It was a beautiful sunny day to discover Rochester and its historic old High Street as we strolled along to the Cathedral for our first tour. The first Saxon Cathedral was established here in 604 close to the River Medway and the site of the Roman bridge crossing. Neither of these now survive above ground but the existing Cathedral building was started from 1080 by a Norman monk called Gundulf who had been appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1077 by William the Conqueror. Gundulf was also a very talented architect responsible for the massive keep of the Tower of London and had a hand in the construction of Rochester Castle which lies across the road opposite to the Cathedral.
The West Front of the Cathedral is the only surviving front from the mid -1100s and is considered the finest English example from any Norman building of this time, the only alteration being the large central window inserted in the mid-1400s. The Nave was built in the Romanesque style, the rounded arches decorated with a jagged chevron pattern but after a fire in 1179 the East End was re-modelled in the Early English Gothic style. Several major phases of rebuilding and alteration have taken place since. The Sanctuary at the eastern end of the Cathedral was heavily restored in the 1800s by Sir George Gilbert Scott including removal of a single large window in the Perpendicular Gothic style to put in 3 upper lancet windows in the Early English Gothic style of the 1200s. He also designed a carved stone reredos depicting the Last Supper behind the altar table.
The Quire in the centre of the Cathedral was where the medieval monks worshipped; a community of Benedictine monks had been established in 1083. This was rebuilt after the fire of 1179 but the stalls still contain remnants of those put in around 1277 and are the oldest surviving stalls in Britain. The striking pattern on the walls was repainted in the 1870s but originally dates from the 1340s during the Hundred Year’s War with France and blends the royal leopard of England and the fleur de lis of France, making the statement that England and France belonged together under an English King.
One of Rochester’s most dynamic bishops, Walter de Merton was also Lord Chancellor of England under both Henry III and his son Edward I in the mid 1200s and founder of Merton College, Oxford. His tomb has been restored by the college. Our thanks to our excellent guide for her very interesting tour
Outside in the Cloister Garth garden there was a temporary display featuring an enormous statue of an angel made entirely of over 100,000 knives, handed in to police during amnesties, to highlight the problems of knife crime. The ‘Knife Angel’ was very thought provoking. It is due to travel on to other cathedrals in the country. Perhaps, though, it would be better displayed in a town centre or park area where it could impact more on those who carry the knives?
Our group dispersed in various directions to seek lunch and let our brains rest before making our way to the Restoration House for our afternoon visit. This wonderful house and garden, the highlight of our trip, owes its superb condition to the dedication and resources of the current owners. Since 1994, they have devoted themselves to the restoration of the house and gardens as well as purchasing appropriate furniture and paintings of the highest quality for the interior. The house derives its name from the visit to Rochester of King Charles II in May 1660 when travelling from Dover to London for his restoration as king after 15yrs of exile. Charles Dickens would have known the house well and portrayed it as Satis House, home of Miss Havisham, in his novel ‘Great Expectations’.
The House was originally 2 separate buildings to the north and south of the site with open space between. Evidence shows the south building dates back to circa 1454 while the north building indicates a date between 1502 and 1522. Between 1600 and 1640 the two buildings were amalgamated by the infill of the area between them, creating the Great Hall and the Great Chamber and further improvements were also made during this period. The original floor boards were uncovered in 1994, mostly pine except for a raised dais at the south end of the Great Hall which is elm, its stronger grain emphasizing the importance of the dais. The Great Chamber was the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s room in ‘Great Expectations’. Its narrow pine floorboards were probably a late 18C ballroom floor.
In one corner of The King’s Bedchamber there is a hidden vertical shaft running from the attics above down to the ground level which used to give access to the garden. This must have been reassuring for Charles II in case he needed to make a quick escape, as his reception on his return to England was somewhat uncertain.
At the beginning of their ownership they excavated and replanted the gardens. In 2007 a site adjacent to the south side of the known garden was given permission for a housing development, in the course of which a 13 metre stretch of 16C flint wall was demolished. The owners mounted and won a campaign to halt the development and during further archaeology the remains of a significant historic garden were uncovered. The fight to save the Tudor garden went to the High Court and was successful. Then in August 2008 the developer went into administration almost overnight. The owners had previously made an offer of £1.25 million for the housing site which had been rejected but now the question as to the legality of the planning permission as well as heritage obstacles deterred other bidders and the owners’ offer was accepted in December 2009. They then set about demolishing the half-built houses, completing the restoration of the Tudor Garden and creating a Renaissance Water Garden. How fortunate we are to have such champions of our heritage. Our guide was a very enthusiastic and informative volunteer which made it a most fascinating and rewarding visit.
You can see more photos of our visit here