A town where every other building has a plaque boasting of its history, where independent shops outnumber chain stores several times over, and where it's a challenge not to stop and take a photo every three paces, because everything is so picturesque.
This is Rochester, a town in the Medway district of Kent, and here are a few reasons why you should pay it a visit.
A Dickensian day out
Rochester's never been shy about its links to author Charles Dickens, who despite being associated with London, spent some of his childhood in nearby Chatham, and returned to the area as an adult when he purchased nearby Gad's Hill Place in the 1850s.
A brief wander down the high street takes you past Copperfield's homewares and furniture shop, Sweet Expectations confectionery shop, Oliver's Bar and Restaurant, the Little Dorrit gift shop (located next to Austen's farmshop, for a spot of literary disharmony — in a tiled building not unlike a Leslie Green tube station), Taste of Two Cities Indian takeaway, Mrs Tickit's Pantry tea room, Tiny Tim's cafe, Dickens House Wine Emporium and the Deaf Cat Cafe, which apparently alludes to a hearing-impaired feline which used to sit with Dickens as he wrote.
Alas, the traditional greengrocer Pips of Rochester has gone for good in recent years, but no doubt something equally as Dickensian will be along to replace it in a minute.
It's not just 21st century business owners who are in on the act. Plaques, and even street art ensure that you can't forget, even for a second, that Mr Dickens used to frequent the area.
Rochester Castle: A Tower of London sibling
The square fortress of Rochester Castle cuts an imposing figure on the Medway skyline. Foreboding indeed, but it also looks... familiar. A square footprint, with tall towers on each corner, it's not unlike London's own White Tower. The city cousin is a bit more polished, with weather vanes on the domed roof on each corner, but there's a reason for their similarities — they were both designed by the same man.
Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, was put in charge of both buildings, as well as Colchester Castle and St Leonard's Tower in West Malling, among others. An 11th century Christopher Wren, if you will. These days, Rochester Castle is open to visitors, owned by English Heritage and managed by Medway Council, but don't go in expecting all plush thrones and fancy artworks, as it's largely a ruin — though it does offer excellent views from the top.
If you're on a budget or haven't got time to go inside the castle, you can enter the castle gardens for free — and it's well worth doing, with views of the castle and Rochester Cathedral to one side, and panoramas over the Rochester Bridge and River Medway to the other. Head to the south-eastern corner of the grounds, just to the left of the public toilets and look out for old window shapes in the lowest part of the wall — this has become a popular spot for photographers and Instagrammers to frame their shots of the cathedral. As we have also done.
Rochester Cathedral: England's second oldest cathedral
Rochester Cathedral is second only to nearby Canterbury Cathedral in terms of number of candles on a (rather large) birthday cake — it was founded in 604 and has evolved since, including being expanded by Gundulf (busy guy) once he'd finished tinkering with the nearby castle.
These days, you can visit the cathedral for free (though donations are welcome and encouraged, as the upkeep of the building isn't cheap). Wander though the nave, the quire and other important parts of the building, including the Pilgrim Steps, bowing after being worn away by the footsteps of countless visitors over the years, and a door that's almost a 1,000 years old.
Don't forget to head downstairs to the crypt, where you'll find an exhibition about the cathedral, as well as Rochester's best kept secret, the Cafe in the Crypt — a blissfully tranquil place to stop for a coffee or bite to eat.
What with the cathedral and the castle, you might be wondering why Rochester is a town, rather than a city. Truth be told, it was once a city, a status that was lost to the details of bureaucracy and local government in the late 1990s. Locals are keen for City status to be returned, though if that were to happen, this would likely to be granted to Medway as whole (including Chatham, Gillingham, Rainham and Strood too) rather than Rochester specifically.
Rochester's historic buildings and features
Zooming in on Rochester High Street on Historic England's map of listed buildings leaves you in no uncertainty as to Rochester's historic value — the tiny blue triangles which indicate a listed structure line both sides of the thoroughfare like a parade route, with almost every High Street building listed in some way. In reality, the high street is an architectural mish-mash, with wooden-beamed, redbrick and white-weatherboarded facades all snuggled in together, each worth spending time admiring. But there are a few highlights...
If you head down Castle Hill towards the town centre and take a left down the footpath known as Two Post Alley, you'll notice the walls of the building on your right bowing out towards you as you get closer to the High Street. View the building straight on and it's got an undeniable lean to it, not unlike that of the more famously wonky Jersey Pearl shop in Windsor.
A few steps down the High Street, attached to the gatehouse, is another of Rochester's topsy-turvy buildings, currently home to The Cheese Room. Naturally, this being Rochester, a plaque on the front of the building pertains to Dickens — it was home to Mr Tope in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and was the last building Dickens ever mentioned in his work. Head through the gatehouse and around the corner for more equally off-kilter architecture.
If you're into postboxes (no judgement — we are), Rochester has a few treats to seek out. Head to the front of the Guildhall Museum at the top of the High Street to see a railing-mounted, black postbox almost side by side with a green and gold freestanding one, both dating from the Victorian era.
The largest secondhand bookshop in England: Baggins Book Bazaar
From the outside, the pine-green frontage of Baggins Book Bazaar is quaint, sure, but it massively undersells what lies inside. The labyrinthine emporium is absolutely jampacked with second hand books. Every which direction you tread along the creaking floors seems to take you to more ups and downs, until you've completely lost track of where you are.
Shelves seem to go on for miles, in a way more reminiscent of a row of stacks in a university library than in an independent, family run bookshop. And mysteriously, no matter how busy it is on a given day, you rarely pass another browser. It's that big and mazy.
Check opening hours before you make a specific visit, as it's currently only open a few days a week.
Where to eat and drink in Rochester
Rochester High Street is rich in independent cafes and restaurants to an extent that is rare these days. If it's a light lunch or just a coffee you're after, we've always found The Deaf Cat halfway down the High Street to be a friendly and welcoming place, serving snacks and light lunches such as panini and soup. Plus, the sign over the door never fails to make us chuckle on the way out (for context, a branch of that particular caffeine empire can be found at the opposite end of the same block):
For a more traditional tea room experience, Peggotty's Parlour just next door serves up huge slices of cake inside an historic building, with views of the cathedral from the upstairs window — though do note that it's up a staircase so not all that accessible. And then there's the more chintzy Fleur de The tea room at the other end of the High Street.
For a more substantial meal, The Quills comes highly recommended to us, situated in a Tudor Yeoman's house, with a beamed dining room. We'd always assumed the name was another of those local nods to Dickens' prolific writing, but it's actually to do with local animal mythology. Regardless of what's in a name, the doughnut bacon cheeseburger is top of our culinary hitlist next time we find ourselves in Medway. For something a little more casual but equally as filling, Chuck and Blade know their way around a burger — and take it from our experiences at the Tunbridge Wells branch, the Cookies and Cream boozy shake (Baileys + Oreo) is well worth a punt.
And then of course, there's...
... which we assume to be a nod to the now-defunct nearby themed attraction, Dickens World. Can't comment on the quality of cuisine though, having never tried it.
On our most recent visit to Rochester, we were lured into Store 104 mainly by the beautiful tiled floor at the entrance. Part book store, part wool shop, and part... well, a bit of everything, it was at the back of the store that we found ourselves peeking between two tied-back red velvet curtains into, what it turns out, is Victoria's Coffee Shop. Dimly lit, with fairy lights strung across the ceiling (and it was nowhere near Christmas, so they must be year-round), it feels like another of Rochester's little secrets. Already fed and watered this time round, it's another place we've added to our list for next time we visit.
Other things to see and do in Rochester
So you've ogled the castle, been wowed by the cathedral, and had yourself some lunch. How are you spending your afternoon in Rochester?
Local museums are easy to overlook, but doing so of the Guildhall Museum in Rochester would be a huge mistake. Stepping inside, it appears to be a single room, detailing the area's natural history — mammoth tusks, tidal patterns, that kind of thing. But as you follow the chronology around the room, a doorway through to the rest of the building appears.
Head up a red-carpeted sweeping staircase to a sizeable exhibition on Charles Dickens (naturally...), including a detailed map of which local buildings appear in his work. The museum's other main attraction is a full-size reconstruction of an 18th century prison ship — and kids will love the chance to 'drive' a local tug vessel in the maritime section.
Honestly, even if you're not all that interested in local history, it's worth doing a full loop of the free museum just to see inside the rather opulent building.
If you wander towards the bottom end of Rochester High Street, you can't fail to notice Eastgate House, an Elizabethan mansion house which opens to the public on certain days. Head inside (£) if you're so inclined, but the real treat around these parts lurks around the back — head through the ornate black gate to the side of the house, and then left into Eastgate Gardens. As pocket parks go, it's pretty decent: symmetrical, with a small water feature and a section of the medieval road which was excavated from nearby Strood.
But the real treat is the Swiss Chalet (pictured above), a charming brown and blue wooden construction in the courtyard park, once owned by (you guessed it) Charles Dickens. Even among the varied architecture of Rochester, it's a shock to stumble across. It used to be located at Gad's Hill when he lived there, and he was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood in the chalet on the day he died. It's been in its current location for over 60 years, and there are plans to repair it, as it's currently not safe for the public to go inside.
Before Dickens came the Huguenots, who had a huge presence in Rochester thanks to the French Hospital, which provided French Huguenot immigrants somewhere to live. That building isn't open to visitors (though you can catch a glimpse of it, and various plaques and signs pertaining to its past) but you can visit the Huguenot Museum located inside the Visitor Information Centre on the High Street. The same building houses Rochester Art Gallery, with an ever-changing programme of exhibitions throughout the year.
No discussion of Rochester is complete without mention of Rochester Bridge, a span over the Medway which has become something of an attraction in its own right. Locals are proud of the bridge, which conveys vehicles, pedestrians, trains and pipes across Kent's main river, so much so that it has its own Rochester Bridge Trust, responsible for maintaining it.
Architecturally, it's a bit of a mishmash, partly steel girders and industrial structure, and partly fancy stone kiosks with decorative lamps, coats of arms, and huge couchant lion statues, not unlike the Landseer Lions at the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.
Rochester station is on the Southeastern's High Speed route, meaning you can get there from St Pancras in as little as 37 minutes (slower services can take around an hour and a half). Alternatively, take the train to Strood, and enter Rochester on foot via Rochester Bridge over the Medway, with lovely skyline views of the castle and cathedral side by side — it's around a 10-minute walk.
There are certain events throughout the year when a trip to Rochester is extra special. The Rochester Dickensian Christmas Festival usually takes place one weekend in early December (though the sprawling Christmas market continues right up until Christmas itself), while the Sweeps Festival of folk music and dance is scheduled for the May Day weekend.
The centre of Rochester is around a 40-minute walk (or 10-minute drive) from the wonderfully impressive Chatham Historic Dockyard.
All images by Laura Reynolds/Londonist.