Rochester Tourist Guide
A guide to the many tourist attractions and historic sites in and around Rochester.
Rochester is situated 20 miles south-east of London and is just 1½ hours from France. It has grown from a small Saxon village to an historic city. Many people immediately link the name with Charles Dickens but there is much more to be seen and experienced.
Rochester’s early settlement and the castle
There is evidence of Neolithic settlement at nearby Kit’s Coty House and prior to the Romans arriving the community was named Durobrivae or ‘stronghold by the bridges’. The present day High Street and Northgate/Boley Hill are built over the Roman settlement. This was a key area to control as it was the lowest bridging point of the Medway river. The Romans put up a bridge and established a stronghold and the area enjoyed considerable prosperity. Watling Street passed through the town and by 225AD stone fortifications were constructed as a defence against attacks. Even during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ following the Romans’ departure there is evidence the town continued to maintain civic life. The Domesday Book of 1086 mentions a castle but nothing of this part survives today. In 1088 a stone castle was erected on the remains of the old Roman fort. The bailey wall still stands today. The architect of the castle was Gundulf, bishop of Rochester, who also built the cathedral and St. Bartholomew’s leper hospital which is the oldest in the country but sadly the original is now gone. In 1127 the Archbishop of Canterbury gave the castle to Henry I and a large central keep was constructed, standing 34.5 metres high and with walls 3.5 metres wide. It is the tallest Norman keep in the country.
The present cathedral was begun in 1080 and was completed in 1130. However, the earliest mention of a cathedral in Rochester was in 604AD when land for one was donated by King Ethelbert. The building was founded by Bishop Justus and consecrated by St Augustine and it was dedicated to St Andrew who was the patron saint of monasteries. In 1889 foundations of this earlier building were discovered while work was being carried out on the west end of the present day cathedral. After rather a chequered history in the 1800s the building was restored by Gilbert Scott to the appearance we see today. In the nave and crypt is some outstanding Norman architecture and the Romanesque façade is one of the finest in the country. There is also a wonderful fourteenth century Chapter Library door as well as the first real fresco, by Sergei Fyodorov, in an English cathedral for over 800 years which was dedicated in 2004 in the north nave transept. Rochester Cathedral became an important place of pilgrimage in the thirteenth century following the death of a Scottish baker, William of Perth. Miracles were reported to have happened at his shrine. People today can still walk up the same Pilgrim Steps which led to his shrine (although the shrine itself no longer remains). Candles can be lit at the prayer-station in front of the oratory.
Other places to visit in Rochester
As well as the castle and cathedral Rochester has many other attractions. The Guildhall Museum features a Prison Hulks experience reflecting on a time when convicts and prisoners-of-war were kept on old warships in the river estuary. There are also recreations of various historical domestic rooms and an overview of Medway’s history from Neolithic times to the present day. Restoration House and Garden is a unique Elizabethan city mansion and was ‘Satis House’ in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The Poor Travellers’ House was originally an almshouse but it was improved further after Richard Watts’ death in 1579 when he left instructions in his will for a charity to be set up. Travellers were allowed to stay for one night and to be given 4d when they left. The building closed in 1940 and part of it is now a museum about Richard Watts and his charity. Dickens’ short Christmas story ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’ was written after a visit in 1854.
Fort Amherst, a Napoleonic fort with a tunnel network, stands on a hill overlooking Chatham and the river. It was part of an inner ring of forts, along with Forts Pitt, Clarence and Gillingham, which helped to guard the Medway and Thames area. An outer ring consisted of Forts Borstal, Bridgewood, Luton and Twydall Redobts together with two more forts on islands in the Medway (Hoo and Darent). Eastgate House which lies in Rochester High Street was, until 2004, the Charles Dickens Centre. The house was built between 1590 and 1591 by sir Peter Buck, major and Earl of Northumberland. It was used as a school in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and is well known as ‘Westgate House’ in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and ‘The Nun’s House’ in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In the garden today is Dickens’ Chalet which was transported from his garden at Gad’s Hill Place. Gads Hill Place, just a few miles outside of Rochester, was once Charles Dickens’ home.
Also look out for La Providence French hospital built in 1708 by Jacques de Gascony, which was the first hospital for French Protestants; Chertsey’s (or Jasper’s) Gate dating from the early eighteenth century which guarded the precincts of the cathedral; Bridge Chapel which was the fourteenth century home of Sir John Cobham and is still used by Rochester Bridge Trust today; and why not try out the ‘Kingswear Castle’ – a restored paddle steamer which leaves from the pier in summer.
The Sweeps Festival takes place on May 1st. It recalls the important yet dangerous trade carried on 200 years ago by sweeps and their chimney boys. A procession through the streets used to be accompanied by a character, Jack-in-the-Green, standing seven feet tall. Jack was woken from his slumbers on Bluebell Hill and brought to Rochester to start the day’s revelry. Dickens describes this clearly in Sketches by Boz. This festival stopped in the early 1900s but was revived in the 1980s by Gordon Newton. The Motley Morris, his Morris dancing team, look after the Jack character. Today dance teams from all over Britain attend and there is a variety of music – folk, guitar and traditional singing – on offer.
The Dickens Festival occupies the first week in June. The Dickens Fellowship Society and others don Victorian costume to parade the streets and castle gardens. All of Dickens main characters can been seen wandering the streets of Rochester.
Dickensian Christmas is largely based on A Christmas Carol with again many recognisable characters walking the streets together with other entertainers. A candlelit parade through the High Street ends with carol singing outside the cathedral.
How to get to Rochester
From Heathrow by road via M4/M25/M20/A229 is approximately 90 minutes. By rail via London Underground to Victoria then to Rochester takes about 120 minutes.
From Gatwick by road via M23/M25/M20/A229 is approximately 55 minutes. By rail via Victoria to Rochester takes around 80 minutes.
From the Channel Tunnel by road, from Cheriton, via M20 and A229 is about 40 minutes.
From the Channel ports: Dover via A2/M2/A229 is around 50 minutes; Folkestone via M20/A229 is approximately 60 minutes.
Rochester Farmers' Market
The Moat-Rochester Castle (3rd Sunday of the month, 9am - 1pm).Tel: 01634 331447
Christmas Market, Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays (10.30 a.m. to late), 25 November to 17 December War Memorial, Rochester High Street
Medway Little Theatre, 256 High Street 01634 400322
Cineworld Rochester, Chariot Way, Strood, Rochester 0871 200 2000
Rochester Health Centre, Delce Road 01634 401111
Court View Surgery, 2a Darnley Road, Strood, Rochester 01634 290333
City Way Medical Practice, City Way Surgery, 67 City Way, Rochester 01634 843351 / 01634 843320
St Mary's Medical Centre, Vicarage Road, Strood, Rochester 01634 291266
Thorndike Dental Practice, 374 High Street 01634 817417
Photay And Associates, 196 High Street 01634 404600
New Road Dental Practice, 3a New Road 01634 845286
Howard Marshall Dentistry, 18E City Way 01634 842549
Crown Court Clinic, 203 High Street 01634 840303
St Bartholomew's Hospital, New Road 01634 810900
Disclaimer: The information in this Tourist Guide has been researched from a variety of sources including books, articles and online information. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information the reader should check any specific facts for themselves before making any decisions based upon the said information.
Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015