/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on May 12, 2010 at 10:40 am
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Days out: Chatham

Though Rochester has been one of my favourite day trips for many years, I didn’t know Chatham till comparatively recently. They’re five minutes apart on the railway – but they’re like two different worlds.

Chatham's naval dockyard

Rochester, with its castle, cathedral and town houses, is like a cross between the best aspects of a large village and a small city. It turns its back on the River Medway. Chatham, on the other hand, is defined by the river – it’s a maritime centre, with its fort, dockyard, and pier.

There are some glorious Georgian houses – built for the officers at the Navy dockyard, or for local merchants. But the most important sight in Chatham is the historic dockyard. The ropewalk where rope for the rigging was made can still be visited, and three historic warships are moored here. You can also catch a paddle steamer from Thunderbolt Pier, in the dockyard – ‘Kingswear Castle’ is a coal-fired steamer dating from 1924, and plies her trade between the Dockyard and Rochester.

The dockyard needed defending, so in 1756 Fort Amherst was erected overlooking the bend in the river – protection from a landward attack. It’s quite an amazing place, with underground tunnels leading upwards, but the best reason for visiting is the spectacular view from the top.

For engineering buffs, Chatham also has an early Pumping Station that is open as a museum. And the Army, as well as the Navy, has its own museum – devoted to the Royal Engineers. (That, to be honest, is not really right up my street.)

I must admit that I’ve never been to Chatham’s other great tourist atraction, Dickens World. It’s billed as an innovative indoor tourist complex that takes visitors on a trip to Victorian Britain. But really it’s more of a Dickens-style theme park, with a dark boat ride, HD cinema, and animatronics. Apparently it is pretty authentic (though anybody who thinks Fagin is an appropriate patron for a kiddies’ play area hasn’t read Oliver Twist), but I think you’ll get a much better feel for Dickens by just lurking around Rochester. (You know, some of the guys who work in the antiques shops in Rochester look much more like Fagin than any actor has ever managed!)

The great thing is you don’t have to choose between Chatham and Rochester. You can do both, perhaps in a day, and certainly in a weekend.

By the way, for Transatlantic visitors, it’s not ‘chat-ham’, it’s ‘chattum’.

Photo by alh1 on flickr

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