Rochester was once overshadowed by Gillingham and Chatham, whose Naval Dockyard, along with the navy base and army garrison, employed thousands during the hey-day of the Royal Navy. The navy left in the 1980s and all three towns are now part of Medway, a unitary authority with powers much like the old ‘county boroughs’ that were abolished in 1972.
Rochester is the oldest of the three towns. The settlement by an ancient crossing place on the River Medway goes back to Celtic days. The Romans built a bridge and a small walled town to guard it in their time, and their defences continued to define the parameters of the medieval town that followed.
Medieval Rochester was dominated by the Norman castle whose keep still looms above the bridge and the medieval cathedral that lies in its shade. The cathedral is the older of these. It was founded in 604 by Ethelbert, king of Kent, the first English Christian ruler, who was converted to Christianity in 597. The king was baptised by Augustine, whose mission to convert the pagan English came directly from the Pope in Rome. Nothing remains of the early church apart from the outline of its walls marked out on the floor and grounds of the mighty Norman edifice that replaced it.
The cathedral was closed during the Civil War by the Puritan parliamentary authorities who abolished the Anglican church and proclaimed the short-lived Republic of England or Commonwealth in 1649. It re-opened when the monarchy was restored in 1660 and it remains the seat of the Bishop of Rochester today.
The building of the Norman cathedral was overseen by Gundulf, a monk from Normandy, who also designed and directed the construction of the nearby castle whose ruins still tower over old Rochester.
The castle survived two epic medieval sieges, but the last battle on its grounds was in 1381 when it was seized and looted by Wat Tyler’s army when they marched on London during the Peasant’s Revolt.
There’s plenty to remind us of feudal days in the old town bound by a defensive wall whose strength can still be seen in the north of the city. But this is also the home of one of the Victorian era’s greatest novelists, whose characters have been popularised on screen and TV and whose works are still part of the school curriculum.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth but his early childhood was spent in Chatham. He later returned to Kent, finally moving to Gads Hill Place, a house originally built for the Mayor of Rochester in 1857. Dickens features Rochester more than any city apart from London in his works and many of the buildings mentioned can still be seen today. Dickens died in the house in 1870. His last work, which remained unfinished, was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, set in a thinly disguised Rochester called 'Cloisterham'.
There’s plenty to see in Rochester. It’s close to London. There is a good rail service and good road links. But beware the festivals that are held in the old town throughout the year. The city gets swamped with visitors and parking is almost impossible within the vicinity of the major attractions!