Hail Britannia: Rochester

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.

The Castle

Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle

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.

The Cathedral

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.

The Bookshop

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.

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A beautiful spring day in Rochester

 

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Rochester Cathedral from atop Rochester Castle

 

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.

To Battle!

“Let’s go to battle,” Liz said to me. I looked at her askance. As far as I knew, we were not in a fight. Also, she’s a trained fencer and I am not, so she has an unfair advantage if we’re battling. “No,” she said, “Battle, the town built up around the site where the Battle of Hastings took place.” Aha.

The battlefield at Battle

The battlefield at Battle

The year 1066 is famous in Britain for being the last time England was invaded. Duke William of Normandy came across the Channel, killed King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and shortly thereafter assumed the crown as King William I of England. He commissioned the Domesday Book, which was the earliest extensive listing of property distribution in the Western world. He spent most of his reign back in France, and left England to his second son upon his death. I sometimes wonder if this is the root of animosity between France and England; England’s thinking, “You conquered us and then couldn’t even be bothered to stay?”

Duke William's final ascent on his way to becoming William the Conqueror

Duke William’s final ascent on his way to becoming William the Conqueror

Battle Abbey

Battle Abbey

Liz and I took the train down from London, and then made lots of jokes about “striding into Battle” as we walked from the station up to to the English Heritage site. It was fine weather when we were there, but of course it had rained earlier in the day, so our walk around the battlefield was utterly muddy.

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Battling

Battling

The battlefield is just that, a field that slopes up to the ruins of the abbey that William built as atonement for the bloodshed that took place there. There’s a path around the field, with plaques along the way that lead you in chronological order through the battle. I also used the audio guide from the visitor’s center, which was excellent.

The ruins of the abbey

The ruins of the abbey

I love this architecture

I love this architecture

We squelched around the battlefield and did a little fake fighting (I was on the losing side–told you she’s a fencer), and then we walked around the abbey. Built as it was on a hillside, the abbey had some odd heights inside it, where the farther up the hill you went, the lower down the ceilings were. I would have thought architects would have compensated for that, but no matter, it just made the ruins a little more mysterious.

The abbey

The abbey

My best horror movie pose

My best horror movie pose

Fixing the spelling so it's a better pun

Fixing the spelling so it’s a better pun

Why on earth would you put this quote by the condiments section of the cafe?

Why on earth would you put this quote by the condiments section of the cafe?

After we strode victoriously out of Battle, we took the train down to Hastings, which was a larger town than I’d expected. I walked to the ocean’s edge to put my fingers in the water, and managed to soak my shoes through, making that the second time that day they’d been soaked through.

The beach at Hastings

The beach at Hastings

A grand building in Hastings

A grand building in Hastings

But never mind that, or the fact that the funicular closed just a few minutes before we got there. Because there was a tiny train, and the tiny train was still running. We gave our money to the kid whose mom ran the train, and then took a comically short ride along the waterfront that was part working docks and part gussied-up tourist attraction.

Tiny train!

Tiny train!

Proper fishing village

Proper fishing village

The tall fish huts of Hastings

The tall fish huts of Hastings

The boats of Hastings

The boats of Hastings

 

We ended up near the old town, and found that there was a sort of traveling music show going on. We picked a pub, grabbed a drink, and watched as different acts came through for 20-minute performance slots, before they moved on to the next participating pub. It was mostly folk or new folk,and pretty good, but one woman stood out as sounding like a new Sandy Denny. The whole pub hushed as she sang part of her set a cappella, and it was almost a disappointment when the instruments joined in to back her up. That was a lucky find.

Fish n chips

Fish n chips

Along the tiny railway tracks

Along the tiny railway tracks

Hastings being a major fishing town, clearly we had to have fish and chips for dinner. But most places were either shut for the night or full to bursting with the music fest crowd. Finally, we found a mom and pop place, and sat down to a good meal served by the most distracted servers I’ve ever encountered. We worked out that they were trying to close for the night, but they kept letting customers in. I wanted to share with them the secret that if they wanted to close, they had to turn people away. Advanced Restaurateuring, right there.

Drying my shoes out on the heater of the train

Drying my shoes out on the heater of the train

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