It was presented to Dickens in 1864 by a French actor called Charles Fletcher and arrived at Higham railway station packed in 58 packing cases. Dickens used the chalet as a summerhouse and study, and was writing the final chapters of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' in the upstairs room just before his death on 9th June 1870. After Dickens' death, the chalet was taken to London and put on public exhibition. However, his family were somewhat disconcerted by this and it was finally presented to Lord Darnley who had it erected in the grounds of his home, Cobham Hall.

In 1960 the chalet was purchased by the Dickens Fellowship which gave it to Rochester City Corporation. It was then erected on its present site in the grounds of Eastgate House. Unfortunately, because the chalet is rather fragile, it is not open to the public but may be viewed from the outside.

Rochester High Street

Rochester High Street is a thriving, buzzing centre, which is full of colour and activity. Not only does it contain a wonderful choice of shops, restaurants and cafes but also a wealth of buildings of great architectural and historic interest.

The Guildhall - The Guildhall was built in 1687 and is one of, if not, the finest 17th century civic building in Kent. The main staircase and principal chamber have magnificently decorated plaster ceilings, given in 1695 by Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell who was Member of Parliament for the City at the time. His portrait can be found in the main chamber, along with those of other notable MPs for the City. Outside, mounted on the cupola on the roof is a superb gilded weathervane in the form of a fully rigged 18th century warship. This vane has weathered the ever changing climates since 1780.

The Guildhall has housed the main museum of Rochester since 1979. After major refurbishment the Museum re-opened in 1994 with brand new displays where visitors follow a "time line" through the City's history aided by the latest visual displays and sound effects. The centre-piece of the museum is a special themed two tier gallery recreating a Medway prison hulk of the Napoleonic period, illustrating the terrible conditions in which prisoners were held.

In the adjoining Conservancy Wing the story of local music balls, theatres and domestic entertainment is retold. Also on display are exhibitions of Victoriana, dolls, toys and old photographs.

Watts Charity - Immortalised by Dickens in a Christmas short story, 'The Seven Poor Travellers', Watts Charity was endowed by Sir Richard Watts, an MP for the City in Elizabethan times, to house 'six poor travellers' for one night each. Whilst the house is mainly Tudor, the front was added in 1771.

Chertsey's Gate - One of the three remaining old monastery precinct gates, this has also been known as Jaspers Gate, Cemetery Gate and College Gate. It featured in Dickens' novel 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' as the gatehouse home of Mr John Jasper.

The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel - This charming old coaching Inn has been in existence since the late 15tb century and naturally, did not escape the attention of Dickens who mentioned it in two of his greatest novels, Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations. Originally the inn was known quite simply as 'The Bull on The Hoope'; however Princess Victoria, then the future Queen of England, stayed there for one night and it assumed its present name.

The Corn Exchange - Built in 1698, this building was originally the Butcher's Market. In 1706 the ornate frontage was added at the expense of Sir Cloudesley Shovell. The original clock, which was smaller and square in shape, was replaced in 1771. It was not until the first part of the 19th century that the building became The Corn Exchange.

Draper's Museum of Bygones - Opened in June 1996 the museum exhibits a collection of packaging and artefacts from the last 100 years, all set in period style shop fronts and rooms of the time.

Other Places of Historic Interest

The Romans, the Vikings, the Normans; Kings, Queens and statesmen - all have passed through Rochester, leaving their mark on a unique City which can he matched for historic wealth and interest by few others.

Satis House, Bakers Walk - Originally this was a huge 16th century mansion, a part of which was Longley House, the Friars and the Old Hall. Queen Elizabeth I added her Royal stamp to the house which she visited in 1573. Ever since it has been known as Satis House.

Old Hall, Bakers Walk - Elizabeth I also visited this charming old residence in 1573. The house contains some particularly fine wall paintings.

Bridge Chapel, Esplanade - Until the 16th century a Bridge chapel at the end of the medieval bridge was used by travellers to give thanks for safely crossing the bridge. Built in 1397 the chapel was restored by the Bridge Wardens in 1936 and now serves as the Bridge Trust's board room.

Minor Canon Row - A row of seven charming 18th century houses at the rear of the Cathedral which feature in Dickens novel "The Mystery of Edwin Drood". Nos 1-6 were built in 1723 to house the minor canons of the Cathedral, while number 7 was added as a home for the Cathedral organist, a purpose it still serves today. No. two was also home to Dame Sybil Thorndike OBE the great British classical actress, when her father was a canon of the Cathedral.

Prior's Gate - Leading from Minor Canon Row to St. Margaret's Street is Prior's Gate, the most perfect of three surviving 14th century monastic gates.

St. Margaret's Street - Well worth visiting is this lovely old street which runs southwards from the Cathedral and Castle. Bishopscourt, the present Bishop's Palace can he found here; it was initially bequeathed to the Bishop of Rochester in 1674 for maintenance of hospitality near the Cathedral". The Coopers Arms is a charming old inn, which could have been visited by the pilgrims as they passed through Rochester on their way to Canterbury and the Continent. The 15th century medieval tower and belfry of St. Margaret's Church are still standing today whilst the rest of the church was built around them between 1824 and 1840.


 

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