The Medway Towns
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The area surrounding the mouth of the Medway is steeped in history, from Roman Rochester’s majestic cathedral and castle, to Chatham’s Historic Dockyard, which illuminates the town’s past role as powerhouse of Britain’s naval defences.
The area surrounding the mouth of the Medway is steeped in history, from Roman Rochester’s majestic cathedral and castle, to Chatham’s Historic Dockyard, which illuminates the town’s past role as powerhouse of Britain’s naval defences. Now the area is diving into an exciting future, with the revitalisation of Chatham town centre and the exciting increase in the number of splendid new homes and businesses on Chatham Maritime.
The key Medway towns are Rochester, Strood, Chatham and Gillingham, the first two on one side of the river, the latter pair on the other. Rochester is a cathedral town, dominated by the hill-top ruins of an ancient castle, while Chatham’s claims to fame include the famous Historic Dockyard, a collection of lively and vibrant displays, memorable buildings and ships (Chatham Dockyard and its defences are now on the UK government’s list of potential world heritage sites) and beautiful Chatham Maritime, an exciting community of brand-new homes and businesses. Gillingham has a marina, a thriving town centre, and a tradition of sporting prowess: Gillingham Football Club is famous and there’s a fine sports centre. Strood is largely a residential suburb of Rochester, and a great place to live.
Chatham town is relatively compact, and much of the Victorian-style High Street has restricted access to traffic, and there’s plenty of car parking space. The neighbouring Historic Dockyard, once Chatham’s raison d’être when it was a naval town, is a wonderland of museums, displays and incredible buildings and ships on display alongside the river – it houses the highest concentration of ancient monuments anywhere in the country. Chatham Maritime, near the dockyard, is a stylish newly-built community with four universities and 1000 new homes, centred around the marina. Gillingham adjoins Chatham, and it’s generally much more built-up than its neighbour, at its heart the main A231, part of which is the pedestrianised High Street.
Rochester is an altogether quieter, more cerebral place, dominated by the castle and the cathedral (the climb to the castle would be a challenge to anyone disabled). With ten conveniently placed car parks, the High Street has restricted traffic access. The cathedral is at one end of this, with the many interesting individual shops beyond, a high proportion bearing Dickensian names. Across the river is Strood, its main thoroughfares being London Road and Frindsbury Road, the majority of the town being to the north of these.
• The Historic Dockyard (01634 823807 or 823800) Four centuries of naval history and architecture in an 80-acre site beside the river: the most complete 18th century dockyard in the world. See ships, including Britain's last World War Two Destroyer. There are ghost walks and events.
• Fort Amherst Heritage Park and Caves (01634 847747) Napoleonic fortress set into the side of a hill. 14-acres of gun batteries, redoubts, bastions and 2500 feet of tunnels, working gun battery, and visitor centre plus a lantern-lit ghost tour on the first Friday per month.
• Naval Memorial – beautiful historic monument, in its own grounds high above the town, from where you can see panoramic views out across Chatham.
• Royal Engineers Museum and Library (01634 822839) Dedicated to the history of the Corps of Royal Engineers and military engineering.
• Riverside Country Park, incorporating the mud flats of Medway Marshes, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. See rare birds, and incredible wildlife. Visitors centre, café, children’s play area and car parking.
• Dickens World (01634 890421) collection of Dickens-based attractions, including Great Expectations Boat Ride, Victorian School and Haunted House, plus there is a cinema.
• Rochester Cathedral (01634 401301) England’s second oldest (11th century) cathedral with a famous St John the Baptist fresco. Tea rooms and lovely gardens.
• Rochester Castle (01634 402276) On a hill above town, the ruins of a Norman castle which has one of the tallest keeps in England, affording great views across Kent and the river.
• Six Poor Travellers House (01634 845609) Tudor almshouses.
• Restoration House and Gardens (01634 848520) Restored city mansion.
• Guildhall Museum (01634 848717) With displays of local history and archaeology, including the Dickens Room and the Napoleonic Prison Hulk.
• Theatres: The Central Theatre and the Brook theatre (which is also an arts centre) (01634 338338 for both).
• Medway Visitors Information Centre (01634 843666) – information and tickets for events.
• Upnor Castle (01634 718742) Beautiful building with sensational views, in the adjoining village to Rochester.
• Paddle Steamer, Kingswear Castle (01634 827648) Coal-fired paddle steamer, with deck bar and buffet, offering excursions from Historic Dockyard, Strood and Rochester piers.
Festivals and events in Rochester
Rochester Sweeps Festival (30 April to 2 May)
Enjoy an exciting mix of music, dance and entertainment with the biggest gathering of Morris dancers in the country. This is a yearly re-enactment of the annual festival of Chimney Sweeps, who used to have a traditional holiday at the beginning of May. There’s a procession through the streets, starting with the ‘reawakening’ of Jack in the Green, a seven-foot figure who is woken at sunrise on Blue Bell Hill, Chatham, and marches to Rochester High Street. Musicians perform at various venues and in local pubs. Evening concerts in a marquee in Rochester Castle gardens include Eliza Carthy Band and Martin Carthy (30 April), and the absolutely fantastic ‘Show of Hands’ (Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, with Miranda Sykes on 1 May), who are described as ‘the finest acoustic roots duo in England’. Both events, tickets are £18, tel 01634 338338.
Rochester Royal Garden Party (9 July)
At Eastgate House ‘In the presence of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’, including a craft fair.
(all bookings via the Medway Visitor Information Centre – see above)
3 – 5 June, spectacular festival with music, dance, drama and street theatre, with parades in period costume through the streets. Competitions in period costume in the castle gardens and the Summer Dickensian Ball in the Cornmarket.
3 – 4 December, Rochester Christmas Festival. Great opportunity for buying gifts whilst enjoying the festive atmosphere plus ‘The story of the Seven Poor Travellers’ event, including a parade from the Victoria and Bull Hotel and The Christmas Mistletoe Ball.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
The Ship and Trades (01634 895200) is a splendid restaurant/pub with comprehensive menus that overlooks the marina at Chatham Maritime, with a fantastic view across the Medway. For great home-cooked food try the Tudor Rose (01634 715305), beside Upnor Castle. Topes Restaurant (01634 845270) is an exclusive dinery in a perfect location beside the cathedral in Rochester and has been awarded two AA rosettes. Some great pubs include The Kings Head hotel (01634 831103) and the Eagle Tavern (01634 409040) (Rochester) and the Tap n Tin (01634 831119) and The Alexandra (01634 830545) (Chatham).
WHERE TO SHOP
Chatham has a thriving High Street with all the main chains represented, as does Gillingham, with around 200 shops; Rochester, however, is more upmarket, specialising in independent traders, such as antique dealers and bookshops, traditional bakers, grocers and delicatessens, and there’s a farmers’ market on the third Sunday each month. Chatham also has the wonderful Pentagon Shopping Centre, with more than 70 outlets including High Street names and a bowling alley, and within Chatham Maritime you’ll find the Dockside Outlet Centre, housing 80 stores, restaurants and a cinema. Near Gillingham (off junction 4 of the M2 with free parking) is the Hempstead Valley Shopping Centre, with over 50 popular retailers, including the largest Marks and Spencer in Medway, plus Hempstead Valley monthly Farmers’ Market on Sunday mornings.
Most notable for the beautiful Elizabethan castle, which is in Upper Upnor, as is the parish church of St Philip and St James. There’s also a Lower Upnor, which consists of a single row of houses and two interesting large stone blocks, called ‘London Stones’ – one dated 1284.
Here you’ll find Gad’s Hill Place, Dickens’s beloved home, the parish church of St John’s, and a number of shops. The nearby diminutive original village is referred to as ‘Lower Higham’ (where you’ll find the now redundant St Mary’s church), but the core of the village has moved to its current site. Higham Marshes has many wildfowl and walking trails.
Highly atmospheric village overlooking the North Kent Marshes. Jools Holland was married in Cooling’s beautiful St James’ church, and he bought 15th century Cooling Castle in 2008. The church has a group of children’s gravestones that feature in the opening of Dickens’s novel Great Expectations.
Its original name, Hagelstowe, meant High Holy Place, a reference to 10th century St Margaret’s church, sited at the highest point on the Hoo peninsula. It’s an attractive, scenic village, with St Margaret’s church, the Red Dog pub and a shop. To the north is Northwood Hill RSPB reserve, with the largest heronry in Britain.
Just across the Medway from Rochester, Frindsbury stands on a hill that’s shot through with holes, presumably from the chalk mining done for cement manufacture in the past. All Saints parish church is built on a hill, and there was once a manor house after which the village was christened, but all that remains of it is a late Georgian building of that name.
Built on a pre-Roman road, this was once the centre for the famous (now closed) Upchurch Pottery. Sir Francis Drake’s father was vicar here in 1560, and St Mary the Virgin 1300s church has a rare ‘candle-snuffer’ shaped two-part steeple. There’s a village store, newsagent, post office and greengrocer.
Mark Whitehead runs Denis Green jewellers (01634 849178) who offer a range of gold, silver and platinum jewellery, plus watches, clocks, photo frames, and gifts of all kinds. “We’re the hidden jewel in Rochester,” Mark, by trade a highly skilled ring maker, says, “and we cater for everything for everyone. There’s a workshop on the premises for making or altering items to customers’ requirements. The shop’s been here for 30 years, and I’ve been involved for a year. Despite the current tough times I’ve got a feeling that the economy’s turning the corner. And Rochester’s a great place to be – it’s so nice, Dickensian and olde worlde style – the tourists certainly come, for instance the Christmas market in the castle grounds pulled in hundreds of visitors. One thing annoys me: we’re a town with a cathedral, yet we’re not a city! Crazy or what?”
Antique dealer, Carters of Rochester (01634 202794) is owned by Lawrence Grima, who has been trading for four years. “We’re a bit of an Aladdin’s cave,” he says. “In addition to antiques, we sell bric-a-brac and interior design pieces, just about anything. As I stand here, I can see a six-foot tall African warrior carved in wood, and behind me is an Indian Chief’s full feather head-dress! We also have Venetian mirrors, and Tiffany-style lamps, plus lots of military badges – really original gifts. I’d say that Rochester offers an alternative to High Street shopping, the shops are truly original and special – offering individual items you won’t find anywhere else.”
Just for Kidz (01634 819887) is a perfect place for new parents on a budget. Julie Lucas is the owner, and for 13 years she has been buying and selling nearly-new quality used clothes, toys and nursery equipment. “We cater for newborns and children up to four years old,” explains Julie. “Most of the bigger items are half the price of new things in the shops, and we have fresh stock in weekly: for instance clothing, cots, baby-walkers, car seats, plus a few lines in new goods. Our fame has spread – we have customers who come from quite a way away. Rochester is a lovely town – while you’re here pop in and see us for friendly help and advice.”
CONSIDERING A MOVE?
Transport links are good, and there are several excellent independent schools (e.g. Kings and Gad’s Hill), and property prices are slightly lower than the South East in general. Rochester and Strood’s prices are similar. For a one-bedroom and two-bedroom flat in Rochester/Strood, expect to pay approximately £99,000 and £128,000 respectively, for the same in Chatham, £97,000 and £147,000. A three-bedroom semi in those two towns would be around £178,000 and in Chatham £158,000. For a four-bedroom house, Rochester/Strood prices are higher, at £299,000, than for Chatham, about £267,000. Gillingham prices are considerably lower: one- and two-bedroom flats, priced at £81,000 and £107,000 respectively, and a three-bedroom semi costing in the region of £163,000; although a four-bedroom Gillingham house is around the same price as one in Rochester, at around £294,000.
The area is about 30 miles from central London, and accessible via the A2/M2, linked to the M25. There are stations at Rochester and Chatham, with rail links to London (around 45 minutes) and the remainder of Kent, also good coach and bus services. Call Traveline 0871 200 2233 for public transport details. Satnav postcodes for Rochester and Chatham town centres are ME1 1LX and ME4 4AS respectively.
Christine Furminger is Secretary of the City of Rochester Society, which is an active local amenity and history society, run entirely by volunteers. One of its early activities was to establish Conservation Areas, with key aims being to improve the environment and quality of life for residents and visitors. Christine was born in Kent and has lived in Rochester for about 12 years. When she became a ‘Guide’ in the town she grew more and more absorbed in the background and history of the area and now organises town walks.
What is your role as Secretary?
The usual secretarial duties, plus I give my opinion on various contentious subjects, such as the need for a statue of Charles Dickens (I’m against) or how we lost City status and will Medway Council allow us to regain it. Life is never dull – I can’t remember when I last had nothing to do!
What are the society’s main activities?
We have a yearly outing, hold regular meetings with guest speakers and organise other events, produce a quarterly newsletter for members as well as books and pamphlets on local subjects, and run a Craft Fair at the biannual Dickens Festivals.
Tell us about the controversy surrounding the ‘loss’ of Rochester’s City status?
This has been a major preoccupation for several of us, needing much research and work. Medway Council plans to enter the unitary authority under the title ‘City of Medway’, in the 2012 competition – we await the outcome of their decision about our status with interest.
Any ongoing projects?
Last year I was involved with an oral history project, gathering memories of local people to accompany films. And Eastgate House has been a cause for concern over several years. It is architecturally significant because it illustrates the development of a major town house through successive phases of building during the 1500s and 1600s. Lottery funding has been obtained, and we look forward to Eastgate’s refurbishment.
Can you give us any details of the walking tours you organise?
I’ve been doing this for six years. There are ‘Open’ walks introducing visitors to the exterior of all the major buildings, and booked tours for groups, and I am happy to organise tours on specialist subjects with one of our local guides.
What is your favourite place in town?
And your favourite walk?
Between the trees across our little town centre park, The Vines, towards Restoration House.
What would you say to someone considering coming to live in the town?
Do your research – you’ll find there really is something for everyone. Rochester’s location is ideal for commuters, house prices are reasonable and there are very good schools and four universities, ample sports facilities and wonderful parks and open spaces.
Can you sum up Rochester in a sentence?
It’s a town that people like – we know that because most of them come back!