Charles Dickens, champion of the working man and the overburdened woman, would be delighted with the offer each day from 7am to 9am outside the Golden Lion pub: tea or coffee for 49p. I’ll have two, thanks, and keep the change: a boost of caffeine is just what you need to make the most of the city that has been thriving for two millennia – and, within the past year, has moved even closer to London and the rest of the country.
Rochester may appear still to be where the Romans founded it, under the name Durobrivae, 2,000 years ago – on the west bank of the river Medway, shortly before the river broadens out to ooze through its muddier reaches on its way to the Thames Estuary. But thanks to the new High Speed One train services, which began last December, the city – plus the other Medway towns of Strood, Chatham and Gillingham – is now barely more than half an hour away from London St Pancras, with easy connections to elsewhere in the UK. Its historical importance is partly due to its location: it lies where the Medway was crossed by the ancient road from London to Canterbury and Dover, which Chaucer’s pilgrims travelled down in The Canterbury Tales.
A couple of minutes’ walk from Rochester station takes you to the eastern end of the High Street, a thoroughfare that resembles a film set and was central to Charles Dickens’ upbringing. The great Victorian writer and social commentator recreated many of the locations in his books.
The city and its traders are understandably keen to make the most of their celebrity. The handsome 16th-century Eastgate House, for example, served as a model for the Nuns’ House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood; in The Pickwick Papers Dickens did not over-extend himself to rebrand it as Westgate House. The last 13 years of his life, in which he produced some of his best writing, was spent nearby at Gad’s Hill Place in the village of Higham. The garden chalet in which he worked has now been transplanted and sits in the gardens behind Eastgate House itself.
Elizabeth’s of Eastgate, close by at 154 High Street, has a plaque asserting “Here lived Uncle Pumblechook” from Great Expectations. The restaurant offers dishes such as rump of lamb with shallot and wild-mushroom sauce, and has a list of suppliers in Kent and East Sussex. Just off the High Street, towards the western end, is the 16th-century Restoration House. It owes it name to Charles II’s decision to stay there on the last night of his return from exile via Dover to reclaim the monarchy in London in 1660. And it served as Satis House, the home of Estella and Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. The gardens contain a ghostly sculpture, created from the stump of one of the many trees destroyed in the 1987 hurricane.
Another notable 16th-century creation is the |grey stone building at 87 High Street. The Six Poor Travellers was an act of flamboyant philanthropy by a former MP, Richard Watts. He bequeathed this fine house to provide a shelter for half a dozen poor travellers who would receive “lodging, entertainment and four pence each” for one night only, so long as they were not “rogues or proctors”. Watts’ generosity ended only in 1940, when it was deemed out of keeping with wartime austerity.
Dickens would no doubt have encountered pilgrims seeking refuge there as he was growing up. He would also be amused, perhaps, by the creation of DickensWorld nearby in Chatham, a brave attempt to create a literary theme park featuring a GreatExpectations Boat Ride, a reconstruction of a Victorian School and the obligatory Haunted House. You can also expect to meet some of his famous characters.
It’s a tribute to the city’s rich history that there is so much to explore without even venturing into its two greatest treasures – but the castle and cathedral provide a magnificent finale to a visit. Nine centuries on, Rochester Castle still dominates the city. It has crumbled over time, but is ripe for roaming and researching. And as the sun begins to sink, in its shadow stands the second-oldest cathedral in England (the first, you will not be amazed to learn, is down the A2 in Canterbury). Work began soon after the Norman Conquest. As is usual, styles and masonry evolved during its long construction and amplification, making it a superb ecclesiastical and architectural cross-section that guides you through the past – with Dickens at your side.
* Golden Lion, 147-149 High Street (01634 880521)
* Eastgate House, High Street, Rochester (01634 338141; eventswithelegance.co.uk )
* Elizabeth’s of Eastgate, 154 High Street (01634 843472; elizabethsofeastgate.co.uk )
* The Six Poor Travellers, 87 High Street (01634 845609).
What to see and do
* Restoration House, 17-19 Crow Lane (01634 848520; restorationhouse.co.uk). Admission £6.50
* DickensWorld, Leviathan Way, Chatham Maritime (01634 890421; dickensworld.co.uk ). Entry £11.50.
* Rochester Castle (01634 335882). Admission £5.
* Rochester Cathedral, Garth House (01634843366; rochestercathedral.org). Admission free.