A town guide to Rochester
- Credit: Archant
History comes to life in this riverside town. Climb to the top of the castle, explore the unique shops and see just what inspired Charles Dickens
It’s not hard to fall in love with Rochester. Famous for its stunning Norman castle and the cathedral directly opposite it, its historic streets are lined with pretty period properties and its riverside setting offers some incredible views.
The renowned cathedral school here, The King’s School, was founded in 604 AD, at the same time as the cathedral and is the second oldest school in the UK after The King’s School Canterbury.
Although it was the Normans who really put this place on the map, in our collective conscious it will forever be linked with the Victorian era – thanks to the work of a certain writer.
Charles Dickens spent much of his life in and around Rochester and famously used it as a setting for several of his stories. The town’s Dickensian history still brings visitors from all over the world. They can learn about the writer himself at the Guildhall Museum and visit Restoration House, the mansion he used as the home of Miss Havisham. And the town famously celebrates with an annual Dickens Festival (2 and 3 June), which never fails to draw huge crowds.
It’s not the only celebration to be held in this busy little town. Always keen to throw a party, the events kick off with this month’s popular Sweeps Festival (5-7 May), and continue through July’s series of spectacular Castle Concerts to the Medieval Merriment festival in August and the Dickensian Christmas celebration each December.
Rochester’s history is entwined with the River Medway and there’s no better viewing point than the green space between Rochester Castle and the river called the Esplanade Gardens. From here, visitors can access Rochester Pier and climb aboard a Jetstream Tours cruise boat for a different perspective of the town.
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It’s easy to step into the past in Rochester but it’s also an area striving to move forward in a changing world. A new railway station was opened in 2015 and high-speed trains take commuters into London St Pancras in less than 40 minutes.
Plans to regenerate land along the river, known as the Rochester Riverside development, are on track too, with work now underway and the first wave of new houses due for completion next spring.
Eating and shopping
Rochester is buzzing with exciting places to eat and drink. Just a handful of the many cafés and tea rooms in the town are: Tiny Tim’s Tearooms, Fleur de Thé, Mrs Tickit’s Pantry, The Garden House, The Deaf Cat, The Seaplane Works, Tony Lorenzo, Crepe & Co and The Cheese Room.
Fine dining can be had at Elizabeth’s and Topes, with other great restaurants including Brettington’s, Oliver’s, Don Vincenzo, The George Vaults, The Quills (see our postcard from Rochester) and Thai For Two.
Good pubs include The Cooper’s Arms and the Flippin’ Frog micropub. Further afield, the pretty riverside twin villages of Lower Upnor and Upper Upnor boast The Tudor Rose pub, The King’s Arms, The Ship Inn and Powder & Magazine restaurant – all highly rated.
When it comes to shopping for unique gifts, clothing and pretty things for the home, Rochester has a number of independent shops that are great fun to explore.
Visit Pink Flamingo, I Dig Dinos, Rocket, The Candy Bar, Fieldstaff Antiques, Get Ready Comics, Francis Iles art shop, Pastures New, Copenhagen Blue, Mini Mi, Baggins Book Bazaar, Kiss Kiss Heart, Paloma Studio and many more.
It’s not just Rochester that is benefitting from regeneration. Just across the river is its closest neighbour, Strood, which is already celebrating the opening of a new railway station. The £2.9m upgrade boasts a modern design and better facilities for passengers.
Meanwhile, work has also recently started on Strood’s £9m transformation project. Medway Council secured funding from central government’s Local Growth Fund to improve Strood town centre. The initial improvements will transform the existing car park and market space at Commercial Road, creating a new and improved market site. Other aspects of the works, which will be carried out later on in the year, include improvements to pedestrian routes, cycling facilities and road layout in the town centre to reduce congestion.
Last summer Eastgate House on the High Street completed its £2.1m restoration, fully opening to the public for the first time in more than 30 years. The Grade I-listed Elizabethan house, famous for its references in the novels of Charles Dickens, had been the subject of a careful conservation project over the past two years, thanks to funding from the National Lottery.
Medway Council and its contractors worked to delicately restore the building to show how it would have looked in its prime, including the reinstatement of a staircase that was removed more than a century ago. Repairs were also made to the roof, windows and flooring. Some 21st-century additions include a heating system, new lighting and a lift to the upper floors of the house.
Inside visitors will find an exhibition telling the story of the house and those who lived and worked there over the past 400 years. Built in 1590, it was originally the home of Sir Peter Buck, a senior officer at the Royal Tudor Dockyard, and later became a Victorian boarding school for girls.
During the conservation project numerous items were discovered, including a small folded note found beneath the floorboards - thought to have been an exchange between two pupils - along with a toothbrush made of bone, a farthing dated 1923, a thimble and a gentleman’s collar pin.
Medway Council’s Portfolio Holder for Community Services Cllr Howard Doe said: “We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved with the building and hope many visitors will enjoy visiting and learning about the house.
“Eastgate House is just one of the many assets which links Medway to Charles Dickens, and we think it’s important to conserve the area’s rich heritage for future generations to enjoy.”
High-walled Rochester Castle was completely obsolete by the time Henry VIII was ordering the construction of his coastal artillery forts. But in its 11th-century heyday it was one of the biggest castles in England, and it is the tallest surviving tower keep of its type in Europe.
Although it looks like a rugged, floorless and roofless ruin today, you can still see the wall arcading and chevron patterning in the walls of its residential chambers, which in its time would have been considered palatial.
This summer the castle is the backdrop to two outdoor theatre performances: Measure For Measure on 25 July and Robin Hood and his Merry Men on 21 August. www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rochester-castle
Postcard from Rochester
I’m James, owner of The Quills restaurant and I’ve lived in North Kent and Medway all my life. I’m a passionate foodie and a self-taught chef. The Quills is a restaurant for everyone and we use quality ingredients, much of it local, to serve real, flavourful food. Set on historic Rochester High Street in a 500 year-old Tudor Yeoman’s house, we are best known for our popular breakfasts and brunches, which we serve every day until 3 or 4pm. We also have a great lunch menu and we’ve now introduced a great afternoon tea offering.
In the evening (Thursday to Saturday) we become a gourmet burger restaurant and diner. Our menu includes a Krispy Kreme donut bacon cheeseburger, a macaroni cheese burger with a cheese on toast topping as well as great meat-free and vegan options. It’s all finished off with our own boozy milkshakes, sundaes, ice cream sandwiches and more.
We were delighted to be nominated at 2017’s Kent Life Food Awards, not least because we were in the family dining category. Our kids’ meals include a choice of simple dishes, as well as some healthy or more interesting items. We then include an ice cream and a reading book, which we think gives a balance to keep kids and parents happy.
We really enjoy taking our children to Rochester Castle and grounds, especially when the sun shines. A meandering walk through the High Street, turning up through the hidden gem of The Vines park to the castle, is a great way to escape from modern distractions. The High Street also boasts the country’s largest second-hand book shop, Baggins Book Bazaar, which is an amazing place to forget the clock and discover lost titles on any subject imaginable. Pink Flamingo boutique is right next door to The Quills and has a great range of elegant or quirky ladies wear, always popular with ‘Mrs Quills’.