There may have been the odd eyebrow raised when I suggested spending a day walking through the Medway towns, but after taking a series of countryside strolls through some of the most beautiful parts of the county, it was time for something a little different.
Whereas nature and a sense of seclusion had been the objectives previously, my exploration of this overwhelmingly urban setting was all about walking through centuries of Kentish – and British – history. From the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, through the rise of a mighty naval power and the British Empire, to a modern, multicultural, post-industrial community – the story of Medway is also the story of these islands.
The sun was coming out as I emerged from Strood railway station and made my way the short distance to the River Medway and the Rochester Bridge, which could convey me across the water and into the historic heart of Rochester.
Stopping midway across the bridge, one is afforded the wonderful sight of the eastern shore of the Medway, and the 12th-century keep of Rochester Castle standing proudly above the town. Strategically positioned at the junction of the London road and the crossing point of the Medway, the tower is constructed of Kentish ragstone and was built around 1127 by William of Corbeil, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the encouragement of Henry I.
Entering the Castle Gardens from the gate at the junction of the Esplanade and Castle Hill, the view of the keep is magnificent. According to English Heritage, which manages the site today, it is the tallest such building to survive in Europe, and it is not hard to imagine the awe it would have inspired in those living nearby in the years when it represented the immense power of kings and the church.
Emerging from the Castle Gardens from the opposite corner from which I entered, I detour slightly to walk through The Vines – once a vineyard tended by monks from a nearby priory, now a lovely public park – before dropping back down to Rochester’s pretty High Street. From here it is simply a case of following the road eastward and into Chatham.
As a visitor somewhat unfamiliar with the exact geography of the towns which make up the wider Medway conurbation, I amble onwards wondering where exactly I will cross the border between Rochester and Chatham. Any unease about my lack of intimate knowledge of the locale melts away when I stumble across a large map adorned with this quote from Charles Dickens: “Into Rochester or Chatham, because if anybody knows to a nicety where Rochester ends and Chatham begins is more than I do!”
This giant of English letters, who spent part of his childhood here, may not have been clear on where one town ends and another begins – but Medway Council appears more certain, and a small sign to the side of the road informs me I have now departed Rochester and entered neighbouring Chatham.
Now, I think it is fair to say that poor old Chatham gets a bad press from time to time, and the vibe has definitely shifted after leaving the rather genteel streets of Rochester behind. But I’m determined to seek out reminders of the years – or rather, centuries – when this town, and its sprawling dockyards, were a vital engine of Britain’s imperial might.
When it closed for good in 1984, Chatham’s naval dockyard employed more than 7,000 people and was of paramount importance to the economy – and sense of community – in the Medway towns. For 414 years it had been a cornerstone of the nation’s ability to project power at sea. Britannia ruled the waves, and Chatham supplied hundreds of vessels which made it so.
Much of the infrastructure which made up the engineering powerhouse remains, converted into a successful visitor attraction, redeveloped for homes, leisure and education. After a brief stop at the Command House pub on the waterfront – a Grade II-listed former storekeeper's house – I proceed along the Gun Wharf and then up onto Dock Road.
Here I am confronted by the impressive Main Gate of the dockyard, resplendent with the Royal coat of arms, and it is easy to imagine the ghosts of generations of workers hurrying to and from their dirty and often dangerous work within.
From here my route turns away from the river and upwards, through Brompton, towards the Royal Engineers Museum. Housed in the impressive Ravelin Building, itself surrounded by impressive pieces of military hardware, the museum’s collection contains upwards of one million items, including priceless artefacts such as the Duke of Wellington’s map of Waterloo and a number of Victoria Crosses.
The final sight I plan to visit is the Chatham Naval Memorial, which commemorates 8,517 sailors of the First World War and 10,098 of the Second World War. It came about following the 1914-1918 conflict, when the Admiralty sought an appropriate way to honour the deaths of members of the Royal Navy who had no known grave, the majority having perished at sea.
It was decreed that the three manning ports in Great Britain – Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth – should each have an identical monument to the fallen, and the Chatham memorial was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1924. Adorning the gates to the memorial complex are the simple yet powerful words: “All these were honoured in their generations and were the glory of their times.”
The gates themselves were locked when I visited – it seems even memorials to the dead are not immune to the scourge of petty vandalism and delinquency. So I walked around the perimeter of the site and was soon confronted with the most unexpected of views out over the towns. I had not realised how far I had climbed from the river, and the Great Lines Heritage Park in which the memorial stands really is an excellent piece of open space within the wider urban environment.
From the memorial I walked through the park and downwards into Gillingham town centre. The main shopping street felt fairly bustling on a Friday lunchtime, and I was umming and ahhing over whether to stop off for a swift half before catching the train. Sadly, neither the Britannia nor the Southern Belle had the kerb appeal to lure me in, so I decided to bring my day out in the Medway towns to a close.
This part of the world often gets looked down on by outsiders, and a day trip to Chatham might not on first consideration seem the most obvious of choices. But it’s been a fine way to while away a few hours, and I have come away with a fresh perspective on a community which has been central to our national story for close to a millennia.