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Pilgrimage + Rochester Kent

Pilgrim’s Progression

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.

Occupying leaning jettied plastered buildings on High Street are The Cheese Room Deli and Café and The Cheese Room Botanicals Restaurant and Bar run by Chris and Julie Small. “We love cheese! It’s just so versatile, tasty, comforting, grownup and sexy!” Lunch is aubergine fritters with chipotle mayo followed by – naturally – the five British cheeseboard. Crackers and quince accompany Baron Bigod, Bowyers, Kent Blue, Kidderton Ash and Vintage Red Leicester. And when in KentChapel Down Flint Dry 2020, a blend of Bacchus and Chardonnay. A street corner violinist serenades customers in this upper room. Pudding comes later, perfect lavender cupcakes from Hobbs and Tee’s stall on High Street. Regarding the building housing The Cheese Room Botanicals, John Oliver notes in Dickens’ Rochester (1978), “This was the home of Mr Tope, the Chief Verger of the cathedral in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It is the last building mentioned in the writings of Charles Dickens.”

It has a lot of competition but Eastgate House wins the prize for best building on High Street. Masquerading as the Nun’s House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and as Westgate in The Pickwick Papers, “This fine Elizabethan building was erected in 1590 to 1591 for St Peter Burke, who was a paymaster in the Queen’s Navy,” according to John Oliver. Fragments of late 16th century wall painting survive in a top floor room. Eastgate House is now The Charles Dickens Centre. There’s a surprising addition in its grounds: the Dickens’ Chalet. This Swiss mountain folly is where the author penned The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was relocated from his home Gads Hill on the edge of Rochester. Actually make that The Guildhall for High Street’s finest building. It is after all a Sir Christopher Wren masterpiece dating from 1687. The Guildhall is now a lively museum. Charles Dickens’ character Pip in Great Expectations describes its interior, “The hall was a queer place, I thought, with higher pews in it that in any church… and with some shining black portraits on the walls…”

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…”

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Joe Hill + The Table Restaurant Broadstairs Kent

Doubling Downs

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.”

Joe is clearly smitten with his choice of location: “Broadstairs is so friendly. It’s good for families. The town is old, quaint, not too ahead of itself. It still has all your local stores. The sandy beach is dreamy.” He casually mentions working for the greats (Gordon Ramsay, Tom Aikens and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) and working at the greats (Shoreditch House London, W Hotel London and Fordwich Arms Kent) all adding up to an envy inducing resumé. Joe can hold his own: The Table is great.

Lunch menu is introduced as “upmarket street food” and is divided into ‘snacks’, ‘bowls’ and ‘plates’. Sticking to the coastal theme we order house seaweed kimchi then sake drunken clams, seaweed and kohlrabi followed by silken tofu, miso roasted tomato and ponzu. Joe suggests toasted sesame seed and chive flatbread. Good shout. If this is upmarket street food, then York Street is the Mount Street of Broadstairs. Off menu pudding is a posh brownie crowned with flowers and oranges bathing in a fruit syrup.

The afternoon isn’t spent yet. We’re not done. Decisions, decisions. Down doubles in The Chapel Bar or sip on Chapel Down’s Bacchus from the North Downs on that beach, the Downings of Kent? Let’s do both. To quote from Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, “Bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.” A local resident emerging from a house built into the cliff face towering over the beach spots our bottle of Kit’s Cody freshly purchased from The Bottleneck wine shop and asks, “Have you had it before? You’ll be in for a surprise. It’s spectacular!”

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Hôtel George Washington + Le Petit George Restaurant Paris

French Connections

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.”

To quote Joseph Roth in The White Cities: Reports from France 1925 to 1939, “Over the rooftops of Paris there is a smiling baby colossus of rude health.” A baguette’s throw from Champs-Élysées and a croissant’s toss from l’Arc de Triomphe lies Hôtel George Washington, one of two independent boutique Parisian hotels (the other is Hôtel Chateaubriand) owned by second generation hoteliers and siblings Romain Rio and Méryll Collette. Assistant General Manager, Camay Tan, explains, “The Rio family are personally involved in both the decoration and day to day operations. It’s a unique ‘guest home’. All 20 guest rooms are individually decorated: every single detail was created and specially made. Hôtel George Washington is both classical French and contemporary.”

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.”

There’s plenty for seafood lovers on this evening’s menu. Anchovies for hors d’oeuvre (Anchois de Cantabria); caviar for entrée (St Jacques de Bretagne à cru, purée de choux fleurs, caviar de hareng fumé); and octopus for plat (Poulpe grille, joue de porcelet, haricots); accompanied by an aromatic Domaine de l’Enclos 2018 Chablis by Romain et Damien Bouchard. “We have a passion for natural wine produced without sulphite,” Melisande shares. “We’ve all the classics and also like to educate with new wines. It’s a very elaborate wine list!” No food fatigue here: “Lisa changes the menu three times a week,” confirms Camay. “They are dancing in the streets of Paris,” reported Joseph Roth. That’ll be us; we’re in rude health.

Charles Dickens witnessed at first hand the dramatic transformation of Paris. Dickens on France edited by John Edmondson 2007, “It was transformed, under the aegis of Napoléon III, by Georges Haussmann, Préfet de la Seine from 1853 to 1870. Haussmann had many of the old streets in central Paris demolished to make way for a system of long elegant boulevards that brought structural unity to the city… Dickens witnessed the progress of this Haussmannisation at first hand. He told W H Wills in a letter of October 1862 that a group of theatres on the Boulevard du Temple ‘that used to be so characteristic’ had been demolished ‘and preparations for some amazing new streets are in rapid progress.’”

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The Cathedral + Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury Kent

All That is Good

The Reverend Andy Rider is Stepney Dean of Mission and Area Dean of Tower Hamlets. He is also Chaplain at Langley House Trust, a charity that helps ex offenders. Previously, Andy was Rector of Christ Church Spitalfields for 17 years. It is one of East London’s most prominent places of worship. During his time at Christ Church, in between priestly duties, he oversaw the revivification of the historic ecclesiastical property portfolio of the parish. In particular, the Grade I listed crypt was given a new lease of life as a café, community and church space. For the first time in its history, every cubic metre of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architectural masterpiece was put to active use. Not to mention airspace: the church band has been known to play on the roof of the nave. Reverend Rider is also a published writer of books on Christian living. So who better to talk to about Canterbury?

“What makes Canterbury special to the Anglican Church? Well, it has been the home of the Archbishop for years,” he confirms. “His leadership of not just the Church of England but also the Anglican Communion ensures that Canterbury is in the heart and prayers of pretty much every Anglican believer. Although we are seeing a rise in pilgrimage, Canterbury is probably for most a virtual pilgrimage from time to time. It was key to the spread of the Gospel north through Great Britain, meeting the Celtic Christians who were bringing the Gospel south from such places as Iona and Lindisfarne.”

The earliest remnants in Canterbury of this ancient advancement of Christianity are found at St Augustine’s Abbey, just beyond the city walls. “Augustine… built a monastery not far from the city to the eastward, in which, by his advice, Ethelbert erected from the foundation the church of the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and enriched it with divers [sic] gifts; wherein the bodies of the same Augustine, and of all of the Bishops of Canterbury, and of the Kings of Kent, might be buried.” So records The Venerable Bede circa 730.

Augustine was a Benedictine monk who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597. His mission to convert the Kentish King Ethelbert to Christianity was immediately successful (the Frankish Queen Bertha was already a Christian). The royal couple provided land for the abbey which would become a centre of spiritual and cultural activity for almost a millennium. That is, until the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII. St Augustine’s was dissolved in 1538 and transformed into a palace. Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife, stayed one night on her way from Deal to London. In a gorgeous story arc, the site would later become a missionary college for 99 years, opening in 1848. Acclaimed Gothic Revival architect William Butterworth built the split flint faced and red roofed St Augustine’s College amidst the ruins. A freestone library was erected over the abbot’s hall foundations. The King’s School now occupies the intact buildings.

If Kent is the Garden of England, Canterbury is the Temple. The walled city and its environs really don’t disappoint. Charles Dickens was a fan. The former Old King’s School Shop, dated 1647, a teetering tiered tower of architectural Jenga jettying over Palace Street commemorates the writer with an 1849 quote across its façade, “… a very old house bulging out over the road… leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the narrow pavement below…” The Chaucer Bookshop on Beer Cart Lane is called after the most famous Canterbury literary connection. Street names – The Dane John Mound, Orange Street, Lady Wootton’s Green – suggest intriguing times of old.

The tight urban fabric of the city knits so tightly round the cathedral that it can only be entered through the Precincts which in turn can only be entered via four gates: Christ Church, Mint Yard, Postern and Quenin. Stretching the material metaphor, the cathedral itself is a multilayered multicoloured multitextured fabric of utter fabulousness. Benedictine cloisters; Romanesque crypts; Perpendicular nave; Gothic quire; Middle Age pulpitum crossing; Arts and Crafts stained glass; even a 12th century martyrdom: Canterbury Cathedral has it all. Statues of The Queen and Prince Philip are incorporated into the west front. But the best statue award must go to the tomb of Edward Plantagenet the Black Prince who died in 1376. The Prince’s canine companion is immortalised in marble, resting at his master’s feet.

The grandest house in the Cathedral Precincts is, predictably, the Archbishop’s Palace. Archbishop Lanfranc built a large palace to the northwest of the cathedral in circa 1086 which was remodelled throughout medieval times. Archbishops of Canterbury ignored this residence until Archbishop Frederick Temple’s succession in 1896. He sold the Archbishop’s Palace in Addington, Surrey, and ordered the rebuilding of a palace on the historic Canterbury site. William Douglas Caröe, a prolific designer of churches, was commissioned. The architect’s T shaped knapped flint and random stone dressed with Bath stone building is summed up in John Newman’s Pevsner Guide to Northeast and East Kent, 2013, “scrupulously retained medieval features woven into a rambling, fancifully detailed Free Tudor mansion completed in 1901.”