If one place can claim to be truly ‘Dickensian’ it has to be Rochester. Charles Dickens lived in nearby Chatham as a child and came to know Rochester well. He returned to the area as a successful writer in 1856 when he bought Gad’s Hill Place at Higham just three miles away and he was to spend the last 14 years of his life there.
Many of Rochester’s buildings are instantly recognisable in Dickens’s books, especially in Great Expectations, which was set in and around the city, and the Mystery of Edwin Drood, his last, unfinished, novel.
Needless to say, Rochester makes the most of its links with the great author – there are plaques on many of the buildings that featured in his works, a ‘Dickens Discovery Room’ in the Guildhall Museum and many of Rochester’s shops and cafes bear suitably Dickensian names.
But there’s more to Rochester than these impressive literary links. Take a stroll down the High Street, an attractive mix of brick, stone and timber, civic pomp and domestic simplicity, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of countless generations. Thanks to its position at the lowest bridgeable point of the Medway, this was the main road from London to the Kent coast for 2,000 years.
The Romans arrived here in AD 43 and established a settlement called Durobrivae, ‘the walled town by the bridge’, and traces of its defences still remain. A thousand years later, the Normans chose the same site for a new cathedral and castle, both built under the supervision of Bishop Gundulf, the architect of the Tower of London.
Rochester’s strategic importance as a river crossing ensured that it frequently found itself caught up in the military upheavals of the Middle Ages. Its castle was captured by William Rufus in 1088, surrendered to John in 1215 (see our feature on page 24) but fought off Simon de Montfort’s rebels in 1264.
In 1201 Rochester actually benefited from an act of violence. William, a baker from Perth in Scotland, was travelling on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he was murdered near the city. He was canonised in 1256 and for some time the shrine of St William of Perth in Rochester Cathedral was second only in importance to that of Thomas Becket, making it an important stopping-off point for pilgrims to Canterbury.
1. Medway Bridge
There has been a bridge on or near to this site since Roman times. Rochester’s medieval bridge was blown up by the Royal Engineers in 1856 and replaced by a cast iron structure which was replaced by the present bridge in 1914. The balustrade of the original bridge now runs along the esplanade above the river.
2. Rochester Cathedral
A Saxon cathedral was founded near the site in 604 but the present building was begun by Bishop Gundulf in 1080. It boasts one of the finest Romanesque facades in the country. Highlights of the interior include a crypt, some solid Norman arcading with interesting carved graffiti, an early medieval wall painting of the wheel of fortune, and the tomb of Walter de Merton, Bishop of Rochester and founder in 1264 of Merton College, the first fully self-governing college in Oxford or Cambridge.
In 1087 one of England’s first stone castles was built in Rochester when Bishop Gundulf ordered the replacement of an earlier earth and timber fortification with masonry walls. Its 12th-century keep is the tallest in England. Note that one of its four corner towers is circular. It was rebuilt this way after the original square tower was brought down when the castle was besieged by King John’s army in 1215.
4. City walls
This is the best preserved section of wall and is thought to date from the 14th century using parts of the Roman wall as a foundation. It has survived because it once formed part of the now demolished 19th-century building housing Sir Joseph Williamson’s mathematical school.
Built in 1687, the Guildhall houses a museum chronicling the history of the Medway area. A highlight is a reconstruction of part of one of the fetid prison hulks that were moored on the river in the 18th and 19th centuries. A new exhibition looks at Charles Dickens’s connections with Rochester. Mounted on the cupola on the roof is a gilded weather vane in the form of an 18th‑century warship. Over five feet high, it was added in 1780.
6. Restoration House
This red-brick Elizabethan mansion is in fact an amalgamation and extension of two earlier buildings. It takes its name from the fact that Charles II stayed here on his return from exile in the year of the monarchy’s restoration:1660.
The interiors include period furnishings and panelling and portraits by Lely, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Charles Dickens used the house as the model for the reclusive Miss Havisham’s residence in Great Expectations.
7. Eastgate House
Eastgate House was built in 1590–91 for Sir Peter Buck, a naval official and mayor of Rochester. In Dickens’s time it was used as a boarding school for young ladies. Dickens’s Swiss chalet stands in the gardens. The novelist was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood in the chalet on the night before he died.
8. Old Corn Exchange
Originally the Butchers Market, the Old Corn Exchange was given to the city in 1706 by one of its members of parliament, the splendidly-named Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. The following year Shovell, who had also paid for the ornate ceiling and staircase in the Guildhall, met his death when much of his fleet ran aground on rocks off the Isles of Scilly.
9. Chertsey Gate
Dating from the 15th century, this was once one of the entrances to the walled cathedral close. By Dickens’s time, a timber house had been built on top of it. In Dickens’s Mystery of Edwin Drood it was the residence of Mr Jasper, the choir master. Beyond the gate is the Church of St Nicholas, which was built for the townspeople after quarrels with the priory over use of the cathedral.
10. The Poor Travellers House
This almshouse was established in 1579 by local MP Richard Watts to provide one night’s free bed and board for up to six poor travellers, and it continued to do so until the Second World War. The interior, with its Elizabethan bedrooms, is normally open in the summer as is the herb garden in the courtyard. Although it was refaced in Portland stone in 1771, the house may date back to the 14th century.
You can read more about Rochester Castle, King John and the French Invasion of England, as well as the siege of Rochester and the new Ironclad film in our Ironclad Special.