Rochester, with its unique atmosphere and wealth of historic buildings, is a pleasure to explore on foot. This page describes a circular tour to guide the walker to the more important sights, and tells a little of the City’s history along the way. The tour can be joined at any point, just by following the numbers on the map alongside.
Many locations in the City, now marked with plaques, are mentioned in the novels of Charles Dickens, who lived in nearby Chatham as a child and came to know Rochester well. Later, as a successful author living at nearby Gad’s Hill, he often returned to see the places of his childhood.
The City of Rochester Society is an amenity and historical Society. It is a registered charity and is run entirely by volunteers for the good of the City and its visitors.
The Society has been successfully organising tours for over 30 years and will be pleased to help you produce a memorable outing. Rochester and its surroundings has much to interest the visitor and also has a variety of restaurants, pubs and picnic areas.
We do make a small individual charge of £4.00 per person (£3.00 under 18’s) for organised group walks and our minimum overall charge is £30.00.
Our “drop by and go” walks happen every Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Bank Holiday from Good Friday to the end of October and everyday during Dickens Festivals. They depart the Visitor Information Centre, 95 High Street Rochester at 2.15pm and are intended for individuals and couples. These walks are free but we welcome donations to Society funds.
Rochester is a wheelchair-friendly City and users are very welcome to join a tour.
A Walk into History
1 Rochester was an important centre even before the Romans settled here soon after 43A.D. Their encampment developed into a walled town called Durobrivae, which means ‘The stronghold by the bridge.’ Long stretches of the remaining medieval city wall follow the line of these earliest Roman defences. One part visible from the High Street has survived to its full height, complete with battlements, because it once formed part of the 19th century building – now demolished – which housed Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School.
2 Walk along the High Street towards the Cathedral and you will come to the French Hospital La Providence. The Huguenots, refugees from the religious persecution in France, founded their hospital in London over 250 years ago. In 1960, at the instigation of the then Bishop of Rochester, this square of early-Victorian houses was acquired and converted into apartments for the elderly of Huguenot descent.
3 A little further along is Watts’ Charity, the Poor Travellers House. Endowed under the terms of Richard Watts’ will of 1579, the charity provided a night’s board and lodging for six poor travellers, and continued to do so right up to the World War II. The house, with its galleried Elizabethan bedrooms is open to public view at certain times.
Continue along the High Street (part of Watling Street, the Roman road from London to Kent coast). Countless travellers have passed this way since Roman times, because it remained the main highway to the Continent until the 20th Century. The High Street formed part of the A2 trunk route up to 1980.
4 Now turn into the War Memorial Garden. Looking towards the Cathedral, the squat tower between the two transepts is probably the oldest visible part from the outside, known as Gundulf’s Tower, it is now thought to have been built as a free-standing bell tower after the death of Bishop Gundulf (1108).
5 Passing through the Deanery Gate, a 15th century monastic inner gate, still with its original doors, you will see on the right the passage which was once the route used by pilgrims to the shrine of St. William of Perth. William, a baker from Perth in Scotland, was murdered just outside Rochester in 1201 while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
His tomb in the Cathedral (destroyed in 1538) was believed to posses miraculous healing powers and became a place of veneration.
6 The church of St. Nicholas alongside the Cathedral was built for the townsfolk in 1423, after quarrels with the monks of the priory over the use of the cathedral. It was rebuilt in 1624 and in 1964 was converted for use as administrative offices for the Diocese of Rochester.
7 The early -15th century Chertseys Gate, built of alternating courses of stone and flint, separated the walled Cathedral precincts from the town. The gate was converted into a dwelling in the 18th century by the addition of a timber house on top of it.
8 Across the road is the Kings Head Hotel. There has been an inn on this site for over 400 years. The bold lettering on the fascia of the present building is a happy survival from early in the 20th Century.
9 A little further along, on the other side of the road, with its huge clock jutting out over the pavement, is the delightful facade of the Old Corn Exchange-the gift to the city by one of its members of parliament, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, in 1706.
10 On the south side, Two Post Alley separates a Tudor building with a 19th century shop front, from 42 High Street, a fine private house of 1778. The graceful ornamentation over the first floor windows is a remnant of the time when the building was used commercially, and once bore the words ‘Phoenix Printing Office’.
11 Near the bridge is the splendid Guildhall, built in 1687. Note the superbly detailed ship weathervane, added in 1780. The building, together with the former premises of the Medway Conservancy Board next door, is now a museum with an excellent collection of local history exhibits. The principal chamber has a fine decorative plaster ceiling, interesting portraits and items of civic regalia.
12 Opposite the Guildhall is the Royal and Victoria Bull Hotel, a coaching inn and posting house where Princess Victoria stayed overnight in 1836 – the year before she became Queen. Over the entrance is a large coat of arms of King George III and Queen Charlotte.
13 Rochester Bridge. The River Medway here has been bridged since the earliest times. The bridge which carries London bound traffic dates from 1856, but was given its present appearance in 1914. Endowments administered by the Bridge Trust (founded in 1391) still provide for its upkeep and also paid for a second road bridge alongside, which opened in 1970.
14 A short way down the Esplanade is the 14th century Bridge Chapel. Once the chantry of the family of Sir John Cobham, who was instrumental in founding the earlier medieval bridge, it is now used as a meeting room by Rochester Bridge Trust.
15Enter the grounds of Rochester Castle from the Esplanade through the 19th Century archway in the ruin of a bastion. The Normans fortified this site soon after the conquest, with earthworks and timber palisades and making use of what remained of the Roman City walls. Around the year of 1088 it was rebuilt entirely of stone – one of the earliest masonry castles in England. The massive keep, the tallest in the country, was started in 1127. King John captured it during the siege of 1215, by destroying the south east corner turret. The turret was rebuilt in 1226, but in rounded form.
16 Leave the castle grounds by the small gate behind the keep and turn left. On the other side of the lane is Satis House, once the home of Richard Watts (of the Poor Traveller’s House -no. 3 in this guide) who entertained Queen Elizabeth I here in 1573. It is said that she rather ungraciously expressed her approval of her host’s arrangements with a single Latin word ‘Satis’ (enough.) The building has undergone extensive alterations since those days. ‘Old Hall’ – to the left – is believed to have formed the east wing of Satis House and still retains something of its Tudor appearance.
Now cross the road to the Cathedral. In the graveyard in front of it grows a very old Catalpa (American-Indian bean tree) – unusual in this country.
17 Rochester Cathedral. There has been a church Rochester Cathedral on this site ever since Ethelbert, King of Kent, built a small cathedral here for Justus, the first Bishop of Rochester in 604. The present building was begun in 1080 by the Norman Bishop Gundulf, who also established a Benedictine monastery here. Part of the crypt dates from this period. In the 13th century offerings to the shrine of St. William helped pay for an ambitious extension and rebuilding in the then contemporary Gothic style, but during the 1300’s the enthusiasm – and the money – for rebuilding seems to have run out. The plans were abandoned, thereby preserving the greater part of the Norman/Romanesque nave for later generations to enjoy.
The magnificent west portal – over 800 years old – is the only surviving example in England of a doorway with elongated column – figures.
There is a sumptuously carved 14th century doorway in the south choir transept, while the effigy of Bishop John de Sheppey (died 1360) in the presbytery is a rare example of medieval sculpture with its original colouring largely intact.
18 Now turn into the road alongside the Cathedral. This area formed part of the Priory of St. Andrew until 1540. On your right is College Green with the Old Bishop’s Palace, which incorporates part of the 15th century building where the saintly Bishop John Fisher lived until 1534. He was executed the following year for his refusal to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church.
19 On the left, the peaceful Cloister Garth is the site of the monastery, which here adjoined the chancel of the Cathedral – not the nave – a most unusual arrangement.
20 Nearby, leading to St. Margaret’s Street, is the 15th century Prior’s Gate, the most complete of the surviving monastic gates.
21 Now turn left into Minor Canon Row, an attractive terrace originally built for the lesser clergy of the Cathedral in 1723. Number 7, at the far end, was added in 1735 and was for many years home to the Cathedral organist. The whole terrace was recently acquired by Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust and is currently undergoing renovation.
22 Passing various buildings of King’s school, refounded by Henry VIII in 1542, you will come to Oriel House (circa 1760) on the left. Notice the firemarks on the facade – two of many in Rochester. They identified the companies that had insured the house against fire. Opposite, the 18th century front of the former Deanery conceals a much earlier house.
23 Now turn into The Vines, where in the past the monks had their vineyard. The avenue of plane trees planted in 1880 suffered badly in the storm of 1987, when many were uprooted and destroyed.24
Facing The Vines is a pleasing group of houses, including (on the left) the important Restoration House where Charles II stayed on his return to England in 1660 to be crowned. A few years later Samuel Pepys viewed this house. He called it ‘a pretty seat’ and recorded in his diary the romantic advances he made to a woman in a cherry orchard near here. Pepys was in the Rochester area as a clerk to the Navy Board to assess the damage caused by the daring raid up the River Medway by the Dutch fleet in 1667.
In Great Expectations Dickens called this ‘Satis House,’ where lived the jilted bride Miss Havisham. He had taken the name from another mansion in Rochester (no. 16 in this guide.)
Return to the High Street by turning left into Crow Lane. The City Wall may be glimpsed here and there on the left hand side.
25 A little further on is the Baptist Church (1907) with a memorial dating from 1926 commemorating the Protestant martyrs of Rochester.
26 A further stretch of the City wall, which includes some Roman masonry may be seen by turning left into the High Street and making a short detour into Eagle Court beside the Eagle Public house. Otherwise turn right into the High Street.
27 On the right-hand side of the street you will see a large timber framed late 16th century house, 150-4 High Street. Its three gables are supported by richly ornamented timbers and brackets overhanging the street.28
On the opposite side is Eastgate House, built of timber and brick and started in about 1590. It was originally the home of Sir Peter Buck, an important naval official and Mayor of Rochester. In the garden at the back is Dickens’ Chalet, which once stood in the grounds of Gad’s Hill Place, his house at Higham, about 4 miles west of Rochester, where he settled in 1857. Dickens used the upstairs room of the chalet as a study and was working on his last, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood the day before he died in 1870.
Dickens’ connection with the Medway area is described in a leaflet available from the Charles Dickens Centre. The Centre also stocks a booklet Rochester’s Heritage Trail a more detailed version of this walk.
Other places of interest
St. Margaret’s Street
St. Margaret’s Street runs southwards from the Castle. An interesting street with a wide variety of houses and other buildings, including the tower of a Napoleonic fort. Opposite Vines Lane is ‘Bishopscourt,’ the official residence of the Bishop of Rochester. Alongside is the former Poor House, with a quaint inscription over the door. A few minutes walk will bring you to St. Margaret’s Church, re-built in 1823, but retaining its 15th century tower. Fort Clarence is about half a mile distant.
St. Bartholomew’s Chapel
St. Bartholomew’s Chapel in the High Street, stands astride the former municipal boundary between Rochester and Chatham. Originally part of the leper hospital, it was restored by Gilbert Scott in 1896. The hospital itself was founded in 1078 by Bishop Gundulf and was re-housed in a new building in New Road in 1863. Opposite the chapel is Sir John Hawkins’ Hospital founded in 1594 by the Elizabethan navigator ‘for poor decayed mariners and shipwrights.’ It was rebuilt in 1789 and modernised recently to provide sheltered housing.
Nearby in the High Street, opposite Ship Lane, is a Synagogue, an unusual building of 1865, with some interesting inscriptions on the facade.
The River Medway
Rochester was once a busy commercial port but the cargo vessels are fewer in number now and pleasure craft now dominate the river scene. Fine views of the Medway can be enjoyed from St. Margaret’s Church, from the recreation grounds above New Road and – on the other side of the river – from Frindsbury Church.
Visitor Information Centre
For information about other sights, attractions and events in Rochester and other Medway towns, please ask at the Visitor Information Centre.
95 High Street,
Telephone: +44 (0) 1634 843666
Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Closed Sundays October to March (except during special events).