When I was 10, I won a weekend break in Rochester. “Humpf,” my dad snorted. “What’s second prize – two weekends in Rochester?”
You might think that local lad made good Charles Dickens felt similarly: he called the city Dullborough and Mudfog in his novels. But in fact Dickens was enormously fond of his home town Chatham, and neighbouring Rochester, once remarking: “I peeped about its old corners with interest and wonder when I was a very little child.”
There are plenty of wonderful and interesting old corners to go peeping about, from the fabulously ornate cathedral to the ruined Norman Castle. Due to it’s strategic importance on a vantage point overlooking Kent’s River Medway, Rochester has been settled since Roman times. It’s also on the major route from London to Dover, and an illustrious crew of overnight guests includes Samuel Pepys, Charles II (on his way to reclaim the throne) and his brother James II (on his way into exile in France; they didn’t have much luck, those Stuarts) and Princess Victoria – who stayed at the very same Bull Inn as makes an appearance in The Pickwick Papers.
A brief trawl of the chracterful High Street, complete with half-timbered buildings and fabulous olde worlde sweet shops, takes you back to Britain of yesteryear.
What with the ancient cathedral (Britain’s second, founded in the 7th century) and the 11th-century castle, here’s a city with serious roots.Half an hour’s drive away lies the equally well-rooted Leeds Castle, one of the most photogenic stately piles in Britain. Rising sheer from the placid waters of the River Len, it looks like it’s straight from the pages of a fairy tale.
Why it’s called Leeds Castle when Leeds is 250 miles away, is a bit of a mystery. The most popular theory is that it’s a corruption of ‘Ladies’ Castle’, as in medieval times the estate was part of the Queen of England’s dower (meaning she’d inherit it on her husband’s death).
The castle passed out of royal hands in the 16th century, and over the course of time fell into disrepair. In 1926 it was bought by Lady Olive Baillie, who spent her mother’s American millions turning the estate into a playground for the rich, famous and pampered. Her legendary weekend parties were attended by the glitterati of the day – David Niven, Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward. Lady Baillie bequeathed her castle to the nation on her deathbed, and nowadays it earns its keep as a tourist attraction.
The interior is an eclectic mix of styles and periods that reflect the building’s varied history, while the landscaped grounds are home to a menagerie of waterfowl, including the signature black swans of its logo.
By the way, we did take that family trip to Rochester back in 1990, and all of us – including my father – had a great time.
What The Dickens?
Even if your memory of Dickens is limited to Oliver asking for more and Donald Duck playing Scrooge, you’ll likely remember the scene with the barmy old bird who lives among the debris of her wedding day.
She was Miss Havisham, the book was Great Expectations, and the mansion with the mouldy cake was based on Restoration House in Rochester.
Satis House, the name used by Dickens in the novel, is just round the corner. It was so named after Elizabeth I stayed there overnight. When asked whether her visit had been acceptable, her grace replied regally that it was ‘satisfactory’. Better than ‘off with his head’, at least.
There’s lots to see and do in the county known as the Garden of England …
If you’ve been following The Tudors on telly, you’ll know who Anne Boleyn was (Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife, in case you weren’t paying attention). See her prayer books or lose yourself in the maze at her idyllic childhood home.
The Hop Farm
Go hopping mad among the oast houses – the quintessentially quaint Kentish barns where hops were dried out ready to make beer – and learn about the Cockneys who arrived in droves every summer for the picking season.
Follow in the footsteps of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales at the shrine to Thomas Becket in the fabled seat of the Anglican church. The tawdry tales of life and lust do much to lighten up the Dark Ages.
White cliffs of Dover
Nothing says England like those famous chalk cliffs. For added nostalgia check out the tunnels under Dover Castle where the Dunkirk evacuation was planned. And if you’re not keen on Kent, get on a ferry and go to France.