Dickens and charisma in Rochester

Celebrating its annual Sweeps Festival this month, the largest May Day event of its kind in the UK, Rochester simply oozes charisma, colour and character

With a sensational cathedral, wonderful castle and a charismatic High Street, Rochester draws you into its indefinable mystique like a can’t-put-it-down book, and you never want to leave. Get ready for scenic views of the river Medway, old-fashioned tea rooms and centuries-old buildings just waiting to be discovered. Dickens’s favourite town, its buildings, cathedral and special ‘Rochester essence’ feature in many of his books. Strangely enough, the town hasn’t changed very much in the intervening years – you’ll find antique shops stuffed with amazing Victoriana, traditional bakers and cosy pubs and restaurants; cars keep a fairly low profile, there aren’t any chain stores and even the relaxing pace of life seems more in tune with the 1800s than 2010. Yet despite its Roman walls, hundred-year-old shops and Elizabethan mansions there’s nothing staid or backward about the place: beneath its calm exterior it’s buzzing with vibrancy. And twice a year there are festivals, with dancing and music in the streets, not to mention the Farmers’ Market every month. 

Around town Parking is easy (there are 10 convenient car parks), and the busy A2 (Corporation Street) runs alongside the bulk of town but, being at a lower level, is shielded from it. The effect is as if the High Street is almost closeted away from most of the traffic, and this quaint central heart of Rochester is small enough to cover on foot, but big enough to stay interesting. The going is mostly flat, apart from the castle, which is up a steep hill – anyone disabled might find it hard to climb, although the castle gardens are fully accessible to wheelchair users. The castle and gardens are at the ‘river’ end of town, while the adjacent cathedral is closer to the centre, and the majority of the shops are beyond here. Do ask at the Medway visitor centre for town guides, as these are not kept out on display – ask also for the In Dickens’ Footsteps guide (50p). Beside the Visitors’ Centre is The Six Poor Travellers House (almshouses). Cross the road and you come to the environs of cathedral: the tea rooms and caf� are in a beautifully atmospheric enclosure and beside the cathedral is Topes (01634 845270), an exclusive restaurant that has been awarded two AA rosettes and has a private dining terrace (see page 130). After visiting the cathedral, turn left along the High Street and you come to the excellent King’s Head hotel – an inn has been on this site since the 12th century. Almost opposite the King’s Head, on your right is the Old Corn Exchange, with its large clock jutting out over the pavement.Continue along here and near bridge you’ll find the Guildhall Museum (1687). Opposite is the historic Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel. Turn left just before the bridge onto the Esplanade and from here you can climb up Castle Hill to the glorious remains of Rochester Castle, with its fantastic views across town and the Medway. Leave the castle grounds by the small gate behind the keep and turn left along Bakers Walk. At the t-junction turn left again and then go into St Margaret Street on your right. This leads to Vines Lane, on the left, and here you’ll find the Vines, formerly the priory vineyard of the cathedral, and more recently developed as a public park. Facing the Vines is the lovely Elizabethan red-brick Restoration House. Come out of here onto Crow Lane, and to your left is part of the old Roman wall. This road leads back to Eastgate, a continuation of the High Street. Go right here and on your left you come to Eastgate House and gardens; directly opposite is an attractive timber-framed ancient house, referred to in Dickens’ novels as both ‘Mr Pumblechook’s House’ and ‘Mr Sapsea’s House’. This part of town is packed with all kinds of interesting shops with Dickensian references at every turn: Pips of Rochester, Dickens caf�, Mrs Bumbles tea rooms, plus traditional bakers, grocers and delicatessens.

Dickens and RochesterRochester was Charles Dickens’s favourite city, and his novels are peppered with references to Rochester landmarks. The Guildhall museum has a Dickens Discovery room and The Hulks Experience. The buildings used in the novels are detailed here:

The Pickwick Papers Eastgate house (in the grounds of which is now ‘Dickens’s Chalet’, a hut he wrote in), Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel (The Bull), the cathedral.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’s last, unfinished, novel) Eastgate house, Jasper’s Gatehouse and Mr Tope’s House (two buildings, one of which originally led to the cathedral precincts), Mr Sapsea’s house (the mansion opposite Eastgate house), the cathedral, The Vines (here, Dickens was reported to have been seen leaning on a fence just prior to his death).

Seven Poor TravellersThe Six Poor Travellers, the Old Corn Exchange.

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Great Expectations The Guildhall (in its previous incarnation as the Magistrates Court), Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel (where Dickens stayed), referred to as The Blue Boar, Mr Pumblechook’s house, Restoration House (renamed Satis House and used as Miss Havisham’s home).

The FestivalsRochester Sweeps Festival, 1-3 MayMedway’s annual Sweeps Festival is a facsimile of the annual festival of chimney sweeps on their annual holiday. The High Street is closed to traffic and there is a procession through the streets, which begins with an awakening of ‘Jack-in-the-Green’, a large, mummy-like container occupied by a person. This seven-foot ‘character’ is woken at sunrise on Blue Bell Hill, Chatham, and marched to Rochester High Street. The festival is a colourful mixture of music, dancing and entertainment that ended in 1900 but was revived in 1981 by director Gordon Newton, who plays melodeon for several of the 100 Morris teams taking part. It is the largest May Day celebration of its kind in the country (see Doug Hudson interview).

Dickens Festival, 4-6 JuneHeld since 1978, Rochester is decorated as in Victorian times, and there are parades through the town centre during the day and the streets are full of colourful costumes and entertainment.

Dickens Christmas Festival, 4-5 December The perfect opportunity for buying gifts and enjoying Rochester’s festive atmosphere. There’s a lamp-lit procession.

Considering a move?The cost of a one-bedroomed flat is �90-100,000, a two-bedroomed flat is �99-140,000, for a three-bedroomed semi, you’re looking at �115-190,000, while a four-bedroomed detached home would be in the region of �285-300,000.