Counting down the reasons to visit Rochester in 3, 2, 1… Rochester has England’s third-oldest Norman keep, second-oldest cathedral, and largest second-hand bookshop. I recently visited and decided that this small city in Kent on the River Medway is the perfect day trip for visitors who are basing themselves in London but want to experience the charm of a small English town as well.
When William the Conqueror came over from France in 1066, he decided one of the ways he was going to remind the local residents that he was now in charge was by building a bunch of castles to literally tower over them. He gave a castle to one of his pals after the Conquest, but that castle was abandoned after said pal used it to stage a rebellion against William’s son, the presumptive heir to the throne. No matter; when you’ve found a good location, stick with it: William II asked the Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf, to rebuild the castle, and a few decades later, Henry I made the castle the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The man who held that title at the time, William de Corbeil, was, like Gundulf, also an architect, and he built the Norman keep that still stands today. So in sum: Father gave a castle to a friend, his son got a friend to rebuilt that castle, and then his other son gave that same castle to another friend. Very chummy.
Rochester Castle was the site of several sieges over the next century and a half, making the strong walls of the keep (the innermost part of the castle) all the more important, as at some points all the inhabitants of the castle had to retreat to the keep to fend off attackers. During one of these sieges, in 1215, King John burned forty fat pigs underneath one corner of the keep; the resulting fire was hot enough to burn through the wooden supports beneath wall, and that portion of the keep collapsed. It was later rebuilt as a rounded tower, which was a stronger design less susceptible to sneaky pig-fire attacks.
Like many castles that were once essential to the defense of the local noble’s claims of land and power, Rochester Castle was later used for various purposes, including a prison and an illegal source of stone for other buildings. By the 19th century it was in disrepair, and the local government set it up as a park. Now it’s an English Heritage site, which means the keep is well-preserved (one of the best-preserved Norman keeps in England or France), and the grounds are a big park, with an ice cream vendor at the entrance.
Gundulf was a busy man. Not only was he Bishop of Rochester, he built up the cathedral itself (while also building the castle next door). There had been a cathedral on site for over 400 years, but years of underfunding meant that what was left wasn’t much. So Gundulf built it basically from the ground up, and much of this remains today, although several fires destroyed parts of the building over the years and those sections had to be repaired. (Side note: I couldn’t help but call Gundulf “Gandalf” all day; there’s a statue of him out front with a long, flowing beard and his pointy bishop hat, and it was too good to resist.)
Because Rochester is on the London-Canterbury road, several kings passed through town over the years, and they usually left small offerings at the cathedral on their way. One king who was distinctly not pleased with the place was Henry VIII, who met Ann of Cleaves for the first time in Rochester. History buffs may remember that he was “greatly disappointed” by her, because he didn’t think she was as hot as her picture. Tinder dating is always a risk, guys.
I first became interested in Rochester not because of the castle or the cathedral, but because of a sign I saw as my train passed through en route to another destination. Across the brick walls of the shop were large painted letters declaring “England’s Largest Rare & Secondhand Bookshop.” That’s how you bait a Lisa-trap, right there.
Baggins Book Bazaar was just what you’d hope: several stories, with front staircases and back staircases and a fairy door; books shelved in an orderly manner until there was no more room on the shelves, at which point the books just built themselves nests on any available surface; prominently displayed copies of books on local celebrity Charles Dickens, who lived and died very near here and featured Rochester Castle in some of his stories; friendly staff who laughed gently when I said I wouldn’t mind being “accidentally” left there overnight when they locked up.
There are many little shops in Rochester that would be fun to stop into, if you had more time than I did on my visit — including one that declared itself a “dino store,” a shop of oddities, and another bookstore — but you must at least stop into Baggins when you visit, to smell that used-book smell and smile at all the human creativity and ingenuity put into print and waiting for you to discover.
Hail Britannia is the title I settled on for posts about the British adventures I’m having while living in London. It covers London and non-London locations alike. It has a pleasing ring to it but doesn’t, I hope, make us dwell too much on ‘Rule, Britannia,’ not least because I am neither in the Royal Navy nor pro-imperialism.