It is a rather dull day today with clouds that suggest it could clear up or turn to rain. Which will it be? After an unexpected warm spell that put us all back into summer garb, it has become colder with a definite autumn chill on the air. But still, nothing venture, nothing gain, so off we go!
But go where? The picture above shows the station where we arrived aboard the HS1 which serves the ancient kingdom and modern country of Kent. Aboard this fast train the journey takes only 37 minutes.
The platform belongs to Rochester’s functional but unlovely station. It was to Rochester that we had decided to come, a town to which we have made several visits but to which we like to return from time to time.
In the High Street near the station is this shop, once the premises of A.F. Smith & Sons, and now occupied by Emmaus Medway who hope to begin running it as a secondhand store on October 29th. Smiths is a family firm that started up in 1884 and is still run by the family but from a different address – an impressive 127-year history.
Further along is the old Crown Court. I haven’t been able to find a date or age for this building but we think it is probably late Victorian, to judge from the style. The dignity of the design is certainly fitting to the solemnity of its original function. Today, people entering within are not facing legal justice but attending appointments at a dental clinic.
The High Street is fairly narrow and quite pleasant. There wasn’t a lot of traffic while we were there but I think it would be more pleasant if it could be pedestrianized. Perhaps routing and traffic flows do not permit this.
The Post Office looks as if it might have been built in the 1930s or thereabouts but it is closing down. Services are moving to a new location further along the High Street. What will happen this building? All being well, it will find a new purpose.
This Thai restaurant has a board on it declaring to to be “Ye Old Curiositie Shoppe”. It isn’t. It is an example of something very obvious in the town, namely Dickensian myth making. You encounter signs all over the place claiming that this building and that building are the house or premises of some character in a Dickens novel. I assume this is done to attract tourists who may uncritically accept these ascriptions. The pity is that Rochester is a very interesting town historically and it would be much better to concentrate on elucidating this instead of conjuring up make-believe connections with Dickens who actually spent very little time in this town.
Here is another example of the tendency to “own” Dickens. The author of Oliver Twist travelled so widely that there is hardly a town that cannot claim some tenuous connection. This sign is on a house dated 1684 which is far more interesting in its own right than through any imaginary reference to the works of Dickens.
Just across the road is an Elizabethan building called Eastgate House. It is very striking and stands out as soon as you come near.
Peter Buck built Eastgate House in 1590-91. He had been appointed Clerk of the Cheque at Chatham Dockyard and chose this site in Rochester for his home, perhaps because he could use the nearby river as a route to his office. Peter Buck was later elected Mayor of Rochester.
Three owners succeeded Buck until 1791 when James Reed or his wife set up a school here. The house continued as a school after the Reeds and then became a private home again when it was bought in 1870 by a coal merchant named Samuel Shaw.
In 1897, in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Corporation bought the house and converted it into a library and museum.
The house became a Dickens museum in the 1970s but closed in 2004. Lottery funding has been received and it has reopened though so far it contains very little in the way of exhibits. No doubt it will improve in the future.
The jewel in the museum’s crown is this structure that stands behind the house, overlooking the garden. Fans of Dickens will immediately recognize what it is even if they have never seen it. It is the chalet that Dickens installed as a writing study at Gads Hill Place in 1865. It was brought here in 1961 and is one of two genuine pieces of Dickens memorabilia owned by the museum and arguably the more important of the two.
The second is the horse-powered well pump that Dickens installed at Gads Hill Place in 1857. Nowadays, when all we have to do to fill the kettle is turn on the tap, it is hard to imagine that the supply of water in Dickens’s day was not to be taken for granted.
Continuing our walk we came upon this stately property, known as the Restoration House. Built in 1587, it is open to the public during June to September, so we just missed it. It is claimed that Charles II stayed here on the night of May 28th 1660 at his restoration.
Looking across the road, I thought for a moment I was seeing Charles II taking his dog for a walk in the park! It wasn’t, of course, but just a passer-by reading the information panel describing The Vines Gardens.
This piece of land called The Vines originally belonged to the Cathedral and its name derives from the fact that it once served as the monks’ vineyard. Today it is a public park though a reminder of the monks is still to be seen.
It takes the form of a tree trunk carved to represent a robed and cowled monk with his hands tucked in his sleeves, meditating or thinking deeply.
The Normans built the castle at Rochester with its massive keep that impresses still today even in its semi-ruinous condition. In 1215, King John besieged the castle, which was held by rebels against his reign, and managed to conquer it, first by undermining the southern tower – which accordingly collapsed – and finally by starving the occupants into surrender. The tower was rebuilt in 1226 but given the then more advanced rounded shape which distinguishes it from its square companions.
Rochester Cathedral, otherwise known as the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, is reckoned to be the finest of the country’s Norman cathedrals. Plans to renovate it were never realized and it went into decline, being described by Pepys as “shabby”. It was restored in the 19th century and still retains its original Romanesque style.
One of our favourite buildings is the Guildhall built in 1687. It has a handsome portico and the public are admitted inside because it is today a museum. Moreover, photography is allowed. I can therefore show you a couple of the many interesting discoveries inside.
When you walk up the main staircase, do not neglect to look upwards. There you will see this remarkable moulded ceiling with its apparently free flying cherub.
On the top floor you come to this magnificent council chamber. It too has an elaborate ceiling. It is well lit by large windows and, while dignified, expresses optimism and civic pride. As it no longer serves its original purpose, it has been allowed to accumulate some of the city’s treasures such as mayoral chains of office and portraits of past dignitaries.
These are some of the treasures to be found outside the museum. Firstly, on the roof is a wind vane which is a beautifully modelled ship. At a certain time of day, it becomes a perch for starlings gathering to fly to their night-time roost. In the courtyard stands a Victoria R pillar box. This one is painted in green livery, reminding us that early pillar boxes were indeed in this colour – the first to be painted red were in London in 1874. The shape of the box suggests this is its correct colour. Finally, we discover on the gateway, a rarer Victorian wall box. This one is used as the private letterbox of the museum and painted black.
Rochester is a city of charity. A number of principal citizens have left endowments of various kinds and contributed to projects such as the building and financing of almshouses. Here is a slightly less usual example.
In 1579, one Richard Watts Esq endowed a hostel for six poor but honest travellers. They were not only to be given a night’s lodging but should also be entertained and given four pence in cash to help them on their way. All this to perpetuate his own memory but also as an inducement to follow his own example. Walking around the city and reading the tablets affixed to buildings, one soon sees that Watts was not alone in his charitable works.
A place we always like to visit when in Rochester is La Providence. This describes itself as a “French Hospital”, where the noun has its ancient meaning of a place where the needy may find shelter. The history of the French Huguenots and their migration abroad, including to Britain, is a fascinating one. The Huguenots integrated with British society quickly and extremely well. However, their descendants have tenaciously preserved the connection with their forebears and still provide for needy members of the Huguenot community.
A charity to support needy Huguenot individuals and families was endowed in 1708 in the will of Jacques de Castigny, Master of the King’s Buckhounds at the court of William and Mary. A royal charter was granted in 1718 and the first hospice, called "La Providence" by those whom it succoured, was established in the City of London, then in Hackney. In 1960, a square of early Victorian houses was bought and adapted as flats for elderly people of Huguenot descent. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, kept clean and decorated with flowers by the inhabitants.
There is a lot to see in Rochester. The above merely scratches the surface. Every time we go there, we discover something new as well as renewing our acquaintance with familiar and enjoyable features.