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 Kent… Chapel 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…”