Rochester Cathedral. The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Go up the steps opposite, and keep going ahead along the asphalt path into The Vines, which was once the vineyard of the monks of St Andrew’s Priory. Take the right path, and continue through the gap in the wall, to turn right and follow the road left into:-
Minor Canon Row, a shabby, almost neglected terrace, built in 1723 for the lesser clergy of Rochester Cathedral. A ‘wonderfully quaint row of red-brick tenements…’ was how Dickens described them in ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’; ‘they had odd little porches over the doors, like sounding-boards over old pulpits’. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood this was Minor Canon Corner, ‘a quiet place in the shadow of the cathedral, which the cawing of the rooks, the echoing footsteps of rare passers, the sound of the Cathedral bell, or the roll of the Cathedral organ, seemed to render more quiet than absolute silence…’
Continue as the road swings right passing on the left the 15th-century Prior’s Gate. Follow it left, and a little way along, go through the iron gate on the right, down the steps and into:-
Rochester Cathedral. In Pickwick Papers Alfred Jingle described the cathedral as having an ‘earthy smell’ and being a ‘Sarcophagus – fine place – old legends too – strange stories: capital…’ Dickens returned to the cathedral in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, imbuing it with a haunting atmosphere in some of the most poetic prose he ever wrote.
‘“Dear Me,” said Mr Grewgious, peeping in, “it’s like looking down the throat of Old Time”. Old Time heaved a mouldy sigh from tomb and arch and vault; and gloomy shadows began to deepen in corners; and damps began to rise from green patches of stone; and jewels, cast upon the pavement of the nave from stained glass by the declining sun, began to perish... all became grey, murky and sepulchral, and the cracked monotonous mutter went on like a dying voice, until the organ and the choir burst forth, and drowned it in a sea of music.’
The Cathedral today is a light and airy place, evidently much changed since Dickens wrote those words. However, the crypt – the steps to which are situated almost immediately on the right as you enter – still has a musty, earthy smell, and as you descend into it, it is, indeed, ‘like looking down the throat of Old Time’. Exit the crypt, turn left and ascend the steps. Pass straight ahead through the doorway and pause to the left of the ornate Chapter House doorway, where there is a brass memorial plaque to Charles Dickens.
Go left through the gates to cross in front of the high altar. Keep going ahead through the choir stalls, and pass beneath the organ. Go down the steps, bearing left at the lower altar and cross to the side alcove, where above the reclining figure with his hands clasped, is the wall memorial to:-
Richard Watts (1529–79), by whose charitable bequest the Poor Travellers’ House on High Street was founded. On 11th May, 1854, Dickens was looking around the cathedral when he came upon this memorial. Fascinated by this charity, he asked a verger for directions to the house, and ‘The way being very short…’ set out to visit it.