It’s curious that the phrase for keeping schtoom includes the word ‘chat’ in it. Almost the first house visible coming out of Chatham Railway Station is the blue plaqued former home of Charles Dickens. He lived with his family in Ordnance Terrace from age five to nine. The aspiring writer may have seen nearby Gibraltar Cottage being erected in 1820. This quaint weatherboarded building is now partly obscured by a spaghetti of road signs, traffic lights, lampposts, bus shelters and telephone wires. Down the hill and onto the seemingly never ending 2.75 kilometre High Street linking Chatham to Rochester and a smorgasbord of heritage thrills awaits.
Chatham Memorial Synagogue is an eclectic loosely Byzantine building designed by Hyman Henry Collins, City of London District Surveyor. He was also the architect of St John’s Wood United Synagogue (one of eight he designed in London and the only still surviving) and Park Row Synagogue in Bristol. The stone street front is broken into distinct massing elements: a central two storey gabled block with a projecting loggia containing a glazed entrance porch is flanked on one side by a single storey gabled wing and on the other by a square tower supporting a steeple.
In place of a fanlight over the entrance doors a lunette shaped plaque states: “5629 = 1869. This freehold land was bought and this synagogue was built, endowed and presented to the Jewish community by Simon Magnus a native of Chatham as a tribute to the memory of his much lamented and only son Lazarus Simon Magnus who died 9 Tebeth 5625 = 7 January 1865 aged 39 years.” Records suggest a Jewish community being established in 12th century Rochester until expulsion in 1290 and then Jews started settling in Medway towns again in the 17th century.
Opposite the synagogue is Chatham House which unlike its name makes a strong statement. This grand four bay three storey stuccoed townhouse is undergoing a massive restoration. It had been Featherstone’s department store since the 1930s; a descendent of the shop owner is restoring the building in stages. A brewery with Gothick windows attached to the rear of the house is a reminder it was originally built for the Hulkes brewing family. The single storey projecting shopfront has been removed and ground floor sash windows and a Doric porch reinstated.
Next door to Chatham House is The Ship Inn formed of two adjoining stuccoed and painted brick buildings. A four bay three storey block abutting Chatham House is attached to a two bay two storey block. Weatherboarded returns such as to the rear of The Ship Inn are a popular nautical architectural finish. The pub dates from around the same era as its neighbour. This historic grouping continues with the freestanding 343 to 345 High Street, a boxy pair of early 19th century of exquisitely restored two bay houses. The upper two floors are faced with pale yellowy brick. Intact original shopfronts are Dickensian Christmas card material – all that’s needed is some fake snow along the windowsills.
Across High Street a block or two down from the synagogue is the former St Bartholomew’s Chapel of Ease, later the Celestial Church of Christ, and now the Granite Gym. Founded in 1078 by Bishop Gundulf of Rochester Cathedral as part of the now gone St Bartholomew’s Hospital, the current flint and rubble with limestone dressings building dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. Sir George Gilbert Scott added the north aisle in 1896. He died a year later in St Pancras Hotel, a building designed by his father Sir Gilbert Scott. The long side elevation of 5 Gundulph Road looks down onto the mossy rooftops of St Bartholomew’s. This impressive three storey brick villa has a narrow bay windowed street front. Where Chatham and Rochester meet along High Street is all about beauty and decay, love and neglect, joy and hope.
Proverbs 4:18, “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”
Charles Dickens writes in his unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, “A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquaries and ruins are surpassingly beautiful with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air.” The sun shines brighter in Rochester; it’s a good day for a pilgrimage, whatever that may entail. “A pilgrimage is a journey, a quest,” advises John Armson in his Rochester Pilgrim Guide (1999). He continues, “The cathedral church has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries.” Prepare for an avalanche of pictures. The Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary is the supermodel of English ecclesiastical architecture: it’s got good features and is very photogenic. “Growing in Christ since AD 604,” states the Order of Service for Sunday Eucharist. Free of hobgoblins and foul fiends, the nave is filled with the sound of a rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah to be performed tonight and tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow. The town is the catwalk of English settlements with beauties parading wherever you gaze.
According to the Rochester Pilgrim Guide, “Like most old churches, the building is based on the shape of a cross lying flat on the ground. The cross, of course, is so shaped because it had to carry the human form when people were crucified – as Jesus Christ was crucified. The cathedral is a crucifix in stone. It represents, symbolically, the body of Jesus Christ – the nave is his torso, the transepts are his arms, the sanctuary is his head. If the sun is shining it will be filled with light. The cream coloured stone from Caen in Normandy glows in the sunshine.” The writer suggests, “Christians can remind themselves of all this by making the sign of the cross on their own bodies.”
The immaculate state of the cathedral contrasts with the ruinous presence of the neighbouring castle. Coffins are piled up against the ramparts in a Larkinesque gesture: “dead lie round”. The Norman Gundulf Bishop of Rochester (1077 to 1108) commenced the construction of the castle. His contemporary William de Corneil Archbishop of Canterbury built its keep. The keep – an accidentally minimalist structure with gaping holes in place of windows and doors – has been reinvented as an adventurous walk up spiral staircases and along loggias and gangways and battlements overlooking the cavernous void below and across the former city beyond.
Looking down on the southwest front of the cathedral is Minor Canon Row, England’s best preserved terrace. It was built in 1722 for the lucky cathedral clergy. The Spitalfields Trust has taken it over and now every precious square centimetre is virtuously munificently pristinely gloriously restored. The doorsteps and basement areas of each townhouse are protected by unusual timber balustrades. A parapet rising from the brick front and side elevations conceals narrow hipped pitches visible to the rear: each three bay house is the width of two pitches. The top floor of the three storey over basement houses has casement windows to the rear. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood it is alliteratively renamed Minor Canon Corner, the home of Reverend Septimus Crisparkle and his widowed mother.
Rochester High Street does kooky (Store 104 and Victoria’s Books, Yarns, Coffee), cookery (Pastures New) and cookies (The Candy Bar). Its shopfronts are well dressed. Established in 1985, or so the sign says, is The Candy Bar with its suitably candyfloss pink shopfront. A calorific display contains dozens of Mrs Bridges pots (banoffee curd; celebration Champagne marmalade; chilli jam; mango chutney with lime and ginger; Scottish raspberry preserve) and very sweet stuff (cherry Bakewell fudge; coconut ice; fruit fondant creams, peanut butter fudge; raspberry Prosecco fudge; Rochester rock). It’s as if the “Lumps of Delight Shop” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood has come to life. Pavement presentations are nakedly ambitious: colourful tailor’s dummies pose outside vintage shop Fieldstaff. Rochester boasts England’s largest secondhand bookshop (Baggins Book Bazaar). Pied wagtails living up to their name (wagging their tails) flutter down the pavements in a fuss of monochromatism.
The novelist spent some of his childhood on the outskirts of the town when his father got a job in nearby Chatham Dockyard. Dickensian is a literal adjective in Rochester. A plaque on the front wall of The Bull Hotel states “This ‘good house’ with ‘nice beds’ described by Mr Jingle in Pickwick Papers is also ‘The Blue Boar’ in ‘Great Expectations’.” It still retains a coaching inn appearance: a regular Georgian façade gives way to two return wings featuring a merry assortment of weatherboarding, half timbered jettied and gabled projections, box sash tripartite windows, Crittal windows and a rectangular oriel window. The seminal film of Great Expectations is David Lean’s 1946 version starring the Northern Irish born actress Valerie Hobson as Estella.A man on High Street hands our tracts, holding them like playing cards. One of them is titled “To Be A Pilgrim”. Its opening line is, “When we think of a pilgrim, we have in mind somebody who goes on a journey or pilgrimage to a holy site.” It then refers to the allegory of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678). The tract concludes, “To be a pilgrim you have to read the Bible, which is the history of mankind from the creation of the present heavens and earth to the creation of the new heavens and earth and what you need to do to enter into the latter, as written by the prophets and apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit.” Standing outside the War Memorial in front of the cathedral, the golden voiced Daniel McGuinness sings Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”.
The Six Poor Travellers House on High Street with its pointy gables was where a dozen poverty stricken pilgrims could lay their weary heads and enjoy an evening meal. Each traveller was sent on his way the following morning with 4d in their pocket. A plaque on the street front states: “Richard Watts Esq deceased Annon Domini 1579. Relief for travellers to be had after the death of Mary his wife which charity the help of Thomas Pagitt her second husband assured Anno Domini 1586. Died 21 December 1589.” Sir Richard Watts was a businessman and MP for Rochester in the late 1500s. He entertained Queen Elizabeth; when asked for Her Majesty’s opinion of his house in the shadow of the castle she elicited her grudging approval “satis” Latin for “enough”. The knight can’t have been too offended: he renamed his home Satis House. Rebuilt in the 18th century, it’s now King’s School. Charles Dickens immortalised the High Street hostelry in his story The Seven Poor Travellers, the writer being the seventh.
A plaque on the façade of a long low lying red brick building on St Margaret’s Street, above the cathedral just up from Boley Hill past the Catalpa tree (American Indian Bean Tree) reads: “This house for the reception education and employment of ye poor of this Parish was erected AD 1724. Toward which the Honourable Sir John Jennings and Sir Thomas Colby representatives in Parliament for this City voluntarily contributed £200. It was finish’d and is supported out of a perpetuall [sic] charity formerly given by Mr Richard Watts for that purpose. Mr Harnell and Church. Mr Mordaunt Warden.” Richard Watts Charities continue to operate to this day.
Rising above the almshouses is The Coopers Arms on the corner of Love Lane and hilly St Margaret’s Street. The drinking tradition on this site dates back to the St Andrew’s Priory monks of the 1100s, renowned brewers of ale and wine. The current inn opened in 1543. Whiskey and vodka aren’t the only spirits to be found inside: a ghoul rattles round, a monk who hasn’t quite crossed over yet. To echo the words of Philip Larkin’s, “ghostly silt”.
Restoration House on Crow Lane overlooks The Vines, a 19th century public park. A sign outside says, “Built in 1587. It is said that Charles II stayed here on the night of 28 May 1660 at his Restoration. The ‘Satis House’ of Great Expectations.” It’s the fabled home of the world’s most famous jilted bride. Charles Dickens writes, “Within a quarter of an hour we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred. There was a courtyard in front, and that was barred, so, we had to wait, after ringing the bell, until someone should come to open it.”
“Another church,” writes Philip Larkin (1992 to 1985) in his poem Church Going. Up further from The Coopers Arms stands St Margaret’s Church commanding views across the River Medway. Like much of the town’s heritage it is a medley of ages and architects and aspirations. The tower dates from the 1400s; the nave and chancel were designed by Sydney Smirke in the 1820s; a decade later, architect Richard Hussey added the sanctuary with side vestries. “A serious house on serious earth,” as the poet observes. Gravestones have found a new use: steps up to the lawn.
All Saints Church crowns the hilltop of Frindsbury which overlooks Rochester from the northern bank of the River Medway. It stands in splendid isolation above quarried chalk cliffs that look like a manmade inland Dover coastline. There’s been a place of worship on this site for over a millennium. The current flint and ragstone and later rubble and limestone building dates back to the 14th century. Several of the graveyard tombs are Listed in their own right. The Miller Monument is an early 19th century sarcophagus design with a Greek key frieze. An adjacent cemetery includes Commonwealth War Graves such as that of Private H M Wills, “Royal Army Medical Corps, 5 November 1918.”
John Armson once more, “We live in a finite, limited space and time: we each live in a particular part of the world, and we life for three score years and 10 (perhaps more, perhaps less). We get glimpses beyond these limitations every now and again, but they are just that – only glimpses. They may be fragmentary, not very coherent, not very continuous. But they give us the sense that there is something beyond this life in space and time. This is the religious sense. It is distant and unclear, perhaps; but often, too, it is a bright and glowing impression.” He concludes, “Of course there is more travelling to do – a person’s whole life is a pilgrimage.”
I Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face…”
We’ve been at the table, on top of the table, under the table, but never in The Table. Till now. Ironically, we’re sat at the bar, not a table. What the Dickens? We worship in the church where the novelist got married (St Luke’s Chelsea) and party where he lived (Rochester) so it’s high time we ate in his favourite seaside resort (Broadstairs). We’re Grooving to Armada: “If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air | Quaint little villages here and there.”
The Table is blessed with large windows embracing the street front. It’s very intimate: just 14 covers including ours propped up at the bar. Owner Joe Hill is assisted by three cheery staff in the open kitchen on the other side of the bar. Cosy. “I originally opened here as a wine and cheese deli and it grew from that,” he explains. “I’m a chef by trade. I’ve three young children and wanted to escape the rigmarole of working in London. I’m London born and bred: I’d never heard of Broadstairs till about three years ago! I’ve mates with businesses in Margate though.”
The Francophile Charles Dickens would still recognise the Golden Triangle of Paris. Dickens on France edited by John Edmondson in 2007, “Dickens first saw Paris in July 1844, when he and his family were travelling through France on their way to Italy. He was instantly enthralled: ‘I cannot tell you what an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world. I was not prepare for, and really could not have believed in, its perfectly distinct and separate character.’ This first, fleeting visit marked the beginning of a friendship with the city that would last for the rest of his life.”
A love of interior design is clear from the custard colour and navy trimmed reception hall to the 27 meter high seascape mural painted on gold leaf seen from the elevator behind a glass panel to the Marmara marbled bathroom filled with The Ritual of Ayurveda products. “There’s a focus on really good materials,” says Camay. There’s also a focus on individuality: domed objets d’art; Grecian urns; sculpted shirt collars; Indian feathers. In the duck egg blue reception rear reception area opening onto an intimate courtyard are bookshelves with hours of distraction. Titles include ‘American Fashion’, ‘La Lumière de Londres, ‘Putman Style’, ‘Le Style Hitchcock’. Joseph Roth springs to mind again: “… it’s so well appointed that it almost corresponds to my notion of a seventh heaven.”
In Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Camel’s Back character Perry exclaims, “Take me upstairs. If that cork sees my heart it’ll fall out from pure mortification.” Channelling your inner Perry, close your eyes and dream of the ideal Parisian hotel bedroom. And open your eyes in the fourth floor bedroom of Hôtel George Washington. As you gaze through the pair of French doors clasping Juliet balconies and a trombonist serenades you from the street below (no, not artistic licence, this is Paris), it’s clear some dreams come true. There’s an elephant in the room. Or at least one over the bed. And a herd in the Ralph Lauren wallpaper. “It’s so unique, that’s one of my favourite bedrooms,” Camay confides. “Our bedrooms are very large for Paris. They all have double beds with a bath and rain shower in the en suite bathrooms.”
“We are in the business area of the Golden Triangle of Paris,” she confirms, that iconic 8th Arrondisement. “Do you know how the Arrondisements are numbered? They are ordered like an escargot, the numbers swirling around in decreasing concentric circles. We kept the façade of Hôtel George Washington and refurbished everything else behind. At Hôtel Chateaubriand we were able to keep the original form inside. Hôtel George Washington is a Haussmann townhouse with a ‘noble’ second floor which has a balcony. Our service is very personal – our team have been with us a long time. Our clients are a very good mix of leisure and business travellers.”
The Rios also own Le Petit George a few doors up on Rue Washington. Quirky neon lettering on the awning reads “Sincère et Malicieux”. Has Tracey Emin been en ville? We have an aperitif: “Champagne is an integral part of French culture!” Camay relates, “Monsieur Rio’s inspiration for this restaurant was the same expression of luxury as the hotels, from opulent linen tablecloths to silver cutlery, bringing back attention to detail. We wanted to change part of French dining culture and bridge the gap between bistro and gastronomy: ‘bistronomy’. It’s a unique dining experience.” The all-female run establishment is a hit with lawyers and bankers midweek and well informed travellers at the weekend. “We attract a really good lunch crowd and are busy Monday to Friday. Lisa l’des Forges is Chef and Melisande Malle is Sommelier and Manager.
The décor is an essay in understated elegance in a language only the French can compose. A marble and brass bar stretches along one party wall and the kitchen to the rear is only visible through a small serving hatch. There are no pictures on the walls: we are the living art in this space. “There’s a Chef’s Table in the basement for 10 people,” leads Camay. Joseph Roth once more, “Paradise is downstairs, in a basement. But it’s so well appointed that it almost corresponds to my notion of a seventh heaven.”