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.