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Rochester's rather lovely Medieval cathedral stands in the shadow of the castle (it seems odd to have a sacred place so very obviously over-looked by somewhere built to make a statement of earthly power and supremacy, but that's how it happened in Rochester).
There's been a place of worship on this site since the very early days of Christianity in England. There is evidence of some Roman Christian beliefs, but not very much...and then the Roman overlords withdrew left we have very little information about what happened with regard to religion or anything else.
When King Aelthelbert became King of Kent in 580 he was a pagan, but he allowed his French wife Adelberge (later St Bertha) to continue practising her Christian beliefs. She gave her own chapel (on the site of St Martin's in Canterbury) to St Augustine, who came to England as a missionary in 596....and it was one of Augustine's accompanying monks, Justus, became the first Bishop of Rochester.
That very early cathedral no longer stands, of course, but its floorplan is clearly marked out in slabs and paving stones partly within and partly outside the existing building.
When the Normans invaded in 1066, Willliam the Conqueror (William l) gave the cathedral and its lands to his half-brother, Odo. Odo was a bad lot, reducing the cathedral to almost destitution by using its funds for his own ends. A new Bishop (Gundulf) was eventually installed, and the building you see today began to be constructed.
It's a lovely and very ancient place. An indication of its extreme age is the fact that you have to walk down several steps to its original floor (1080), showing how much the surrounding ground has risen (through human activity) over the almost-2000 years since it was first built. That original building was changed and extended over the centuries...most especially during the early to middle Medieval period...with the addition of its central tower in 1343 being the last major change.
Look closely at the western doorways and the column capitals and, most especially, as the beautifully-carved Chapter Room doorway: all are wonderful examples of early Medieval stonework.
Rochester cathedral was home to the shrines of both St Paulinus and St William of Perth (murdered by his adopted son just outside Rochester in 1201) and thus a favourite amongst pilgrims. Being on the route to Canterbury, the main pilgrimage focus of Medieval England, it drew hundreds of thousands of them over the centuries: you can see the effect of so many feet on the ancient 'Pilgrim's Steps' which originally led to St William's shrine.
Rochester isn't a vast cathedral in the style of, say, Canterbury or York. But it is the second-oldest cathedral in England and it has much to explore. Allow yourself at least an hour to do so, and remember to look closely to find, for example, the intricacies of carving or the remains of the 'Wheel of Fortune' fresco as well as taking in the wider sweep of its magnificent soaring arches.
Open every day from 0730-1800, with guided tours available from 1000 to 1630 (to 1400 on Saturdays). Sometimes access is restricted because of services or special events.
Unusually, entrance is free although you really should make a donation towards the upkeep of the building. The maintenance of English Medieval cathedrals literally cost hundreds of thousands of pounds per building every year.
For just 1GBP you can hire an audio-guide to take you round the cathedral interior.
Rochester cathedral is definitely not to be missed. More photos of its interior in my travelogue
Updated Jan 27, 2013
Address: Cathedral Precinct
You can't miss Rochester castle. It's a magnificent Norman statement of absolute power set in stone overlooking the town, dwarfing even the ancient cathedral.
I didn't go inside on this trip (it was closed anyway) but I have visited, long before I joined VT.
When the Normans invaded in 1066 they of course set about subduing England (to be honest, that was not too difficult a task once King Harold had been killed at the Battle of Hastings). They built literally hundreds of castles throughout the country, all following the same pattern: a man-made earthen mound (motte) topped by a wooden tower (keep) and surrounded by defensive ditches and wooden palisades. A larger area outside the motte (the bailey) was also surrounded by defensive ditches and palisades.
Most of these wooden castles were allowed to fall into disrepair when the country was fully under control (although you can still see the remains of their earthworks). A few, the most strategically important, were replaced by stone castles following the same motte-and-bailey pattern. Rochester is one of those Norman stone castles.
Why was Rochester strategically important? It guards the road to London (it is still the road to London, even though there is a motorway alternative) and its crossing over the river Medway river.
The first (wooden) castle at Rochester was given to Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror's half-brother and not a nice chap at all. A stone version was first built in the 1080s, under King William ll: a little of the stonework from this castle still survives.
But Rochester's existing stone keep (113 feet high with walls 12 feet thick in places) was built in around 1127, by the then Archbishop of Rochester with the permission of Henry l. It is one of the best-reserved Norman stone keeps in England, with three floors (the entrance is at first-floor level) and defensive buildings to be passed through before the keep could be accessed.
In 1215 the castle was brought under siege by King John (also not a nice chap) and withstood all attacks, including the undermining of the outer wall and a 'mine' placed at one corner of the keep which resulted in its collapse. It was starvation which eventually led to the defeat of the defenders: the keep stood firm.
If you want to explore a 'proper' Norman stone castle, with its bailey walls still largely intact and its keep in excellent condition, Rochester is well worth a visit.
Open all year, except 24th, 25th, 26th December and January 1st. from 10am to 6pm April to September and 10am to 4pm October to March. Last admission 45 minutes before closing.
Adult entrance at time of writing: £5.65, child 3.60. A family ticket (2 adults, 3 children) costs £15.
Written Jan 25, 2013
Firstly, apologies for this tip, it was written when I had not long joined VT and did not know my way around too well. I have updated it in January 2013 so hopefully it will remain current for a while longer. I have added a website and updated prices.
Rochester has long been considered a place of strategic importance. Commanding the Medway, close to the Thames and with the ancient Roman Watling Street passing nearby it has always been of military significance. It is no surprise therefore that it has a magnificent castle. What is perhaps slightly more surprising is that the castle has survived all these years, given some of the events it has been involved in.
The castle was constructed shortly after the Norman invasion of England, and features in the Domesday Book. Witness to many upheavals in the years that followed, the next major event was in 1216 when rebels were beseiged in the castle by forces loyal to King John. There is a good account of the seige in the town museum (see seperate tip).
After the great seige, it fell into disrepair, but was refurbished in 1370, although by the late 1500's it was again falling into disrepair. It is now administered by English Heritage.
I have revised the next part of the tip in light of rising prices.
Admittance to the grounds is free, and the castle itself is £5:65 (£3:60 concessions). This id updated as of January 2013. Although there is not terribly much to see within, it does afford some great views over the surrounding area.
Updated Jan 1, 2013
Phone: +00 44 (0)1634 402276
Readers of my other pages will know that I love folk music and even play a bit now and again. Although I have not played there for some years, I have very fond memories of playing at the Rochester Sweeps Festival, an annual event which is held on the early May Bank Holiday weekend. I still go as a visitor when I can.
You may well be wondering what a Sweeps Festival is. Well, it dates back to the days when small boys were sent up the large chimneys of big houses to sweep them. It was a terrible and very unhealthy existence and thankfully was outlawed by the Climbing Boys’ Act of 1868 and rightly so. As an annual treat, the sweeps were allowed a day off to go to Rochester for what we would now, certainly in London, term a "beano". This would include a parade led through the town by a "Jack in the Green", a traditional British folk figure which harks back to pre-Christian times. There would have been games and perhaps some special food.
The Festival dies out in the early 1900's as there were no more Sweeps to take part but it was revived some years ago. Nowadays what the visitor will find is a long weekend of folk music, public dance displays, morris dancing and the like. The photos give some idea of what to expect.
I should explain the photo of the two young musicians in one of the photos. I wrote this tip having finally bought a scanner and started uploading some of my many old photos to my computer. These two guys are great musicians and great friends. On the left, being a little rude by sticking his tongue out, is Ben Dauncey, a very gifted box player who dances out regularly with the excellent Ravensbourne Morris. On the right is the brilliant Tim Edey,currently the BBC's Folk musisian of the year (2012) and one half of duo of the year with Brendan Power. I have known Tim since childhood (his not mine!) and he really is a talent. He is touring with the world famous Chieftans band this summer. I was lucky enough to record an album with him some years ago.
It's funny how things come round again. I am guessing that this photo was taken in the very early 1990's when we were having a session in a local hotel and this year (2013) he is appearing at the local big venue as the headline act. A lovely story and a great guy.
Sweeps Festival really is great fun and I do recommend it.
Written Jan 1, 2013
Officially the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Rochester Cathedral is England's second oldest foundation and has been a place of Christian worship ever since the Saxons built a cathedral on the site in 604 A.D. By 1077, the cathedral had suffered through an invasion by the Danes but by 1082, the first Norman bishop; Gundulf had established the Benedictine Priory of St. Andrew. There were a couple of fires during the 12th century and during the following century under King John’s reign it was plundered by rebel barons. The cathedral was later desecrated when the city fell to Simon de Montfort's troops. Oliver Cromwell's soldiers caused yet more damage to the cathedral in the 17th century.
Sunday to Friday: 7:30 am to 6:00 pm
Saturday: 7:30 am to 5:00 pm
Updated May 8, 2011
Address: The Precinct, Rochester ME1 1SX
Phone: +44 (0) 1634 843366
The Guildhall Museum was built in 1687 and is a fine example of a 17th century building; it is the main local history museum for all the Medway Towns. Visitors follow a time line through the area’s history aided by visual displays and sound effects.
The centrepiece is a two-tier gallery recreating a prison hulk of the Napoleonic period, illustrating the awful conditions in which prisoners were kept. Other displays include a Dickens Gallery, Victoriana, and the castle under siege.
Tuesday to Sunday: 10:00 am to 4:30 pm
Updated May 8, 2011
Address: High Street, Rochester, ME1 1PY
Phone: +44 (0) 1634 848717
The imposing fortress is strategically placed by an important crossing of the River Medway and has a complex history of destruction and rebuilding. This Norman castle was one of the first to be built of stone and at 125 feet has the tallest keep in England. The castle was built by the Bishop of Rochester around 1090 in the shape of the Roman town wall, it was built to protect invasion from the bridge crossing the River Medway along the historic London to Dover road. The Archbishop William de Corbell added the four-squared towers in 1127.
The castle was damaged whilst under siege in 1215, it castle was restored but damaged during another siege in 1264. It was repaired by Edward III and improved by Richard II.
21 Mar – 30 Sep
Sunday to Saturday: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
1 Oct – 20 Mar
Sunday to Saturday: 10:00 am to 4:00 pm
Updated May 8, 2011
Address: Castle Hill, Rochester ME1 1SW
Phone: +44 (0) 1634 335882
Rochester Castle is a must see while in Rochester. Right next to the Rochester Cathedral, it castle's keep towers over the River Medway.
The outside has been preserved quite well, however inside is mostly a shell.
Admission prices are Adults £5, children/students £4, concessions £4, family ticket £14.
In different rooms there are illustrations of what it may have looked like. Excellent view from atop the keep.
Updated Apr 4, 2011
Address: The Keep, Rochester, Kent
Phone: 01634 335882
One of the great hidden attractions in Rochester is the Guildhall museum. In the Dickens novel "Great Expectations", the Guildhall, which was built in 1687, is depicted as the place where Pip is indentured as an apprentice. The museum provides an insight into the past history of the Medway Towns from pre-historic times to present. The museum which is spread over three floors in two buildings contains lots of ancient artifacts, informative displays and interactive exhibits. There are also models and maps which show how Medway has been defended from various visiting armies.
One of the most impressive exhibits in the museum is the reconstruction of a Medway prison hulk ship, as used in the 18th century. The exhibit allows you to hear and see the appalling conditions the prisoners had to endure.
The second of the two buildings, built in 1909, houses an impressive collection of Victorian and Edwardian items. If you look at some of the exhibits on the walls, you'll find the original architect plans for the Theatre Royal
The showpiece of the Guildhall Museum is a collection of mock-ups of different newspapers and magazines focusing on Dickens. The museum has also gathered various memorabilia that once belonged to Dickens, including his pen, bible and walking stick, as well as a rare collection of family portraits.
Open daily 10am to 4.30pm. Will be closed on Mondays from 1 October till year end
Updated Apr 4, 2011
Phone: 01634 848717
In England it’s tough to throw a stone without hitting something of historical importance. As such, many great sites are in disrepair or at the least do not draw the types of crowd that one would expect. For us, staying in Chatham, Upnor Castle was just such a site. After an interesting 6 or 7 mile walk we came upon the castle standing on the banks of the Medway.
This Tudor castle was built in the 16th century on the orders of Elizabeth I to protect the warships that anchored in the river along with the Chatham dockyard. This Dockyard, now a museum, can be view directly across the Medway. With this goal in mind, this castle does not conform to the traditional castle structure, and is fronted by a triangular water bastion jutting out into the River.
The fort proved ineffective when the Dutch, sailed up the Medway in June 1667 and destroyed and captured a large number of the Royal Navy ships anchored at Chatham, and the castel was downgraded to be used as a magazine. After the Second World War, the castle was to become a museum, becoming a national monument in 1961
Today the monument is open April to September 10am - 6pm and October 10am - 4pm. Upon arrival, you can take a narration phone, which, when prompted, describes and guides you through the castle allowing you to tour the castle at your own pace. audio guide an extra £1 each
On the day we visited, the site was manned by a group doing reenactments. As we approached, a table was laid out with a variety of armor and weapons used in the past for guests to try on. Since trying on clothes is my wife’s favorite hobby, it didn’t take her very long to try on every outfit there. A bit further were tables of weapons with a bit more formidable look, which found their way into my daughter and my hands.
In addition, there were archery exhibits and sword fights. The crowds were small and there was plenty of time and opportunity to chat it up with the people there.
Updated Apr 4, 2011