|Start: Rochester Railway Station.
|Duration: 2 Hours
|Best of Times: Daytime.
|Worst of Times: Evenings.
Rochester was Dickens’s favourite city and, "as a small queer boy", he was fond of exploring its ‘old corners’. Rochester features in several of his novels. The Pickwickians come here in the early chapters of Pickwick Papers. Although not named, it is obviously the city featured in Great Expectations, and is Dullborough Town in an essay in The Uncommercial Traveller. In the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood it becomes Cloisterham, and it is perhaps fitting that the last words Dickens ever wrote were about the city for which he felt genuine affection, and where he wished to be buried.
For three days every June, Rochester hosts the Dickens festival, a colourful extravaganza during which the city takes on the character of the Victorian age, as people dress in period costume and many of Dickens’s most colourful characters walk the streets. A similar celebration takes place in December, when the cast of characters is swollen by bell ringers and carol singers, and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, snow is guaranteed!
Leave Rochester Station. Go right along High Street, cross over the pedestrian crossing and bear right. At the next lights go over the busy roads into the continuation of High Street, heading towards the clearly visible spire of Rochester Cathedral. Keep to the left side, and pause outside the black and white timbered building, just before Eastgate Terrace.
A plaque reveals it to be the house of Mr Sapsea, auctioneer and Mayor of Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There was a late 19th-century tradition that Mr Sapsea, ‘the purest jackass in Cloisterham’, as Dickens described him, was an amalgam of two local townsmen: a councilman who lived in this building, and a former mayor of Rochester. The house was also featured in Great Expectations as the home and shop of Uncle Pumblechook.
Go right through the gates on the opposite side of High Street, passing on the left the 16th-century Eastgate House. Go left through the iron gates to find the brown and lime Swiss Chalet, which formerly stood across the road from Dickens’s house at Gad’s Hill.
The chalet was a gift from his friend, Charles Fechter (1824–79) in 1864, and Dickens used it as a summer study for the rest of his life. Indeed, it was in the upper room of the chalet that he wrote his last words on the afternoon of 8th June, 1870.
Backtrack to the entrance of Eastgate House.
In Dickens’s day this was a girls’ school, and he featured the building in The Mystery of Edwin Drood as The Nun’s House, a Seminary for young ladies run by the eminently respectable Miss Twinkleton. Dickens’s description of it as ‘a venerable brick edifice… The house-front… so old and worn… ’ still holds true today. It was at this seminary that Rosa Bud, Edwin Drood’s fiancÈe, was a pupil. Dickens had also used the house in Pickwick Papers as Westgate House girl’s boarding school, albeit he transported it lock, stock and barrel to Bury St Edmunds! The Charles Dickens Centre now occupies the property, wherein are exhibited many relics of his life and times. Imaginative recreations together with audio-visual displays, bring both Dickensian London and England vividly to life. Allow yourself a good 40 minutes to enjoy what is an essential part of the walk.
Return to High Street, go right then next left into Crow Lane and walk up the hill. Three quarters of the way along on the left is the dark redbrick Restoration House, so called because Charles II stayed here on his return to England in 1660.
In Great Expectations this was Satis House, ‘with its seared brick walls, blocked windows and strong ivy, clasping even the stacks of the old chimney’s…’ Here lived the embittered, jilted bride Miss Havisham, and here Pip met with the cold and contemptuous Estella, with whom he fell desperately in love.
On the afternoon of Monday 6th June, 1870, three days before he died, Dickens was seen leaning against the wooden railing across the street from Restoration House, studying it intently as if committing every brick to memory. There was comment at the time that ‘there would be some notice of this building’ in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Go up the steps opposite, and keep going ahead along the asphalt path into The Vines, which was once the vineyard of the monks of St Andrew’s Priory. Take the right path, and continue through the gap in the wall, to turn right and follow the road left into:-
Minor Canon Row, a shabby, almost neglected terrace, built in 1723 for the lesser clergy of Rochester Cathedral. A ‘wonderfully quaint row of red-brick tenements…’ was how Dickens described them in ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’; ‘they had odd little porches over the doors, like sounding-boards over old pulpits’. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood this was Minor Canon Corner, ‘a quiet place in the shadow of the cathedral, which the cawing of the rooks, the echoing footsteps of rare passers, the sound of the Cathedral bell, or the roll of the Cathedral organ, seemed to render more quiet than absolute silence…’
Continue as the road swings right passing on the left the 15th-century Prior’s Gate. Follow it left, and a little way along, go through the iron gate on the right, down the steps and into:-
Rochester Cathedral. In Pickwick Papers Alfred Jingle described the cathedral as having an ‘earthy smell’ and being a ‘Sarcophagus – fine place – old legends too – strange stories: capital…’ Dickens returned to the cathedral in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, imbuing it with a haunting atmosphere in some of the most poetic prose he ever wrote.
Dear Me,, said Mr Grewgious, peeping in,
“it’s like looking down the throat of Old Time”. Old Time heaved a mouldy sigh from tomb and arch and vault; and gloomy shadows began to deepen in corners; and damps began to rise from green patches of stone; and jewels, cast upon the pavement of the nave from stained glass by the declining sun, began to perish... all became grey, murky and sepulchral, and the cracked monotonous mutter went on like a dying voice, until the organ and the choir burst forth, and drowned it in a sea of music.’
The Cathedral today is a light and airy place, evidently much changed since Dickens wrote those words. However, the crypt – the steps to which are situated almost immediately on the right as you enter – still has a musty, earthy smell, and as you descend into it, it is, indeed, ‘like looking down the throat of Old Time’. Exit the crypt, turn left and ascend the steps. Pass straight ahead through the doorway and pause to the left of the ornate Chapter House doorway, where there is a brass memorial plaque to Charles Dickens.
Go left through the gates to cross in front of the high altar. Keep going ahead through the choir stalls, and pass beneath the organ. Go down the steps, bearing left at the lower altar and cross to the side alcove, where above the reclining figure with his hands clasped, is the wall memorial to:-
Richard Watts (1529–79), by whose charitable bequest the Poor Travellers’ House on High Street was founded. On 11th May, 1854, Dickens was looking around the cathedral when he came upon this memorial. Fascinated by this charity, he asked a verger for directions to the house, and ‘The way being very short…’ set out to visit it.
Exit the cathedral through the door at the end of the right aisle, where straight away the castle looms ahead of you. Turn left, follow the cobbles as they swing right, and cross over the road. Pause by the wall on the other side, to look down upon the gravestones in the ‘little graveyard under the castle wall’, where Dickens expressed a wish to be buried.
Go down the slope to cross the moat diagonally left and pass through the arch at the top of the steps in the far-left corner. Keep ahead and continue through the gates surmounted by the stone lion heads then pause outside the cream building in the corner.
This is Satis House, formerly the residence of Richard Watts of Poor Travellers fame. In 1573, whilst Queen Elizabeth I was being entertained here, she summed up his hospitality by uttering a single Latin word – 'Satis' (enough) – hence the property’s name. Dickens used the name, though not the actual building, for Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations.
With your back to Satis House, go down the pathway, pass by the two gateposts, and cross the road. Bear left down the hill and a little way along, on the right, go through the gate to enter the grounds of Rochester Castle, the entrance to which is clearly visible on the right.
Built in 1128 Rochester Castle is a magnificent, ruined fortress, whose lofty heights afford stunning views of the town below. As a child, Dickens had often pottered about these ruins, and they feature in the pages of several of his novels. Alfred Jingle in Pickwick Papers calls it a ‘fine place… glorious pile – frowning walls, tottering arches – dark nooks – crumbling staircases’. Indeed, it is from the timeworn ramparts reached via its crumbling stairs, that you can best appreciate the final lines that Dickens wrote about Rochester on the day before he died.
‘A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful, with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air. Changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs of birds, scents from gardens, woods and fields… penetrate into the cathedral, subdue its earthly odour and preach the Resurrection and the Life. The cold stone tombs of centuries ago grow warm; and flecks of brightness dart into the sternest marble corners of the building, fluttering there like wings.’
Exit the castle, go down the wooden steps, bear right and keep going ahead on the broad path to pass the large cannon. Descend the steps, and turn right onto the Esplanade. The balustrade that borders the river came from the medieval Bridge taken down in 1857, and which Dickens mentioned in Pickwick Papers. Go right by the Crown Pub onto the High Street to reach, on the left, the light brown building, which is a wonderful museum furnished in the fashion of the mid 1870s. Next door is:-
Rochester’s Guildhall, that ‘queer place… with higher pews in it than in a church’, where Pip came to be articled as Jo Gargery’s apprentice in Great Expectations. The museum that occupies this building contains a recreation of one the great Prison Hulks, the ships that were once moored in the Thames estuary, and from one of which Abel Magwitch escaped in the same novel.
On the opposite side of High Street is the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel, an 18th-century coaching inn, where Princess – later Queen – Victoria stayed in 1836. In those days it was known simply as the Bull Inn, and Dickens mentions it in several novels notably in Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations.
Continue along the High Street, passing beneath the huge clock that juts out from the wall of the Old Corn Exchange on the left. In The Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens wrote how he had once supposed this 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’.
Keep to the right side of High Street and, having crossed Boley Hill, pause alongside the 15th-century Chertseys, also known as College Gate.
This was the home of Edwin Drood’s wicked uncle, John Jasper; the man who may, or may not, have murdered his nephew, so jealous was he of Edwin’s betrothal to Rosa Bud. Perhaps Edwin, whose disappearance is the mystery of the title, was murdered here and his body hidden in a grave in the crypt of the Cathedral, a little beyond the gatehouse? Sadly we will never know what Dickens intended for his vanished protagonist, for his untimely death, when the novel was but a quarter finished, has left one of the greatest ‘whodunits’ of English literature.
Continue along High Street. A plaque on the next building on the right states that this was the home of Mr Tope, the chief verger at Cloisterham Cathedral in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The last words that Dickens wrote were concerning a ‘very neat, clean breakfast’ that Mrs Tope laid out for their lodger.
Keep going along the High Street until, just after the Visitor Centre on the left, you arrive at:-
The Poor Travellers’ House. Its name derives from a bequest left by Richard Watts for ‘Six Poor Travellers, who not being ROGUES or PROCTORS’ were to be provided with ‘one Night Lodging, Entertainment, and Fourpence’. When Dickens visited the house in 1854, he stood in the street outside pondering that since ‘I know I am not a Proctor, I wonder whether I am a Rogue!’ Looking up, he noticed ‘a decent body, of a wholesome matronly appearance…’ watching him from one of the open lattice windows. This ‘matronly presence’ showed him around the property, and his visit subsequently became the subject of his Christmas story ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’, which appeared in Household Words that year. The house is now a delightful museum, which details the history of this property, and the rooms in which the poor travellers ate and slept until the house was closed on 20th July, 1940 can be visited.
Go left out of the house and continue to the end of the High Street where, having crossed the traffic lights, follow its continuation to arrive back at Rochester Railway Station and the end of this walk.