Rochester is a small town in Kent county, south-east England. Its history dates back all the way to the pre-Roman times, so over 2,000 years ago! On arrival one might think it is a pretty little place. Conveniently located by the River Medway, Rochester sports a beautiful medieval cathedral and a well preserved Rochester Castle which is famed for the 1215 siege that lasted for 2 whole months.
I passed through Rochester a number of times when on a train journey to or from London. Observed from the window of a train, the medieval cozy high street and the wonderfully rectangular fortress always succeeded to catch my attention, making me wish for a stroll around the town’s small streets and stop over for a pint of ale in the local pub. Yet it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 when I finally set foot in Rochester and it was not due to the medieval charm of the above-mentioned attractions but due to Rochester’s other draw of quite a different nature: its annual Dickens Festival.
Ever thought what it would be like to live in the Victorian times or find yourself for a little while in the world you saw in the BBC’s TV adaptation of Bleak House? Well, think no more and head to Rochester for a fantastic day. I did so, with a bunch of friends, and shortly after leaving the station we started running into more and more people wearing period clothing. When we finally reached the lovely High Street we were greeted by band of Scottish buskers – playing bagpipes, naturally. The further we went the bigger the number of people we encountered wearing wonderfully detailed costumes. It was a sign – the parade was due to start soon – so my friends and I hurried to find a good spot on the pedestrianised street from where we and other out-of-towners could admire the procession, and take some great pictures too!
The highlight of the Rochester Dickens Festival is, undoubtedly, the early afternoon parade. It draws crowds of people: travellers like me, families with kids, people from neighbouring towns, etc. And it’s quite a sight too! Some of the costumes are simply stunning and make you think if someone here hasn’t actually got them from a high-budget period drama set.
As I stood there with my friends, I beheld all sorts of characters taken from Dickens’ novels and other people in splendid attire. I saw little East End boys going past, soldiers of the 19th century British Empire long gone, ghosts bound in chains, ladies in fabulous dresses, men in top hats, petty thieves, beggars, and, yes, Scrouge himself! The parade is definitely a sight and an experience. If you’re a tourist visiting England, then on a lovely sunny afternoon in June you could probably think of very few more interesting things to do, particularly if you are after something that doesn’t necessarily feature in your standard guidebook.
The end of the parade is not the end of attractions. There are street acts done by local students, there are Victorian plays being performed and the best thing is that you can see them for free! The Victorian play we saw was particular amusing as it involved the audience to a great extent. So there we sat, in the Guildhall Museum, booing and shushing and shouting and cheering – generally having awesome fun – while we watched the actors doing a great job of bringing Victorian comedy drama to new spectators.
Usually before I travel somewhere I do a bit of research. I did so too before going to Rochester. Had I not done it, I would have never known of the existence of a tiny little street a few minutes walk west of the castle – Love Lane. Agreed, it might not be a must-see item on your Rochester things-to-do-and-see list, but it struck a romantic chords somewhere within me and I just had to go. After all, 10 minutes walk both ways plus a few minutes walking along the small lane wouldn’t kill me. Love Lane itself isn’t perhaps the most beautiful lane in the whole of England, but I do think it’s worth visiting at least to take some pictures with a few Love Lane street signs or gates, especially if you’re a couple. If you’re a guy visiting Rochester with your lovely girl, and you think she’d get excited by this, surprise her!
Once you’re done with all the above, and been to the pub for some local ale you should definitely head for the fun fair which is located in the Rochester Castle grounds, right next to the Cathedral. Once you’re there, get some roast hog in apple sauce and go have a few laughs watching the quintessentially English, traditional and, perhaps, a little bit too violent for kids puppet show – Punch and Judy! After that get on a few rides – because no one’s too old to have fun, right? – and you’re done. The Rochester Dickens Festival outing could be considered complete. Now you can go sit near the river in the sun, go to the pub again, or head back to the train station with a big smile on your face and a great feeling of satisfaction from the fact that you were lucky enough to happen to be in the county of Kent during that one weekend in the summer.