Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Everything I know about Rochester

Disclaimer: Apologies in advance to all Kentishmen and women of good standing.

Neither a port in Kent nor a 19th century byronic hero

Rochester is in Kent, the Garden of England. It is not to be confused with Rochester in New York state or indeed Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, the eye-rolling stooge of Jack Benny, both of whom are now long deceased. It is situated on the north coast of Kent - the bit that seems to be a tentacle of London formed by God grabbing hold of Woolwich in one big holy fist and squeezing until a stream of housing estates and retail parks squished out like a worm between His fingers.

No, it is actually named after Mr Rochester, the bloke from Jane Eyre or one of them stories. The one who had a mad wife stashed in an upstairs airing cupboard. And then spontaneously combusted all over Mrs Bennet. I think.

The town is on a river that is some sort of tributary of the Thames. The Medway possibly, or the Med. The river squiggles away from the town in a most unseemly fashion, barely making contact at all. Perhaps like Rye, Bruges and ancient Ephesus, the constantly meandering watercourse has deposited silt in such a fashion as to gradually divorce town from river, leaving Rochester looking confused and embarrassed at the altar. The river meanwhile is enthusiastically meandering westward to Gravesend, in a frantic attempt to woo it away from the Thames.
Welcome to Rochester. Grr.

Rochester itself consists of the following landmarks: a bridge, a castle, a cathedral and a high street. The bridge is rather cool and covered in all sorts of heraldry and cast iron lions and such. If it weren't for the newer, unadorned bridge which has been bolted alongside, it would look rather splendid. To get the full effect of the funky heraldic side of the bridge, close one eye when you drive across. Just kidding. No I wasn't.

The castle is rather imaginatively called Rochester Castle. Like most castles I have visited, it is essentially a tall stone box with pigeons roosting inside. All the wooden floors are missing, but there are some nicely drawn visitors' signs dotted about the stone shell depicting what it would've looked like back in the day. Look, I'm all for preserving the past as it now stands and all that, but isn't there perhaps an argument for sticking some of the floors and rooms back in? I mean, it's getting to the point where I don't think I can be bothered to pay out to stand looking up through a yawning roofless stone chimney, trying to picture what it used to look like. I paid my money goddammit - I deserve some floors and walls and draperies and soft furnishing and shields on the walls and long feasting tables surrounded by yapping dogs eating scraps of discarded meat from the straw-covered floor.
90% of the castles you will see in Britain look like this

But no historical re-enactors please. I know it's wrong and cowardly of me, but I instantly clench the moment I round the corner of some historical manor house only to be confronted by an actor in a big floppy white smock and a funny hat, who wants to talk to me about how to grind wheat or press his Lordship's breeches in the correct manner. It's the human interaction I can't manage, I think. Give me a poorly animated dummy and a pre-recorded voiceover any day.

Rochester castle features excitingly perilous stone stairwells, worn smooth and slopey by centuries of plodding feet, first complaining about the unsanitary state of the garderobe and the unjust rule of King John, then later complaining about the lack of floors and how much a postcard in the gift shop costs. The view from the battlements is quite impressive, but only if you look in the direction of the nearby cathedral. Ignore all other views. The non-existent roof has been replaced by a massive net, ostensibly to keep the pigeons from doing what pigeons do in castles. Interestingly, some vandalous scamps have succeeded in lobbing small lumps of stonework onto the net here and there, causing it to sag worryingly in places. Do not be tempted to test if the net can support the weight of a human body. I was, but fortunately Herself pointed out a sign explaining the difference in weight and mass between the average human body and a that of a pigeon. A lucky escape then.
One these is a genuine historical character

The castle's one notable moment in history came in 1215, when rebellious barons were besieged by naughty King John - the one played by the skinny lion in the big crown in the Robin Hood Disney cartoon. History fails to note if Sir Hiss accompanied John at the siege, but I imagine he served as a spy or sapper, undermining the north tower. The siege of Rochester castle is also the subject of the recent Hollywood swordfest Ironclad, which is not about a Victorian steamship as I had assumed. Surely they could have come up with a better name than that. Bloodcastle perhaps. I haven't seen the film yet so I couldn't say, but watch this space.

I do know though that it stars James Purefoy and Jason 'Hey, it's that bloke' Flemyng, so we're not exactly talking Troy or Braveheart here in terms of star power. Even so, I think the castle management has missed a trick by not sticking some footage or posters of the movie up here and there; at least the film shows the castle with floors and other wooden bits. Fools. When I visited Trim castle in County Meath, their gift shop had shedloads of pictures from Braveheart stuck up on the walls, so you had a really good feel for what the castle used to look like (via the imagination of Hollywood set builders). There was even a picture of Mel Gibson having a fag. Brilliant.

Moving on from the castle, we enter the cathedral, imaginatively called Rochester cathedral.  Unlike the tour of the castle, which largely consists of clambering up and down stairs, the cathedral experience is entirely a horizontal one. No sniggering at the back. Your first question when entering any large church is in which direction should you walk - straight up the middle (the nave) or along one side (the septerns), and if so, left or right? By the way, I don't know the correct names of all the parts of a cathedral, so I'm making some of them up. See if you can spot which.

For my part, I like to adopt a 'keep left' policy in the cathedral, which invariably means you start off looking at a load of noticeboards boards about the diocese's good works in the local community and baptising people in Burkina Faso or some such. But once past the modern bulletin boards, you can work your way round the walls of the building. These mainly consist, like most CofE churches, of carved stone memorials to dead people. In Rochester cathedral, many of these dead people appear to be of a military persuasion, doubtless due to the area's naval connection (see later). One such chap is a captain who survived the battles of Balaklava and other 19th century bloodbaths, only to drown while swimming off Malta. Tch.
Check out that enormous organ

Other features of the cathedral include: a large marble carving of a near naked bearded angel with a scythe looking like a vengeful Old Father Time, a massive brass bell commemorating Kent's involvement with the Falklands (I think they dated once) which is almost impossible not to ring (I resisted but only through superhuman willpower), a vast array of organ pipework through one must pass to reach the central transquire, numerous alcoves in the stone walls which infuriatingly lead nowhere, some rather fine velvet padded seating which has been selfishly roped off to keep it from being soiled by the heathen bottoms of the hoi polloi, and most splendidly of all, an emergency bishops' crook in a long glass case. Situated near the prebendial duct, the crook is to be used in cases of dire need, such as a shotgun coronation or vampire apocalypse. I like to think it would fly to the bishop's hand when called, much like Thor's hammer, mighty Mjolnir.

The bishop of Rochester
Two bishops stand out in Rochester's history. One is Odo, a member of William the Conqueror's family, one of those 'hands-on' bishops who got stuck in with the fightin' and the conquerin'. I imagine he got a lot of use out of the emergency crook. He also lived in a bucket. That's OK, nobody got it when I made that joke in the cathedral either. The other notable bishop is Gundulf who built the castle and whose name Sounds Quite Like Gandalf. Believe me, as bishops go, that's pretty bloody fascinating.

So this brings us to the last interesting feature in Rochester - the high street. It is a pretty cobbled street full of pretty shops, and is quite the tourist trap I would imagine, if you weren't visiting on a dull Tuesday afternoon like we were. It has more than its share of tea rooms, book shops, antique dealers and refreshingly non-chain outlets. You'd be hard pressed to find a Starbucks, a Tesco Express or a Nando's here, and the street is all the richer for it.

I would particularly recommend the Tiny Tim's Tea Room, for the splendid decor and complementary tea and coffee refills. Every corner of the walls and ceiling are covered in life-size depictions of Dickens characters, from the eponymous waif himself snivelling in Mrs Cratchet's arms, to Marley's ghost hovering translucently by the kitchen door. It's a work in progress, but jolly splendid nonetheless.
Mr Tumnus is just round the corner

Also recommended is Baggins, the England's largest second hand bookshop (it says). If you can stand the unique smell of second hand bookshops, this is the place for you. It's rambling, exceedingly well stocked and massive. Not in a Waterstones / Warehouse 13 sort of way, but in a 'three shops on different levels knocked together and crammed with bookcases and steps and corners and random artwork' sort of way. The place rambles on for miles, up and down floors, and round mysterious, gloomy turns. I honestly expected to end up in Narnia if I went any further back into the recesses of the shop.

They seem to have the world's supply of old Blue Peter annuals and Analog sci-fi mags from the 60s. Herself managed to locate one of those jigsaw puzzles where the image on the box is not what's on the puzzle itself. I managed to resist instinctively scratching myself after inhaling the dusty, musty, papery atmosphere, but my face still felt like it wanted to crawl off my skull, even 10 minutes after leaving the place. Those of a less-allergenic nature will love it though.

The remainder of the high street is a pleasant mixture of shops offering antiques, books, cakes and knick-knacks. It also boasts (well, I boast on its behalf) the most spacious tourist information centre I've seen in Britain, and a smattering of buildings 'sort of featured in Dickens novels, if you accept that he changed the names'. The town is all about Dickens. He lived here, he ate there, Edwin Drood was murdered over there (by persons unknown). But unfortunately we managed to cleverly time our visit so that every one of these historical buildings was closed by the time we got there. I guess dull Tuesday afternoons just aren't peak visiting time for the Guildhall museum, Restoration House or the Six Poor Travellers house (which I hope is something masonic). Ah well.

As worn by the baddies
Worth a quick peek is the Rochester Armoury shop just off the high street, if only for the amazing amount of Do Not Touch signs covering every item of weaponry and armour. Honestly, it would be easier to just put up one sign next to one designated object, maybe the 'gladiator' helmet, which says 'Hey, touch this one! Knock yourself out!'. Nip in there in there and see if you can find the Nazi fez. Yes, there are Nazi fezzes. With skulls on.

You should also spare a couple of minutes to press your nose against the window of a gift shop which stocks an alarmingly large array of small porcelain figurines of humanoid dogs. Dogs as policemen, dogs as soldiers (Victorian and modern), dogs in every conceivable human uniform. Tellingly, the dogs are largely of the bulldog or bull terrier breed , which I think indicates the sort of people they are aimed at.

Insert music from Deliverance here
There's also a massive cutaway bronzed bust of an English bull terrier, which again appeals to certain people. An English bull terrier for God's sake. I mean, I don't want to come across all breedist or something, but your EBT is not the handsomest of dogs. They look like they're trying to evolve into crocodiles. If dogs could play musical instruments, and by jingo I wish they could, then your English bull terrier would be strumming a banjo on his porch, rocking back and forth on an old chair, giving you an inscrutable look from those weird eyes inching up the sides of his misshapen head. Anyway, I preferred the porcelain models of Desperate Dan and the Bash Street Kids.

Finally, do have a look out for Restoration House and Abdication House, where Charles II spent his first night as king and James II his last respectively. Or it could have been the other way round. Damn those unimaginatively named Stuarts and their throne-hopping antics. Why they both chose Rochester for their ultimate/inaugural stopovers I cannot say. Perhaps it was England's Ellis Island, a natural embarkation point for incoming and outgoing monarchs. Or maybe the Stuarts had gold card membership and wanted to make use of the premier class passengers' lounge on their way to and from exile. Who can say? Only historians or anybody with access to Wikipedia and I am far too antisocial and lazy to enquire of either.

So there you have Rochester. That's everything I know about it. All the nice things. Off you go now.

Still here? I've said everything nice. If you hang around any longer you'll hear horrid things. Be warned. Oookay...

So, the high street. It's lovely and charming and historical and not too touristy (honest). I've got no problem with the high street itself. Not the buildings or the trees or the service in the shops or the price of the victoria sponge cake. No. I did find my fellow passers-by a bit of a disappointment though. They're a bit chavvy. Actually they're a lot chavvy.

Never have I beheld a more incongruous mass of slouching, shuffling, grunting citizens then I did on Rochester high street. They looked so out of place. A Quality Street scene populated with extras from a 'Britain's sink estates' docudrama, like someone in central casting had got their schedules mixed up. Actually, I think they must have been lost. Certainly you could vaguely detect a glimmer of confusion or dislocation behind those dull hollow eyes, as they dragged their corpulent carcasses up and down the street, wondering where the KFC and JJB outlets were. I have never seen so many tattooed calves jutting from so many overlong pairs of shorts as I did that day.

The good folk of Chatham scent fresh kebab

Remember the rubbish bit (OK, one of the rubbish bits) from The Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits go back to the Shire and it's been taken over by Saruman and it's all depressing and scummy? Imagine he'd brought along a bunch of orcs and goblins, who proceed to loaf about Hobbiton scratching their snouts and snuffling around. That's what it's like - they just don't fit in. Yes, yes, I know this sounds all very nimbyish, but it's not My Back Yard, so I'm allowed. Surely.

I can only assume this itinerant mass must have slouched roughly in from elsewhere. Surely the good folk of Rochester would not abide such tourist-repelling chavvery to reside within their own borders. Perhaps they stumble mindlessly across the bridge from humble Strood or else wander along the banks of the river from neighbouring Chatham. Possibly they come to Rochester to die in the manner of old elephants, to witness a slice of lovely, creamy old England before their arteries finally and fatally clog up with kebabs and piercings. Maybe Rochester is where they come to spawn, for spawn they most assuredly do, as we were to learn from our brief but illuminating mission further afield...

Like African explorers seeking out the source of the Nile, we left Rochester and traced the source of the chavstream back to Chatham. This proved to be most educational. Chatham, you should understand, is the Shelbyville to Rochester's Springfield. The Blob Street to its Bash Street. Actually, that should be the other way around. Rochester is definitely the aspirational, slightly snobby one in this relationship. Chatham the poor, down at heels cousin, consisting of three standout urban locations: an imposing military base hidden behind barbed wire-topped brick walls, an historic naval dockyard visible from the road only as a series of looming wooden boathouses, and a generic leisure/retail park.

Bricks, barbed wire, rusting boats and a Pizza Hut. No wonder the locals have nothing better to do than eat, reproduce and get themselves inked so they can tell themselves apart when they get confused. Never have I seen so many young people and toddlers than in Chatham, and so few elderly. We did see one ageing couple, bedecked in the standard beige garb of the oldster, frailly standing bemused at the entrance to an eatery, wondering where all the other senior citizens had gone. I suspect they were the last two left, the others having all been picked off by the spawning mass of youth around them, like the cubs in Logan's Run (look it up).

A nobly named vessel
In its defence, I will say that Chatham's multiplex cinema sports a massive external screen showing trailers, so you can sit in your vehicle in the car park and pretend to be at a drive-in. Watching very short films. Not only that, but the historic dockyard is the last resting place of a certain submarine, HMS Ocelot. And that is one of the few things in this article that I haven't made up.

Next week: everything I know about Belgium.


Jack said...

I'm sorry. Rubbish bits in the lord of the rings? I understand the words but the sentence? I'm just so confused.

Also you want chase? Head round to cheddar gorge. Should be beautiful, but its full of Jeremy Kyle show applicants turned down for being to illiterate.

Anonymous said...

H: please never exclaim "I've pouched" conjures up distrubing images.

Jack: Rubbish bits in LOTR, are we talking book or film, I can make a list for either but the one for the book would be longer and start with the following:

1) Songs?! SONGS ?!

2) Tom-motherf*cking Bombadil and his "boots of yel-low". Smug c*nt.

Actually Bombadil should be 1)

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

Herself loves Bombadil. And Dobby.

If you had trouble with the songs in the book, check out the 'Return of the King' cartoon from 1980, courtesy of the Rankin-Bass studio.

Pay particular attention to the late, great Roddy McDowell embarassing himself and English voice actors everywhere:

McDowell shame

Have a YouTube for 'Where There's a Whip, There's A Way' too.

Anonymous said...

I knew there was an animated film, I've seen it but I was sure it only covered half the book ? Memory tricks.

The Chocolate Ocelot said...

Well now, you've got yer Ralph Bakshi rotoscoped cartoon (1978), which took the story up to the end of the battle of Helm's Deep.

Then you've got yer Rankin-Bass disneyesque cartoon (1980), which starts with Sam and Frodo deep in Mordor. This is the one with the cheesy songs and cutesy hobbits.

I plan to animate the missing sections of the story myself using sock puppets - I already have a very fine argyle Faramir.

Jack said...

I imagine that you're high as you write these things and you can't be held responsible for what you do.

But if I see you on the street, I'll run you down in my car.