Mr Bell’s Guide To Historic Rochester


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The city of Rochester in Kent is an easy day trip from London with it being only a 40 minute train journey from Victoria. Its modern train station and city bypass hide from view this unique city and its wealth of historic buildings. Walking from the train station took me literally minutes and before I knew it I was on the historic High Street.

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Rochester was always an important centre, even before the Romans arrived soon after 43AD. The High Street was part of the Roman Road from London to the Kent coast and it remained the main highway to the continent until the 20th century.

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In front of me is the cathedral with its War Memorial Garden. There has been a church on this site since Ethelbert, King of Kent built a small cathedral here for Justus, the first Bishop of Rochester in 604AD. Today’s building was begun in 1080 by the Norman Bishop Gundulf, who established a Benedictine priory here. In the 13th century an ambitious extension and rebuilding plan was started creating the Gothic style that can be seen today. For whatever reason in the 14th century the plans were abandoned leaving a large part of the Norman / Romanesque nave intact.

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The Deanery Gate is a 15th century priory inner gate which still has its original doors. The passage was once used as a route by pilgrims to the shrine of St William of Perth, a baker from Perth in Scotland. He was murdered just outside of Rochester in 1201 while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

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Just around the corner is the Church of St Nicholas, built for the townsfolk in 1423 after arguments with the monks of the priory over the use of the cathedral. The church was rebuilt in 1624 and in 1964 was converted for use as offices for the Diocese of Rochester.

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The 15th century Chertsey’s Gate is next to the church. Built of alternating courses of stone and flint it separated the walled cathedral precincts from the town. In the 18th century the gate was converted into a dwelling by the addition of a timber house on top of it. In Charles Dickens unfinished novel Edwin Drood this was Jasper’s Gatehouse.

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Directly across the road is the King’s Head Hotel and Ye Arrow. An inn has been situated on this site since at least the 16th century. The bold lettering on the fascia of the King’s Head survives from the 19th century.

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On the High Street more or less opposite the King’s Head is the ornate facade of the Old Corn Exchange with its huge clock jutting out over the pavement. It was gifted to the city by one of its members of parliament, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell in 1706. Recently during some renovation work the clock was found to have problems and has since been dismantled while experts look at what needs to be done to preserve it.

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Opposite is Two Post Alley which separates a Tudor building with a 19th century shop front and number 42 High Street, a fine private house from 1778. The ornamentation over the first floor windows is a remnant of the time when the building was used commercially and once bore the words “Phoenix Printing Office”.

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Further along is the ornate Guildhall. The building dates from 1687 and together with next door, the former premises of the Medway Conservancy Board, is now a museum with an excellent collection of local historical exhibits. Inside the principal chamber has a fine decorative plaster ceiling with portraits and items of civic regalia. Outside there is a beautifully detailed ship weathervane which was added in 1780.

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Across the road from the Guildhall is the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel, an old coaching inn and posting house where Princess Victoria stayed overnight in 1836, the year before she became queen. Over the entrance is a large coat of arms of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Charles Dickens wrote about the inn in a number of novels, most notably the Pickwick Papers.

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A short walk away is Rochester Bridge. The River Medway has been bridged at this point since Roman times. The piers of the bridge which carry London bound traffic date from 1856 but the superstructure dates from 1914. Endowments administered by the Bridge Trust, founded in 1391, still provide for its upkeep and also paid for the second bridge that sits alongside the original which opened in 1970.

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Down the Esplanade is the 14th century Bridge Chapel. Once the chantry of the family of Sir John Cobham, who was instrumental in founding the earlier medieval bridge, it is now used as a meeting room by Rochester Bridge Trust whose offices adjoin it.

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The 19th century archway just ahead is the ruin of a bastion. From here I enter the grounds of Rochester Castle. The Normans fortified the site soon after the Conquest, with earthworks and timber palisades and making use of what remained of the Roman city walls. In around 1088 it was rebuilt in stone becoming one of the earliest masonry castles in England. The massive keep, the tallest in the country, was started in 1127. King John captured it during the siege of 1215 by destroying the south east corner turret. The turret was rebuilt in 1226, but in a rounded form.

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Leaving the castle from the small gate at the rear of the grounds brings you out into a lane, across the lane is Satis House, once the home of Richard Watts, who entertained Queen Elizabeth I here in 1573. The story goes that she rather ungraciously expressed her approval of her host’s arrangements with a single Latin word: “Satis”, meaning enough. The building has undergone extensive alterations since then with the “Old Hall” to the left still retaining something of its Tudor appearance.

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Crossing the road and a little further down is the magnificent west portal of Rochester Cathedral. Over 800 years old it is the only surviving example in England of a doorway with elongated column figures.

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The road alongside the cathedral formed part of the Priory of St Andrew until 1540. On the right is College Green with the Old Bishop’s Palace, which incorporates part of the 15th century building where the saintly Bishop John Fisher lived until 1534. He was executed the following year for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the church.

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Opposite is the peaceful Cloister Garth, the site of the Priory of St Andrew, which here unusually adjoined the chancel of the cathedral and not the nave.

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Leading into St Margaret’s Street is the 15th century Prior’s Gate, the most complete of the surviving Priory Gates.

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Minor Canon Row is an attractive terrace originally built for the lesser clergy of the cathedral in 1723. Number 7 was added a little later for the organist.

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A lot of the buildings in this area belong to the King’s School, refounded by Henry VIII in 1542. At the top of the road is Oriel House dating from 1740. The fireworks on the facade of the building identify the companies that had insured the house against fire. Opposite is the 18th century front of the former Archdeaconry concealing a much earlier house.

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The park called the Vines is where, in the past monks had their vineyard. Through the park at the other side is a pretty row of houses.

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One of those houses is the important Restoration House, where Charles II stayed on his return to England in 1660 to be crowned. A few years later Samuel Pepys viewed the house. He called it “a pretty seat” and recorded in his diary the romantic advances he made to a woman in a cherry orchard near here. Pepys was in Rochester as a clerk to the Navy Board to assess the damage caused by the daring raid up the River Medway by the Dutch fleet in 1667. Restoration House was also used by Dickens as Satis House in Great Expectations as the home of the jilted bride Miss Havisham.

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Back on the High Street is a good example of a late 16th century timber framed house. The three gables are supported by richly ornamented timbers and brackets overhanging the street.

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On the opposite side is Eastgate House, a timber and brick house, much of it dating from the late 16th and 17th centuries. It was originally the home of Sir Peter Buck, an important naval officer and Mayor of Rochester. In the garden, at the back is Dickens chalet, which once stood in the grounds of Gad’s Hill Place, his house at Higham, about 4 miles west of Rochester, where he settled in 1857. Dickens used the upstairs room of the chalet as a study and was working there on his last, unfinished, novel Edwin Drood, the day before he died in 1870.

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Along the High Street back towards the cathedral is the French Hospital, La Providence. The Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in France, founded their hospital in London over 250 years ago. In 1960, at the instigation of the then Bishop of Rochester, this square of early 19th century houses was acquired and converted into apartments for the elderly of Huguenot descent.

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Further up is the Watt’s Charity, the Poor Travellers’ House. Endowed under the terms of Richard Watt’s will of 1579, the charity provided a nights board and lodging for six poor travellers, and continued to do so right up until World War II. The house, with its galleried Elizabethan bedrooms is sometimes open to the public. Charles Dickens described the house and charity in a short story entitled, The Seven Poor Travellers.

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I liked Rochester, it had a friendly feel and so much history to get immersed into that I feel I’ve only just scratched the surface of this fascinating place. Maybe another visit could be on the cards soon.

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