Touring the Medway!
The Medway river is famed for its Historic Dockyard at Chatham, for Dickens World and the author’s associations with Rochester. But there’s far more to Medway than this and even familiar sights like Rochester Cathedral are unveiling innovative features that you won’t have experienced before. Look again at Rochester, then sweep a circuit around neighbouring attractions that really bring the past to life in an up-close-and-personal way.
Get your bearings through 200,000 years of local history at Rochester’s 17th-century Guildhall Museum: time travel at its most rich and varied, in one of Kent’s finest civic buildings. For sure, there’s a Dickens Discovery Room where you can pursue the Victorian author’s life, work and times. But then immerse yourself in every imaginable interest: from agriculture to coins, glassware to maritime paraphernalia, scientific instruments to life on the home front. Touch a 200,000-year-old axe or pore over the world’s most complete set of 18th-century cabinetmaker's tools – you begin to feel really close to the owners. See the terrible conditions endured by Napoleonic captives in the reconstruction of a Medway prison hulk and be astonished by the high-quality ship models and ornamental boxes the men crafted from bone and straw.
Along the High Street, Rochester Cathedral is sometimes called Kent and Medway’s best-kept secret, overshadowed by its Canterbury counterpart. Yet this is the second-oldest cathedral in the land, founded in AD 604. The present soaring edifice dates back to 1080 and features a glorious Norman nave plus one of the finest Romanesque facades in England. If you haven’t been for a while, now’s the time to return because Ancient Stones, Untold Stories, an innovative project launched in spring 2009, is bringing hidden tales to life. Interactive materials and audio-tours put you more closely in touch than ever with the past, while audio-visual magic is recreating ‘lost’ elements of the cathedral’s heritage – including faded medieval wall frescoes.
And don’t miss the cathedral gardens, an unexpected oasis of tranquility in the city’s heart. Take time out to enjoy the majestic magnolia grandiflora and views across what was originally the monastic herb garden.
Cross the River Medway from Rochester for an architectural prize on a more jewel-like scale. Thirteenth-century Temple Manor at Strood opens the door on the dashing world of medieval Knights Templar, who used it as a lodging house on their way to the crusades in the Holy Land. Stand in the main hall where visitors awaited an audience with the adventurers, then follow the clues provided by 17th-century architectural extensions to unlock the later life of the manor.
Carry on downriver and you can delve into the dramatic past of Upnor Castle. The turreted fort on the Medway, standing against a picturesque village backdrop, seems perfectly peaceful today, but of course that is far removed from its original purpose. Queen Elizabeth I ordered the construction of the gun fort in 1559, to protect her warships when they lay at anchor in the Medway and Chatham Dockyard. Great plan, terrible outcome: when a Dutch fleet raided in 1667 it destroyed or captured a large number of Royal Navy vessels moored like sitting targets at Chatham. Get a graphic experience of what went wrong and how events unwound through an exciting audio-visual interpretation.
After you’ve looked around the castle, return over the river for more military exploits, at the Royal Engineers Museum, Gillingham. The museum’s many galleries house a collection of international importance, telling the story of the Corps of Royal Engineers and its contributions to Britain’s history and empire. But it’s the personal nature of artefacts that makes visiting priceless. View the Waterloo Map used by the Duke of Wellington in 1815, still marked by blood, and a lock of hair from his great adversary, Napoleon. Take a good look at a papier mâché head used as a sniper’s decoy in the First World War – convincing? – and models of a Mulberry Harbour used to brief Prime Minister Winston Churchill in World War Two. The museum’s medals collection is outstanding – and poignant, while larger equipment and vehicles include a locomotive used on the D-Day beaches of Normandy 1944.
In Medway, whether you scratch beneath the surface of well-known attractions or go an extra mile to find a new gem, there’s always something memorable to take away.