Rochester is full of amazing historical buildings and heritage sites. Most of these are well known and feature in all the usual tourist leaflets. But there are many hidden gems and we hope to cover many of these in this section of the website.
Some are the sites of formerly important buildings – many of them industrial (covered separately). Some are significant because of their association with Rochester’s literary past, not just Dickensian but lesser known authors such as Donald Maxwell, William Coles-Finch and Edwin Harris. And some are those small details that add to Rochester’s rich tapestry. Our first hidden gem is one of these.
The Guildhall Museum is one of Rochester’s best known buildings. Next time you pass it, take a moment to stand back and look up at the roof. Here you’ll see the most ornate weathervane in the shape of a fully rigged 18th Century warship. Placed on the roof in 1780, this gilded copper and lead model is over four feet long and weighs in at just over 8 stones.
The weathervane was removed and repaired in 1987 after it took a battering from the hurricane force winds that at the same time decimated the Vines. As you can see from our recent picture, the rigging of the model takes a battering from the elements and probably requires more regular maintenance than its awkward mounting allows.
Originally just called the Bull Hotel, it’s thought because bull-baiting tournaments were once held near-by, the coat of arms that adorns the front of the building is the Royal arms of George III. Queen Victoria, while still Princess Victoria was travelling through Rochester in 1835 when a very fierce storm arose. It was feared that the old bridge would not withstand the hurricane-force winds and so Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, put up at the Bull for the night. It is said that the proprietor then named it after her. Only later was it discovered that in her diary she had written that it was the most uncomfortable bed in which she had ever slept!
The current building dates from the late eighteenth century although there has been an inn on the site as early as 1555. Dickens stayed here many times and the bed he used can now be seen in Bleak House in Broadstairs The opening scenes of ‘Pickwick Papers’ take place in the Bull and Pip celebrates his ‘Great Expectations’ in the Blue Boar Inn aka the Bull.
Originally the Butchers Market, a gift to the City from Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the original clock had deteriorated so badly that it was replaced by the Rochester Corporation in 1771. The original clock was square faced but the current one is round. Dickens was not a fan of the new clock and described it in ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ – “There was a public clock – which I had supposed to be the finest clock in the world: whereas it now turned out to be as inexpressive, moon-faced, and weak a clock as ever I saw”. I think the consensus as CoRS is that we quite like it – especially now the council have fixed it and it’s not stuck at 1.30!!
In 1987, the Vines in Rochester was devastated by hurricane force winds. More than 50 of its mature trees were lost but, many have since been replaced. One of the badly damaged, but still rooted Plane trees was carved into a sculpture of a monk by Robert Koenig in 1997. When the sculpture became unstable early in 2012, it was sawn through at its base and relocated to an area of the north-western border that has been dedicated as a stag beetle habitat. The stump of the original monk sculpture remains and continues to be a stag beetle habitat.
The church of St Nicholas can be found close by the north side of Rochester Cathedral but its graveyard can be found some distance south, along the Rochester Maidstone Road. The graves of Edwin Harris and William Coles-Finch, two of the best known of Rochester’s Victorian historians and civic servants can be found here. Unfortunately nature has taken its toll on both memorials and they are in a sorry state. With a little care and attention, hopefully these important memorials can be preserved.
If you go into the gardens of Eastgate House and look back towards Dickens’ Swiss Chalet, you’ll notice a water wheel between the chalet and the west wall of the main Eastgate building. This water wheel was gifted to Eastgate House Museum by Rochester department store owners Featherstones. They had taken possession of the site of the former Hulkes Lane Brewery on the lower High Street between Rochester and Chatham. The water wheel was behind a wall on the side of the Georgian brewery dwelling house known as Chatham House and was used to power the kitchen spit. It was removed as part of large alterations made to the building by Featherstones in the early part of the 1900’s.
Along the eastern end of Rochester’s main High Street is a small Thai restaurant housed in a small. Look up and there’s a small wooden plaque with ‘Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe’ in gold lettering. This plaque was placed on the building by Edwin Harris who ran his steam print works from this building from …………
Among many of the curiosities to be found in Rochester Cathedral are the Green Men carved on the ceiling under the tower near the organ. Originally the Green Men were a pagan symbol representing fertility. When missionaries arrived from Rome in the 6th century they incorporated the pagan symbol into the Christian religion to help pagans convert to Christianity but gave the Green Men a new meaning more in tune with Christian teachings. They became a symbol of new life, which in Christian terms includes resurrection. In the medieval period it was also believed that the gruesome faces of the Green Men (and gargoyles outside the cathedral) kept evil spirits from the cathedral.
If you’ve traveled over the railway bridge between Rochester and Strood, a glance downriver may well have solicited a double take. Because moored up at a slight list near the Strood bank of the River Medway is a Russian submarine.
This is the ‘Black Widow’, an ex Russian Foxtrot B-39 (U475) Hunter Killer Class submarine. Built in 1967, it was used to train Libyan, Cuban and Indian submariners until it was decommissioned in 1994. When fully armed, it could hold 22 torpedo’s including 2 with low yield nuclear warheads.
At the end of its active life, the sub arrived in London from its base in Riga under the command of Captain Vitalij Burda. It operated as a museum in London until 1998 when it was moved to Folkestone, again as a museum and venue. In 2004, it was closed and moved to its current position where it waits a buyer with sufficient funds to restore it.
Undoubtedly one of the hidden gems of Rochester, the George Vaults public house is a late 18th and 19th Century building over an early 14th Century undercroft. It is this vault that not only gives the pub its name but also its Grade II listing.
The undercroft measures 54ft x 16ft and at its apex is 11ft high. The ceiling has 4 bays with what are known as quadrapartite vaults with a longitudinal rib. There are foliated bosses with various creatures and moulded capitals with foliated necks and pyramid stops. However, much of the decorative detailing is much eroded. Drawings of the vault were made by noted Rochester museum curator George Payne and these can be found in ‘Medieval Crypts at Rochester’ in Archaeolooia Cantiana XXIV (1900), 220-4. The photo shown is thought to have been taken by Edwin Harris.
Foord Alms Houses were built in Borstal (on the outskirts of Rochester in the Parish of St Margaret’s) in accordance with the will of Thomas Hellyar Foord, a local businessman and benefactor to the City of Rochester. Construction of the Alms Houses was completed in 1927 and they were officially opened by Prince and Princess Arthur of Connaught.
Foord’s were designed by Edward Guy Dawber, a celebrated architect and President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Dawber employed a number of artists to realise his design for Foord’s including the sculptor Ernest George Gillick who created the statue of Charity that stands in front of the Annexe, Phoebe Stabler who designed and manufactured the ‘Four Seasons’ tablets on the south facing wall of the Main Hall and Robert Anning Bell who designed and manufactured the stunning stained glass windows in the Main Hall.
Dawber also employed Gerald Moira, born Giraldo de Moura in 1859. Moira was a reknowned painter of murals who studied at the Royal Academy and in Paris. Among his work were murals and decorative panels at the Trocadero in London, the Old Bailey and the City Hall in Bristol. He created a frieze in the Main Hall of Foord’s depicting events in the civic history of Rochester featuring many notable historical figures including King John, Charles II, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and Henry VIII. Although not necessarily historically accurate in content, they are an amazing sight to see. It’s worth keeping an eye on the local press for dates of jumble sales and the like that occasionally take place in the hall and are open to the public.
Best known to local residents as the Lloyds Bank Rochester branch, a plaque on the façade of the building tells something of the colourful past of this building. It was here that King James II arrived in 1688 while escaping England during the revolution that saw him replaced on the throne by King William III and Queen Mary II.
This house was owned by Sir Richard Head, MP for Rochester in the Cavalier Parliament from 1667 to 1679. He was elected Mayor of Rochester in 1683 and died in 1689, leaving several house and of lands in Higham to the citizens of Rochester for charitable purposes.
To readers of this site below the age of 50, Sir Joseph Williamsons Mathematical School is situated well outside the centre of Rochester. But for many years, the Math school occupied a prime High Street site on the corner of Blue Boar Lane. Sir Joe was a prominent local politician elected as MP in 1689. The provision of his will gifted £5,000 to build, staff and maintain a Free School to educate the sons of freemen of the City in mathematics and “other things that might fit and encourage them to the sea service”.
A schoolroom was subsequently built in 1708 on the site at Free School Lane with further rooms being added in 1840. In 1882/3 extensive additions were made by noted Rochester architect George Bond and the school stood on the site until the 1960’s when it was decided it had outgrown its High Street position and it moved to the Maidstone Road.
The site of the old school is marked by a plaque on the side of an independent card and ornament shop on the High Street exit from the Blue Boar Lane car park .
Over the last 400 years or so, there have been over 40 fortified works constructed in the Medway area to protect the Thames and Medway estuaries and the Dockyards at Sheerness and Chatham.
At the beginning of the 1800’s, the very real threat of invasion by Napoleon resulted in the expansion of Fort Pitt overlooking Rochester from the South with two new outworks called Gibraltar and Delce Towers between 1805 and 1811. The remainder of Delce Tower can be seen on the Delce opposite Fort Street. At the same time, Fort Clarence was constructed on high ground overlooking the upper reaches of the River Medway to the south east of Rochester city centre.
Fort Clarence originally consisted of a large red brick tower of two storeys. On the west side of the fort was a brick archway over Borstal Road. This was demolished in 1924. The main fort became a Military Hospital in 1830 and later served a variety of purposes, including military prison and lunatic asylum. The fort continued as a prison after the asylum moved and it became common place for soldiers found guilty of crimes to be flogged at the fort. Newspaper reports from the 1920’s report soldiers being carried back after their floggings with their tunics draped over their shoulders, so bad were their injuries that they couldn’t do them up.
The fort was used by the garrison artillery throughout the First World War as a recruiting centre. After the war, a large Territorial and Volunteer Reserve centre was built alongside the site and the main barrack site run down. During the Second World War, the Home Guard used Fort Clarence as headquarters.
During the war, a massive underground aircraft factory was built under Fort Clarence for use by Short Brothers who had their main factory on the Medway below the fort.
The fort fell derelict after the war and was bought by the post office (GPO) in the 1960’s to use as an engineering depot. They demolished a number of the out buildings and filled in a substantial part of the moat.
The main building was vacated by BT and stood empty for some time before being developed into apartments in the late 1990’s. The grounds around it were developed into a housing estate. Fort Clarence House on Borstal Road served as Officer’s Quarters and the Governors House and was still owned by the army as late as 1974. It is now a private residence.