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Travel / Tours / England / Rochester
Visit Rochester (Kent, England)
  River Medway
  Charles Dickens
  Rochester Castle
  Rochester Cathedral
  The Vines
  Guildhall Museum
  Dickens Festival
  Sweeps Festival
  Further information


A brief visitor's guide to the town Rochester (in Kent, south-east England).

Medieval and Tudor England: Day Trips South of London - Dover, Canterbury, Rochester
Authors: Sarah Valente Kettler, Carole Trimble
Publisher: Capital Books
Date: September 2002
A-Z Maidstone and Medway Towns
(street map)
Publisher: Geographers' A-Z Map Company
Date: July 2007

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Rochester is situated in a strategically important location at a crossing point over the River Medway. Its High Street is part of a Roman road known as Watling Street which was built between London and the Kent coast (it continued from here to Canterbury and then to Dover), which is the main route to Continental Europe. The old Roman bridge was destroyed by storms in the 14th century, to be replaced by a medieval bridge and then by a new Victorian bridge in the 1850s. In 1970 a second road bridge was opened next to the Victorian one.

The paddle steamer Kingswear Castle (built in 1924) offers river cruises from Rochester Pier and The Historic Dockyard Chatham.

Entrance to Rochester Bridge

Paddle steamer trips on the River Medway

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is one of England's most famous novelists. His most popular stories include The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. He died before finishing a novel called The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Dickens spent five years of his childhood (between the ages of 5 and 10) living in a small house in Chatham, not far from Rochester. He got to know the area well, and later he used many of the people and places as characters and settings in his novels (although the names were usually changed). The fictional towns of Mudfog and Dullborough were based on Chatham.

One of Dickens’ Christmas stories (published in 1854) was The Seven Poor Travellers. This was inspired by a building on Rochester's High Street known as Watts' Charity, the Poor Travellers' House. Sir Richard Watts (1529–1579) was a successful local businessman and politician who left money in his will for a house where six poor travellers would be offered one night's free accommodation and entertainment before being given fourpence and told to leave. This tradition continued until the start of the Second World War.

Satis House in Great Expectations, where Miss Havisham lived, was based on Restoration House, an red-brick Elizabethan mansion in Crow Lane which was once the home of Sir Richard Watts. It is known as Restoration House because Charles the Second stayed here in 1660, as he travelled back to London to be crowned king (England had a period without a king following the execution of Charles the First in 1649, so the crowning of Charles the Second represented the restoration of the monarchy).

The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel featured both in The Pickwick Papers (using its original name, the Bull Hotel) and in Great Expectations (as the Blue Boar). "Royal Victoria" was added to the hotel's name after Princess Victoria stayed here in 1836, the year before she became queen.

In 1856 Dickens bought a house called Gad's Hill Place at Higham (three miles west of Rochester), and lived there until his death in 1870. He constructed a Swiss chalet in the garden, and used to write in its upper room. The chalet has been moved to the gardens of Eastgate House in central Rochester, but is in need of restoration and visitors cannot enter at present.

In the Historic Dockyard Chatham (not far from Rochester) there is a Dickens World attraction

Watts' Charity, the Poor Travellers' House

Charles Dickens' chalet

Restoration House (Satis House in Great Expectations)

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You enter the grounds of Rochester Castle from the Esplanade near the river, through a 19th Century archway. The Normans fortified this site soon after they invaded England in 1066, using earth, timber and the remains of the old Roman walls. In about 1088 it was rebuilt using stone. A large square inner stronghold (keep) was started in 1127. It is one of the best preserved examples of a Norman fortress in England.

In 1215 the bridge and castle were taken over by barons who were rebelling against King John. The king marched his soldiers to Rochester and they managed to take back the bridge, but were unable to recapture the castle using stone-throwing catapults and archers. His soldiers eventually dug a tunnel under the south-eastern turret, supported using wooden props. Pig fat was then placed in the tunnel and ignited, causing the props to burn and the walls above it collapsed. The siege had lasted for about 2 months. The turret which had been destroyed was rebuilt in 1226, but in rounded form.

Today the site is managed by English Heritage. There is a small entry charge. A guidebook is available.

View of the keep from the east (from the cathedral)
The rounded turret replaced the one destroyed in 1215

View of the keep and outer castle walls from the west (from the river)
You enter the castle grounds through the archway near the river

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Rochester Cathedral is one of England's oldest, founded in the year 604. The present building was begun in 1080 by Bishop Gundulf, a Benedictine monk from France. Although the building has been modified a lot over the past 900 years, plenty of Norman features can still be seen in the nave and crypt. Pilgrims used to come to the cathedral to visit the shrine of St. William of Perth, a Scottish baker who was murdered nearby in 1201 while making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

View of the cathedral (from the castle)

South window

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The Vines is an open space to the south of the town centre. It was used as a vineyard by monks from St Andrew's Priory, until this was dissolved by Henry the Eighth in 1540. An avenue of trees was planted here in 1880 but was damaged by a strong winds in 1987 and has been replanted. The stump of one of the destroyed trees has been carved into the image of a monk.

Avenue of plane trees

Carved image of a monk

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The Guildhall was built in 1687. Today it contains a free museum which traces the history of Rochester and the Medway area. Highlights includes the Dickens Discovery Room, which explores the author's links with Rochester and the Medway area, and a recreation of an 18th century prison ship.

The Guildhall

Sign outside the Guildhall Museum

Late medieval weapons and armour

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The town's association with Dickens is celebrated during two annual festivals. The Dickens Festival is usually on the first weekend in June, and the Dickensian Christmas is on the first weekend in December.
One of the highlights of these festivals are the parades and processions, including many people dressed as characters from Dickens' stories or in Victorian costumes. There are also street entertainers, readings, music and dance.

A reading from Dickens in Eastgate House
(by his descendant Gerald Dickens)

There is a Grand Procession along High Street,
ending in Rochester Castle Gardens

Members of The Rochester Pickwick Club
(who later performed a court scene in the Guildhall)

(character from the story "Oliver Twist")

Mrs Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge
(characters from "A Christmas Carol")

Miss Havisham
(the jilted bride in "Great Expectations")

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The Sweeps Festival is a three-day celebration which takes place each year during the bank holiday weekend at the start of May. Sweeps were men and boys who used to clear the black soot left in chimneys by burning wood and coal fires (it was made illegal to employ young boys to climb chimneys in 1868). Traditionally the sweeps were given a holiday on 1 May each year, and used to stage a procession through the streets of Rochester. The festival was revived in 1981 as a celebration of British traditions, including local sweeps, Morris dancers from all over the UK, and folk groups.

A young sweep

Morris dancers

Photo opportunity

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* Booking a tour
The City of Rochester Society provides free 90-minute guided walks of Rochester between Easter and September:

* Visitor information
Rochester tourist information:
Rochester Castle:
Rochester Cathedral:
Guildhall Museum:
Paddle steamer Kingswear Castle:
Rochester Bridge Trust:
Dickens World (Chatham):
Rochester Dickens festival:

* Transportation
For train timetables and to buy a ticket online, see: Shop/Company/TheTrainline
The fastest train services from London Victoria to Rochester take about 40 minutes.

* Weather forecast for Rochester/Chatham

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Leeds Castle: Travel/Tours/England/LeedsCastle
Canterbury: Travel/Tours/England/Canterbury
Dover: Travel/Tours/England/Dover

Morris dancing: Ideas/Album/MorrisDancing
British literature: English/Reading/Literature
British history: Britain/History
Charles Dickens: English/Reading/Literature/Charles-Dickens

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