Rochester meant more to Dickens than anywhere else in Kent. He knew it intimately as a child, visited regularly as an adult, and returned permanently in middle age, when he bought Gad’s Hill Place at Higham, three miles away.
This Rochester city trail is one of 17 routes in my new guidebook Walking Charles Dickens’ Kent, available here
The route described in full in the book takes in 16 locations around the city, all of which inspired Dickens enormously throughout his life.
Rochester Cathedral (F on the map above) is just one of them. In The Pickwick Papers Alfred Jingle sums it up as: ‘Old Cathedral too earthy smell – pilgrims’ feet worn away the old steps – little Saxon doors – confessionals like money-takers’ boxes at theatres – queer customers those monks – Popes, and Lord Treasurers, and all sorts of old fellows, with great red faces, and broken noses, turning up every day… – sarcophagus – fine place – old legends too – strange stories: capital.’
At the opening of Dickens’s final, unfinished novel Edwin Drood the cathedral is used in the revelation that John Jasper leads a double life. We have no sooner encountered him in a drug-induced stupor in a London opium den than he turns up here, rushing to don his robes and process into the cathedral with the choir he is master of. ‘
And then,’ writes Dickens, ‘the intoned words, “When the Wicked Man – ” rise among groins of arches and beams of roof, awakening muttered thunder.’
The inscription on Dickens’ plaque in the cathedral says it has been placed here: ‘To connect his memory with the scenes in which his earliest and his latest years were passed and with the association of Rochester Cathedral and its neighbourhood which extended over all his life’.
Upon Dickens death, in 1870, plans were made – before a national campaign led to his burial in Westminster Abbey – to inter him in the little fenced-off burial ground (G on the map) between the cathedral and the castle. In Edwin Drood this spot is described as ‘a fragment of a burial-ground in which an unhappy sheep was grazing’. Plans to bury him in the village of Shorne also had to be abandoned.
Rochester is also the location of an intriguing coincidence in Dickens’ own life, relating to Ellen Ternan, his mistress for 13 years. Find out about it in Walking Charles Dickens’ Kent