/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on May 11, 2010 at 8:44 am
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Days out: Rochester

Rochester is a funny old place.  It’s not gracious or olde-world exactly, it’s not a tourist honey-pot or a great city of culture, but it’s got a distinct character.

Rochester High Street during the Rochester Sweeps festival

Rochester was one of the strategic strongholds for the Normans when they took over England, and it still has its Norman castle – a foursquare, four-turretted great keep, the highest in England – which dominates the town. It has its Norman cathedral, too – the Norman Bishops were warriors and gatekeepers, not just priests – with one of the finest Romanesque doors in England. (I’ve been told its column figures are Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the King and Queen of England, even Adam and Eve – which is certainly wrong, as they’re wearing clothes; no one really knows.)

Rochester is a long, thin town with a single great street that begins as High Street, and becomes Eastgate half way along. It has an intriguing collection of second hand bookshops and antique shops – as well as art and craft galleries, a proper greengrocers and an old fashioned sweetshop. Unlike most high streets in England, it’s resolutely kept its ancient character, with Tudor and Georgian houses, the classical Guildhall of 1687 in neat red brick with white details, tiny shops and pubs nestled between medieval halls and Renaissance almshouses.

Rochester was well known to Dickens – it’s the site of Edwin Drood and features in Pickwick Papers - and you can well believe it. Go down one of the little alleyways off the High Street, or visit one of the gardens not far from the centre, and you wonder if you’ll bump into a top-hatted gentleman or an convict escaped from the Victorian past…

Restoration House, which combined two earlier medieval buildings into a gracious Jacobean mansion, was Satis House in Dickens’s Great Expectations, and can still be visited – though not every weekend (look on the website for details). The gardens are marvellous in season – perhaps best in early summer, when they seem fresh and green; there’s a little box-hedged parterre, a Yew Court, and even a vegetable garden which looks far too attractive to be useful.

I’ve known Rochester for years and though individual shops come and go, the town itself never seems to change. The High Street is always busy, the cathedral is always dim and mysterious inside, and the castle keeps glaring across the River Medway – even though there’s little chance of an invasion by anything more serious than day-trippers or seagulls.

Practical info:

Trains from London Victoria in about 2 hours – not all trains stop at Rochester, but you can get off at Chatham and take a taxi back (5 minutes).

Photo by Garry Knight on flickr

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