10 good reasons to visit Rochester

Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle - Credit: Archant

A delight for lovers of history and culture, with its iconic landmarks, literary connections and unique shopping and dining options, this city offers something to explore around every corner.

Rochester Almshouses

Rochester Almshouses - Credit: Archant

1 King of the castle

Last year Rochester’s most popular attraction marked 800 years since one of its defining moments. The siege of Rochester Castle took place at the time of Magna Carta and saw rebel barons under attack by King John. The defenders initially held on to the castle but a two-month siege eventually starved them out. It would not be the only siege Rochester Castle endured but it was certainly the most notorious. Today the towering remains of the ruined fortress are maintained by English Heritage and offer visitors a glimpse into its long and complex past. Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk2 What the Dickens?

It’s hard to escape the ties between Rochester and one of Britain’s greatest authors. Shops, restaurants and even some of the area’s streets carry Dickensian names, thanks to the writer who set many of his stories here. Visitors can still see some of the buildings he knew and loved, including Restoration House, College Gate, Eastgate House – where Dickens’ own Swiss writing chalet is set in the garden (closed for refurbishment until later this year) – and Mr Topes House (now Topes restaurant). Dedicated fans can also drive out to the nearby village of Cooling to visit St James’ Churchyard, the inspiration for the opening chapter of Great Expectations.

3 Unique shopping

Rochester is unique in its plethora of charming independents shops to explore, including fashion, art and antiques, bric-à-brac and curios. It’s home to the UK’s largest second hand bookshop, Baggins Book Bazaar, and the excellent Francis Iles Galleries, a family business run by three sisters, with two outlets specialising in fine art, art and craft materials. The Rochester Flea, a monthly flea market, is held at the Gordon House Hotel on the last Saturday of the month and every third Sunday there’s the Rochester Farmers’ Market.

4 Food for thought

There’s also plenty of choice when it comes to places to eat and drink. With everything from world food, cafés, tea rooms, pubs and bistros to fine dining restaurants and big chain names, all just within a short walk of each other, there really is something to suit all occasions. Favourites include Bruno’s Bakes (01634 780506), Topes (01634 845270), Café Moroc (01634 405682), Elizabeth’s (01634 843472), Mrs Tickit’s Pantry (01634 811212) and Brettington’s (01634 400192).

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5 Ancient cathedral

Another inescapable landmark is set just across the road from the castle. Rochester Cathedral was completed in 1130AD but it replaced an earlier church which had been founded in 604, by Justus, the first bishop of Rochester. The building is one of the most important cathedrals in the UK and attracts visitors from all over the world. Certain areas are closed to visitors until later this year while the library is renovated and a new permanent exhibition space is created in the crypt, but you can still admire the splendid Norman architecture, visit the gift shop and enjoy a pot of tea and a slice of cake in its superb tea room. Visit www.rochestercathedral.org for more details.

6 Nearby attractions

There are several big visitor attractions close to Rochester. A little further downriver, Chatham Historic Dockyard (www.thedockyard.co.uk) is a brilliant day out, with historic buildings and boats to learn about and explore. Across the road from the dockyard is Fort Amherst (www.fortamherst.com), Britain’s largest Napoleonic fortress with miles of underground tunnels to explore and a famous live action horror event each Halloween. Diggerland (www.diggerland.com), a theme park for children and adults with a love of dumper trucks and JCBs, is just across the river in Strood.

7 New museum

For lovers of all aspects of history, there is a new museum on the upper floors of Rochester’s Visitor Information Centre. The Huguenot Museum is the only museum of Huguenot history in the country and tells the important story of Britain’s first refugees, as well as the crafts, trades and skills they brought with them and the impact their contribution had on the country. The museum’s main attraction is the French Hospital Collection, which includes paintings, documents and personal items. Visit www.huguenotmuseum.org8 Charming Upnor

A short drive away from Rochester is the equally historic but much smaller village of Upper Upnor. Here you’ll find Upnor Castle (www.english-heritage.org.uk), built during the reign of Elizabeth I to protect the dockyard on the other side of the river. The castle’s car park is set a short walk away but it offers the opportunity to explore the tiny village. The cobbled High Street leads past historic buildings and pubs, right down to the riverbank and to the castle. Meanwhile its twin village, Lower Upnor, faces the river and has pubs, yacht clubs and the Arethusa Training Centre. Walk along the riverside path and you’ll find a muddy river beach to explore.

9 Annual events

Rochester loves a good party. Throughout the year there are a number of exciting events and festivals which celebrate the historic significance of this area. In May there is the Sweeps Festival, a pagan celebration of the coming of spring, with chimney sweeps, Morris sides and folk dancing. Charles Dickens and the Victorian era are remembered each year with the famous Dickens Festival in June, and again each December with the Dickensian Christmas Festival. Not to mention the outdoor summer concerts in the castle gardens and Rochester’s Christmas markets. Visit www.visitmedway.org10 Historic buildings

The cobbled streets are lined with historic buildings and many of them, some unchanged for hundreds of years, are open to the public. Some of note are The Guildhall, built in 1687 and home to the fascinating Guildhall Museum; the Corn Exchange, built in 1698; Eastgate House, dating back to the 1590s; Restoration House, originally two medieval houses joined together around 1650; and the Poor Travellers House, believed to date to the 1400s and used by the local Richard Watts Charity to offer a night’s lodging to poor travellers between 1586 and 1940. w