The seat of the second-oldest diocese in England, Rochester is at an ancient crossing on the River Medway, fortified by a sturdy Medieval castle that has survived in amazing condition.
Rochester cathedral blends Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with a west front that dates back almost 900 years.
Charles Dickens, who lived nearby in Higham, was fond of Rochester and worked many of its landmarks like Eastgate House and Six Poor Travellers House into his writing.
Just around the river bend from Rochester is Chatham, home to a Royal Navy dockyard with almost 500 years of shipbuilding heritage.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Rochester:
1. Rochester Castle
One of the UK’s outstanding pieces of Norman Romanesque architecture, Rochester Castle guards the London Road from its mound beside the River Medway.
The enduring structure is the square keep, built from Kentish ragstone and raised during the reign of Henry I in the 1120s.
This three-floor building is just over 35 metres tall, and its entrance is protected by an extension that would-be attackers would have to approach on a narrow stairway.
In places the keep’s walls are four metres thick, and these were put to the test in three sieges.
In 1215 King John was able to undermine the southeast using a fire started with pig fat.
In the chapel you can find a model showing how Rochester Castle would have looked in the 14th century, while there’s open-air theatre and cinema shows all summer long in the castle grounds.
2. Rochester Cathedral
The cathedral has been a place of worship since the 7th century, but the current building dates mostly from the 12 and 13th centuries.
This was at the transition between Norman and Early English Gothic and the cathedral merges both styles.
The west front is Norman, visible in its rows of blind arcades and the highly ornamented archivolts and tympanum depicting Christ in Glory in the great west door.
Entering the nave, the first six bays are also Norman, before a Gothic design prevails.
To the east of the north tower is Gundulf’s tower, which is a fragment of an older building from the turn of the 12th century and now used as a private back door to the cathedral.
See out the ruins of the 12th-century cloisters against the south of the building.
3. Guildhall Museum
A fine Baroque civic monument, the Guildhall sits on Rochester’s High Street and dates from the late-17th century.
As soon as you go in you’ll be wowed by the exuberant plaster ceilings over the entrance hall and staircase, presented to the Guildhall by local MP Sir Cloudesley Shovell in 1695. The museum is a trip through Medway’s human history, starting 200,000 years ago with a flint axe that you’re allowed to touch.
There’s a display of Roman domestic utensils from Darenth Roman Villa, a model showing a siege at Rochester Castle, a discovery room dedicated to Charles Dickens, a model of a 19th-century prison hulk and a reconstruction of a Victorian kitchen and drawing room.
Something you will not see anywhere else is the set of 18th-century cabinet maker’s tools, claimed to be the most complete in the world.
4. Rochester High Street
Weaving along from north to southeast and lined with gaslights, Rochester High Street is achingly pretty and at times feels like a period movie set.
Hundreds of years of architecture have been preserved, from quaint, cantilevered Tudor houses and weatherboard cottages to rows of bold 17th and 18th-century townhouses with white-painted quoins.
Several of the attractions on this list are found on the High Street, like Eastgate House, the Guildhall and even the southeast wing of the cathedral.
The Medway Visitor Centre and Huguenot Museum is in a stately Baroque building topped with a little lantern.
One of many great things about the High Street is the absence of nationwide chains.
Along with family-run pubs there’s a big selection of local businesses, design stores, vintage clothes shops, cafes, twee gift shops and most of all antiques sellers.
5. Eastgate House
Open again to the public after a five-year revamp, Eastgate House is one of the High Street’s treasures, an Elizabethan townhouse completed in 1591. This property certainly caught Charles Dickens’ attention, as Eastgate House appears as Westgate in the Pickwick Papers and as the Nun’s House in the Mystery of Edwin Drood.
In the 16th century Eastgate House was the residence of a senior officer at the Royal Tudor Dockyard, and since the 19th century has been a boarding school and hostel.
You can admire the preserved interiors and hear about some of the characters who have passed through.
In the gardens something special awaits at the Swiss Chalet, Dickens’ writers’ shed in which he wrote several works, transferred here from Gad’s Hill in the 1960s.
6. Six Poor Travellers House
Next door to the Visitor Centre on the High Street is a solemn Elizabethan stone building.
As the name suggests, the Six Poor Travellers House was built to provide lodgings for down-at-heel travellers staying in Rochester.
It was built in the mid-1580s and served its function until the Second World War.
The house features in Dickens’ Christmas Story, the Seven Poor Travellers.
You can go in for free (donation encouraged) from Wednesday to Sunday in the summer.
Information panels record the long and captivating story of the building and there’s an adorable little herb garden behind.
7. Restoration House
A sublime Renaissance mansion beyond the southeast corner of Rochester’s city wall, Restoration House came about after two Medieval houses were joined together by a third building in the mid-17th century.
The owner of the mansion at that time was Henry Clerke, a lawyer and MP for Rochester.
On 28 May 1660, Charles II stayed at Clerke’s house on the way to London to be proclaimed King, bringing to an end the Commonwealth of England, hence the name.
Over the last 20 years the current owners of Restoration House have discovered lots of fashionable 17th-century decoration believed to have been produced for Charles II’s visit.
This can be seen in the painting scheme’s marbling and japanning, as well as the choice of French grey paint.
You can visit on Thursdays and Fridays in summer to view these restored interiors, twin walled gardens and paintings by Gainsborough, Constable and Reynolds.
8. Chatham Historic Dockyard
Although separate from Rochester, it’s great to know that this enthralling piece of naval history is just around the river-bend.
For centuries up to 1984 this was one of the Royal Navy’s main facilities, keeping all of its individual factories and workshops together.
It stands as the most intact dockyard from the Age of Sail in the world.
Since 2016 the Command of the Oceans gallery has summed up the rich heritage of the site, using cutting-edge multimedia and interactive displays.
Around the dockyard you’ll be aware of just how many different skills went into a warship, calling in at Ropery, which dates back to 1618, or witnessing the digital theatre installation at Hearts of Oak, retelling the construction of wooden-hulled ships.
Steam, Steel and Submarines brings you from the Industrial Revolution to the two World Wars, showing the kind of man-power needed to build the steamships of the Victorian age.
9. HMS Cavalier
The pick of the Historic Dockyard’s three museum ships is this World War II-era C-class destroyer launched in 1944. HMS Cavalier’s most important intervention in the war was escorting a vital convoy from Russia’s Kola Inlet in February 1945, after its ships had been scattered by a storm and attacks by U-boats.
If you don’t mind steep stairways, HMS Cavalier is a delight to explore.
Assisted by the audioguide you’ll see the guns on deck, the cramped living spaces, the NAAFI shop selling little luxuries, the medicine dispensary, the galley and the open bridge where you can imagine what it might have been like to steer this ship.
And if the Cavalier feels claustrophobic, wait until you see the Oberon-class submarine, HMS Ocelot!
10. Rochester Bridge
For hundreds of years the bridge at Rochester was the lowest permanent crossing on the Medway before it opens out into an estuary.
There are actually four bridges over the Medway at Rochester, but the one we’re talking about here is the bridge that carries the A2 across to Strood at the north end of the High Street.
This cast iron construction dates to 1914 and stands on the site of many successive crossings, going back to Roman times.
Nearby, on the riverfront is the Bridge Chapel, built in 1383 and restored in the 1930s after becoming a storehouse as early as the 16th century.
Take the footpath over to the Strood side where you’ll get a beautiful perspective of the Castle and Cathedral from the Esplanade.
11. Upnor Castle
Downriver from the Historic Dockyard on the picturesque opposite bank of the Medway is an Elizabethan artillery fort maintained by Medway Council.
This was built in the 1560s to defend the dockyard and the many Royal Navy ships that would be anchored in the Medway.
Upnor Castle was called into action during a catastrophic raid by the Dutch Republic in 1667, which laid much of the dockyard to waste and captured or burnt most of the English fleet.
The raid is retold with a bilingual audiovisual presentation, while you can take some time to appreciate the fort’s preserved turrets, and the gun embrasures on the water bastion, which juts out over the river.
12. Huguenot Museum
In 2015 the UK’s first museum devoted to the Huguenots opened on Rochester High Street.
This is in the same building as the Visitor Centre and its collection has pieces from the historic French Hospital.
Founded in 1718 to look after poor French protestants and their descendants, this institution was first located in Finsbury Park before shifting to Hackney, then Horsham and finally ending up in Rochester in 1959. The museum explains the persecution faced by Huguenots in the 16th and 17th century, causing some 180,000 to start new lives all over the world, including Britain.
You’ll see the knowledge, skills and trades they brought with them, like silk-weaving, clock-making, gun-making and goldsmithing.
Among the museum’s oil paintings and silk samples there’s a portrait of Mary Louise Grellier who was the daughter of the director of the French Hospital, and a miniature 18th-century prayer book, designed to be hidden up a sleeve.
13. Fort Amherst
On the way to the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, Fort Amherst was raised in 1756 to prepare for a possible land invasion from France.
This enthralling defensive structure is riddled with tunnels, and the non-profit trust in charge has been restoring the site piece by piece since the 1980s.
In 2018 a new visitor centre is in the works with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and is due to be completed in 2020. You can climb to the highest point of the fort for a commanding view over the Medway, and in summer there are twice-daily guided tours of the tunnels.
These were intended for defence, storage and shelter during the Napoleonic War, but were later adapted as a base of operations in the Second World War.
14. Royal Engineers Museum
Housed in the glorious Edwardian Baroque Ravelin Building, Gillingham’s Royal Engineers Museum is minutes by train from Rochester.
The museum has hundreds of thousands of pieces in its collection, charting the 300-year history of the Royal Corps of Engineers and delving in to British military engineering in general.
There’s a map used by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, a German V-2 rocket from the Second World War, a Harrier Jump Jet, a Brennan torpedo and a small fleet of bridge-laying tanks.
In the medal galleries are 48 Victoria Crosses (the highest British military award for valour), while ” The Corps Today” presents some of the high-tech equipment used by 21st-century military engineers.
15. Sweeps Festival
Charles Dickens can be thanked for the revival of Rochester’ s May Day celebrations, a tradition going back 400 years.
Dickens wrote about Rochester’s dancing chimney sweeps in his collection of short pieces, Sketches by Boz.
Although it had died out by the 1900s, the Sweeps Festival has been brought back to life since 1980. There’s live music across the Bank Holiday weekend, as well as a parade from Star Hill on the High Street to the Castle Gardens, joined by people dressed up as old-time chimney sweeps and Morris dancers (traditional folk dancers) from around England.
This also involves Jack-in-the-Green, a character covered in foliage, resembling a walking bush.
He is “awakened” by dancers and sweeps on Blue Bell Hill some time before daybreak on May 1.