Travel: Messing about with books

Historical Rochester, beloved of bibliophiles, has two claims to fame: the Medway and Charles Dickens.

If your idea of paradise is a an endless parade of second-hand bookshops, junkshops and museums, all within easy walking distance, then Rochester is the place for you. And unlike most of Britain's other large towns with a past, it isn't swarming with shoppers and winter tourists.

Rochester is a genuinely interesting place which retains much of its ancient feel. However, I must confess to a mild personal interest here. My great-great-grandfather was Bishop of Rochester between 1877 and 1890. As children, we were wheeled off in the late-Sixties to view his cathedral.

Once a walled, Roman city, old Rochester has barely expanded beyond its medieval boundaries - though it has merged seamlessly with Gillingham and Chatham. The centrepiece is the old High Street, now pedestrianised apart from access for deliveries. It's a tumbling cascade of eclectic emporia, many of which milk the Dickens connection for all it's worth (he used to live nearby and many of his greatest stories use images from the area).

The best place to begin a wander round town is at the free museum attached to the glorious 17th-century Guildhall, built in 1687. In here, you'll find pieces that reflect pretty much all of Rochester's history, including room interiors and the council chamber. The most interesting bit is the skillfully recreated prison hulk, using a small portion of deck and an array of mirrors. It's a reminder that this whole area was once a naval centre.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, rat-infested, rotting and reeking wrecks, once great men-o'-war, were moored here to house prisoners from wars and from London's crime-ridden streets. Some of the inmates produced the most extraordinary models and artefacts made from bone while they waited for transportation to the colonies. The sheer horror and brutality is difficult to imagine. It's all a far cry from the Rochester of today, which is positively fun-filled in comparison.

Just past the Guildhall is the fabulous Baggin's Book Bazaar. Claiming to be the largest second-hand bookshop in Britain (not an unusual claim, it has to be said, but this is big enough to be close to the truth). The modest shop front belies its meandering corridors of low ceilings, strip lights and shabby shelves. The stock is phenomenal but, like a lot of Rochester's shops, slightly too pricey to allow unlimited impulse buys. Content is mostly local history with travel and literature upstairs at the back, and history, geography, science, biography and novels downstairs.

There are plenty more bookshops, though none of them are anything like as big. Some of the other shops offer a strange mix of potpourri, dolls, cards, stripped pine furniture and a liberal scattering of slightly chipped Victorian meat plates. In between them are ordinary greengrocers and clothes shops. I prefer those which veer wildly between junk and antiques and where a 17th-century walnut armchair sits alongside a Forties Bakelite telephone and a pile of yellowing, Ian Fleming paperbacks.

One shop of bygones is a vast chamber with a bizarre window display of gas masks, chairs, battered dolls, brass fittings and clay pipes. Inside, rows of Edwardian tables and Victorian wardrobes are stacked with china, boxes, suitcases, glass and a selection of fragments from a Dornier bomber which crashed nearby in the Second World War.

But Rochester wasn't founded to house antique and ephemera shops. It's here because of the Medway, a huge tributary of the Thames, and once home to Charles II's fleet. In 1667, the Dutch came up the Medway, burned the fleet and made off with the flagship, the Royal Charles.

At Rochester, the Romans founded a town called Durobrivae (a name which means "bridge-fort"). For centuries, the High Street was Watling Street, a great Roman highway from Richborough in Kent to London. In medieval times, it was the main road between London and Canterbury. The route was busy with a throng of travellers and one Richard Watts Esquire saw to it that the poorer among them could get lodgings. Look out for his house and its plaque which records that under his will, dated 22 August 1579, six travellers who could pay fourpence would be entitled to a a night's "lodging entertainment".

Long before, the Normans knew that Rochester's river crossing was very important so they built a colossal castle keep there, right over part of the Roman city wall. It is now open to the public, a huge pile of ragstone and cement with a vast internal void where wooden floors have rotted away. Climb to the top and from there you can look down on the diminutive Norman cathedral.

King John once laid siege here and, in an especially repulsive turn of events, used pig carcasses to speed things up. He had a hole dug under one of the corner towers and stuffed it with dead pigs. These were then set on fire and the resultant implosion caused the corner of the castle to subside. Today, you can still see that one of the towers, later rebuilt, is quite different from the other ones.

Another king came here, too, but unlike John he was sad and incompetent. In 1688, William and Mary were invited to England to take the throne from the Catholic James II. He fled and spent his last night here before he left England for ever on 23 December 1688. The house where he slept, appropriately called Abdication House, is now where the Lloyds Bank is located on the High Street.

There are plenty of more interesting buildings. Sir Cloudsley Shovell (1650-1707) was a city worthy (MP between 1698 and 1707). He rose to be admiral and commander-in-chief of the fleet in 1705, early in the reign of Queen Anne. Unfortunately, shortcomings in navigation skills of the age, which confounded an accurate calculation of longitude, contributed to his being shipwrecked on the Scilly Isles just after he had defeated the French fleet. The legend has it that a local woman found him washed up on shore and killed him for his ring. There's a marvellous facade in the High Street, replete with teetering clock and plaque erected at Sir Cloudsley's "sole charge and expense" in 1706.

But, if any one person has really captured the imagination of the good burghers of Rochester, it's Charles Dickens. This is unequivocally his town and that of his creations: Magwitch, Copperfield, and scores of other names that seem ludicrous if you think about them for long enough. He lived nearby at Gads Hill Place, a house later owned by the rather different creative figures of Rod Hull and Emu.

Every one of the Rochester bookshops has a Dickens section. The Dickens Centre itself is in a vast 16th-century brick and half-timbered pile called Eastgate House, at the east end of the High Street. It features various talking heads and vignettes from the books in a tour of the great man's works. Not only that, but the house itself was featured by Dickens in Pickwick Papers as Westgate House and in the garden is a chalet that was used by the great man while he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood just before he died. With its dinky old shops and cobbled streets, perhaps even David Copperfield would still recognise Rochester.

The Dickens Centre is open daily from 10am, last admission 4.45pm: adults pounds 3.50, children pounds 2.50, family (two adults, two children, pounds 9.50). Rochester Castle (English Heritage) is open daily, 10am-4pm (last admission, 3.30pm); adults pounds 3.50, children pounds 2.50. The Guildhall museum is open daily, 10am- 5.30pm (last admission, 5pm); free

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