Cornwall & The South: Pt 42 – Rochester, Kent

Our next stop was the the former City of Rochester on the River Medway, a beautiful historic place, with sites aplenty…

Rochester:

Status: Medway Unitary Authority, Kent, Town (Former City), England

Date: 13/08/2015

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Rochester Castle, Rochester Cathedral, River Medway, Rochester Bridge, Strood Riverside, St Nicholas’s Church, Chertsey’s Gate,  Corn Exchange, Guildhall Museum, Gundulf’s Tower, Tourist Info Centre, Poor Travellers House, La Providence, Royal Crown Hotel, Rochester Bridge Chapel etc

We parked up, close to Rochester Cathedral, the former cities most prominent building. It is the second oldest Cathedral, after only nearby Canterbury.

The very first Cathedral here was built by King Ethelbert (560 – 616) in 604 AD, and the dioceses founder, Justus, became its first Bishop. Like most Cathedrals and Churches, it was rebuilt after the Norman Invasion of 1066, with the Nave being completed in 1083. The rest of what we see today was built starting around 1180, with the addition of the Presbytery (1214), North Transept (1240’s) and the South Transept (by 1300).

The building managed to survive various sieges, from King John putting down a local rebellion in 1215, to the Parliamentarians taking on the Royalists in 1642.

Rochester also had it’s own version of the tragic murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury of 1170. The story begins many years earlier, when in the Scottish City of Perth, a Baker named William found an abandoned child on the doorstep of his local Church. He took him in, and raised him as his own, under the supposed adopted name of “Cockermay Doucri”, or “David the Foundling”. In 1201 they visited Rochester together, and stayed here on their way to Canterbury. Alas David cruelly robbed his adopted Father, and cut his throat in the process. As William was on Pilgrimage through Kent, he was eventually canonised by request of the then Bishop of Rochester, Lawrence of St Martin, in 1256.

The final major chapter of the Cathedral’s history occurred in 1888 when Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811 – 1878, English Architect) had the central tower rebuilt (the Spire and West Towers had previously been replaced in the late 18th century). The old Spire wasn’t replaced however, until 1904, and still stands today.

Directly across the road lies the imposing edifice which is Rochester Castle. It was in fact the then Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf (Died 1108) who laid out the first stone Castle in its present configuration, between 1087 – 1089.

The impressive Keep was built later, by 1130, by William de Corbeil (1070 – 1136, Bishop of Canterbury Cathedral). I mentioned earlier that King John besieged the Cathedral in 1215. This was after rebel barons took control of the Castle in defiance of the King, who soon arrived to put down the rebellion.

Alas it was not the last siege Rochester Castle would endure, as during the Peasants Revolt in 1381 the building was ransacked, and wouldn’t see any more major conflicts. It had only just been repaired after an army led by Simon de Montfort (1208 – 1265, 6th Earl of Leicester) attempted to defeat forces loyal to King Henry III (1207 – 1272) who held the city. The siege ultimately failed.

Amazingly extensive ruins of the castle remain, with the Keep itself being one of the most well preserved in North Western Europe, and the outer walls being in good condition.

Over the next few centuries it kept changing hands, however repairs weren’t forthcoming and it slowly decayed, and the Castle eventually became a public park in 1872. It really is a fantastic place to explore, and gives a commanding view out over the river Medway…

Connecting Rochester with the neighbouring town of Strood on the far side of the river, is “Rochester Bridge”.

There are in fact three different bridges here, directly next to each other. The section nearest to us, with the large iron spans, was opened in 1914, a rebuild for the previous iron bridge of 1856, which was too low for river traffic to easily pass beneath it.

Directly behind it, similar in most respects but lacking the iron spans, is a second iron bridge from 1970. Together they carry the A2 between Dover/London, each taking a different carriageway. The original bridge carried both, however increased traffic saw the need to widen the road.

The third bridge is behind again, in the form of a Railway Bridge from 1858, designed by Joseph Cubitt (1811 – 1872, English Engineer who also built Blackfriars Bridge in London). It featured an innovative swinging section for taller ships, however it was never used.

We decided to head down to the river itself, taking the long way via Boley Hill outside the Cathedral, down to the High Street, and then the river.

Located immediately next to the Cathedral is the Parish Church of St Nicholas, completed in 1423. It was extensively repaired in the 1620’s following a devastating fire, and since 1970 it has been converted into office space for use by the Diocese of Rochester.

If you look closely, to the left of the Church you can see a stone archway leading to the High Street. This is “Chertsey’s Gate”, which was originally set into the outer wall of the Cathedral Yard, from the mid 14th century. It provided access from the Cathedral down to the High Street, although today it stands alone, as the wall is long gone.

Coming out onto the High Street, we took a walk up the Northern section of the road. We soon passed the stunning Corn Exchange, paid for personally by Sir Cloudsley Shovel Knight (1650 – 1707, English Naval Officer who served in various wars including the capture of Gibraltar. In 1695 he was elected MP for Rochester).

Much like Canterbury, which we visited earlier in the day, Rochester has a lovely warren of old streets. It feels like a step back in time traversing the High Street, and almost every building has a story behind it.

Some notable examples include the “George Vaults”, shown to the far left. A charming public house circa 1800, it was built on top of the undercroft which predates it by nearly 600 years.

On the other side of the street, opposite George Vaults is the National Westminster Bank, crafted out of Red Brick and Sandstone around 1900.

Directly to the left of the Bank is “Cloudesley House”, with the ground floor painted in a light blue. It’s a fine Georgian building from 1778, which started out as a private residence, which was once used as the “Phoenix Printing Office”, and is now a highly sought after six bedroom property.

Further down the High Street, nearing the River lies Rochester Guildhall, where the City Council once met in the Council Chamber at the top of the building, underneath which was the County Court.

Our old friend Cloudesley Shovell donated the original plaster ceiling above the staircase, and in the main Court Chamber, as the building was completed in 1697, two years after he was elected as MP. According to the Listed Buildings Website the Council Chamber was removed in 1911.It had been replaced by a larger Chamber added to the rear in 1866.

The Weathervane atop the building is in the shape of a warship, and was added in 1780. The Guildhall is now used as the city Museum.

Two red brick wings were built either side of the original structure to extend it, with the left hand side (visible) built in 1893 by Goldsmith & Gosling, and the right (not visible) in 1838.

Directly to the left of the Guildhall stands Number 17 High Street, originally built as the Offices of the Medway Conservatory Board in 1909. The Boardroom was marked by the large central window, which streamed light inside.

To the rear was a further set of offices, crafted out of rugged red brick, complete with tower.

Leaving the end of the High Street, we joined Corporation Street (A2) which crosses the Rochester Bridge.

Both ends are guarded by magnificent bronze lions, as shown above. Crossing to the far side, you get a fantastic view back at the former city…

Rochester is truly a beautiful place, and instantly stands out from the Strood side of the River.

The rest of the shot is interesting as well, as the lovely Victorian Bridge leads on to the Georgian set of buildings lining the River, and then onto the main historic landmarks of the Cathedral and Castle. There really aren’t many places in England where you can get a view quite like this.

If you look closely at the picture, directly to the right of the White Building lies a 14th Century Chapel, built by Sir John de Cobham (Died 1408, paid for the original stone bridge over the River) in 1387. The Chapel now contains the offices of the Rochester Bridge Fund.

The building at the start of the row, at the far left is the “Royal Crown Hotel”, a local pub which opened it’s doors in 1861.

Like I said, I love the view you get here, and a close-up provides a window back in time, and Rochester most likely didn’t look much different to this 600 years ago.

You can easily tell which is the Victorian rebuild of 1856 as it has a high level of detail. Aside from the Bronze Lions, there are a number of stunning lighting columns, atop which sit stone lions bearing the shield with the Rochester Bridge Trust coat of arms.

The newer accompanying bridge of 1970 is rather plain, reflecting a different era of design.

After sitting by the riverside for a while, just taking in the view, we crossed back to the Rochester side, to explore the Southern section of the High Street, going back past the Cathedral turn off.

Again every building here is historically important, and everything just appears perfect, with the bunting being that final touch.

A large gap between the buildings on the High Street leads through to the Cathedral itself, with the city’s War Memorial in the foreground.

The section of the Cathedral protruding outwards to the right of the Memorial is known as “Gundulf’s Tower” built after his death in 1108. It was once much taller, matching the rest of the building, however it was ruinous by Victorian times, and reroofed in it’s present form.

The Cathedral tower provides a lovely backdrop for this historic street, and aside from the odd car going past there is barely a trace of modern life.

On the left, beneath the squat cupola atop its roof is the Tourist Information Centre & Art Gallery, which opened in 1997.

To the left of that, is a much shorter building fronted with Portland Stone, known as the “Poor Travellers House”. Despite the stone exterior, it is far older than it appears. The rest of the building was crafted out of timber in the 1580’s, with the money coming from the will of Richard Watts Esq (Died 1579). It’s purpose was to provide shelter for up to six poor travellers, and entitled them to one free night of lodgings, along with the sum of four pence.

In 1771 the old house was refronted in the aforementioned Portland Stone, giving it a newer appearance.

Our final stop was a few doors further down, at the entrance to a large square known as “La Providence”, the current home of the “French Hospital”. Founded in Finsbury, London in 1718 to accommodate poor French Protestants, the Hospital was moved here in the 1950’s, into a series of mid 19th century buildings which were renovated by Grellier & Sons, whilst retaining their original charm. It is made up of nineteen flats in what was once Theobald Square.

Throughout this post I have occasionally referred to Rochester as a Former City. Historically city status was granted to places with a Cathedral, and indeed this honour was bestowed upon Rochester in 1227 by King Henry III. This remained for centuries, until 1974 when Rochester was added to the new borough of Medway. A letter by the Queen extended city status so the city still remained a separate part of the borough. This was followed again when the boroughs name changed in the 1980’s to Rochester upon Medway. The city status was also changed slightly and now applied to the entire borough instead of just the city itself.

Unfortunately the borough was later abolished, and a Unitary Authority was created, simply called Medway. This meant that the city, which was then the borough not just Rochester itself, ceased to exist. The local council mistakenly didn’t make the necessary arrangements to transfer city status to the new district, and the title officially ceased to exist. There are still historic signs around the city that refer to the City of Rochester, so even though technically it is now a town, as far as I am concerned, its a city in all but name.

Anyway, that aside, Rochester is definitely one of my favourite places in England, and makes the perfect duo with nearby Canterbury.

It’s easy to get to, with the A2 from Dover – Canterbury – Rochester – London passing straight through. Kent is at the very edge of the country, so trains typically travel either to Canterbury, and then Dover, or back towards London, and this is true of Rochester Station.

Our final stop of the day, before heading back to our caravan in Hampshire, was the town of Chatham, which has a famous Royal Dockyard…

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