Rochester Walk. Dickens Tour.
Exit the castle, go down the wooden steps, bear right and keep going ahead on the broad path to pass the large cannon. Descend the steps, and turn right onto the Esplanade. The balustrade that borders the river came from the medieval Bridge taken down in 1857, and which Dickens mentioned in Pickwick Papers. Go right by the Crown Pub onto the High Street to reach, on the left, the light brown building, which is a wonderful museum furnished in the fashion of the mid 1870s. Next door is:-
Rochester’s Guildhall, that ‘queer place… with higher pews in it than in a church’, where Pip came to be articled as Jo Gargery’s apprentice in Great Expectations. The museum that occupies this building contains a recreation of one the great Prison Hulks, the ships that were once moored in the Thames estuary, and from one of which Abel Magwitch escaped in the same novel.
On the opposite side of High Street is the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel, an 18th-century coaching inn, where Princess – later Queen – Victoria stayed in 1836. In those days it was known simply as the Bull Inn, and Dickens mentions it in several novels notably in Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations.
Continue along the High Street, passing beneath the huge clock that juts out from the wall of the Old Corn Exchange on the left. In The Uncommercial Traveller, Dickens wrote how he had once supposed this to be ‘the finest clock in the world; whereas it now turned out to be as inexpressive, moon-faced, and weak a clock as ever I saw’.
Keep to the right side of High Street and, having crossed Boley Hill, pause alongside the 15th-century Chertseys, also known as College Gate.
This was the home of Edwin Drood’s wicked uncle, John Jasper; the man who may, or may not, have murdered his nephew, so jealous was he of Edwin’s betrothal to Rosa Bud. Perhaps Edwin, whose disappearance is the mystery of the title, was murdered here and his body hidden in a grave in the crypt of the Cathedral, a little beyond the gatehouse? Sadly we will never know what Dickens intended for his vanished protagonist, for his untimely death, when the novel was but a quarter finished, has left one of the greatest ‘whodunits’ of English literature.
Continue along High Street. A plaque on the next building on the right states that this was the home of Mr Tope, the chief verger at Cloisterham Cathedral in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The last words that Dickens wrote were concerning a ‘very neat, clean breakfast’ that Mrs Tope laid out for their lodger.
Keep going along the High Street until, just after the Visitor Centre on the left, you arrive at:-
The Poor Travellers’ House. Its name derives from a bequest left by Richard Watts for ‘Six Poor Travellers, who not being ROGUES or PROCTORS’ were to be provided with ‘one Night Lodging, Entertainment, and Fourpence’. When Dickens visited the house in 1854, he stood in the street outside pondering that since ‘I know I am not a Proctor, I wonder whether I am a Rogue!’ Looking up, he noticed ‘a decent body, of a wholesome matronly appearance…’ watching him from one of the open lattice windows. This ‘matronly presence’ showed him around the property, and his visit subsequently became the subject of his Christmas story ‘The Seven Poor Travellers’, which appeared in Household Words that year. The house is now a delightful museum, which details the history of this property, and the rooms in which the poor travellers ate and slept until the house was closed on 20th July, 1940 can be visited.
Go left out of the house and continue to the end of the High Street where, having crossed the traffic lights, follow its continuation to arrive back at Rochester Railway Station and the end of this walk.