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Hidden treasure tours at Rochester Cathedral reveal ancient secrets

Even after 900 years of rich and illustrious history, Rochester Cathedral still retains the ability to surprise with its hidden treasures.

Like its connection with ancient pagan rituals, cricket’s world-renowned Ashes trophy and a benefactor who had a town in America named after him.

These are just three of the curiosities being highlighted in a series of Hidden Treasures tours and talks on Fridays this month.

Rochester Cathedral. Picture: Steve Crispe
Rochester Cathedral. Picture: Steve Crispe

Thousands of visitors from all over the world who visit England’s second oldest cathedral admire its magnificent crypt and nave, featuring fine examples of Norman architecture.

They could be forgiven for not spotting the 20 pre-Christian carvings, so-called Green Men pagan symbols dotted round the ceiling.

Originally, the Green Man carving represented fertility and the image was used as a way of converting people to the Romans’ new faith by signifying new life.

The oddities have a slightly disturbing appearance, with branches coming out of their mouths representing the words of God, a phallic-shaped nose depicting fertility and demonic scary eyes.

They can be found on the wooden pulpit in the nave, on the ceiling under the tower near the organ and in the Warner Chapel.

Hidden Treasures tours and talks. Sister Genevieve and Brother Hugh with, Becky and Toby Bosman. Picture: Steve Crispe
Hidden Treasures tours and talks. Sister Genevieve and Brother Hugh with, Becky and Toby Bosman. Picture: Steve Crispe

In medieval days it was believed that their gruesome faces, along with the gargoyles outside the building, kept evil spirits away.

But what of the man credited with starting the Ashes rivalry fought over by England’s and Australia’s cricketers for more than a century?

The link in this case is the Hon Ivo Bligh, the England captain who brought the Ashes home from Australia in 1882-83.

He became the Earl of Darnley and kept the Ashes at his home of Cobham Hall just outside Rochester until he died 43 years later.

No one knows the exact contents of the urn, but a rumour has it that a maid dropped it from the mantelpiece at the stately home and replaced it with ashes from the fireplace.

Green Men. Picture: Steve Crispe
Green Men. Picture: Steve Crispe

In memory of Bligh’s connection with north Kent, his friends donated a stained- glass window in the north aisle depicting St Hubert and St Francis.

The third stop of the tour is the Henniker Memorial commemorating Lord John Henniker, a wealthy leather and fur merchant trader who was a significant benefactor to the cathedral and Rochester in the mid-1700s.

When he died, his body was placed in a massive Coade-stone vault with his wife Dame Ann.

The town of Henniker in New Hampshire is named afer him.

The Henniker Memorial. Picture: Steve Crispe
The Henniker Memorial. Picture: Steve Crispe

Volunteer guide Colin Thompson said: “These are just some of the hidden gems.

“It is more than likely that you wouldn’t know they were there unless they were pointed out.

“Even frequent visitors to the cathedral might not know they are there. There’s many more where they come from.”

Michelle Lees, a community, regeneration and interpretation officer, added: “We had a good turnout on the first Friday, more than a hundred. Visitors to the cathedral and families who just came in to look around.”

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