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Controversy over Rochester's Dickensian Christmas Festival


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National Covid rules were followed as visitors packed into a high street for a festival at the weekend, says a council.

Thousands of people converged on the centre of Rochester for the traditional Dickensian Christmas.

Crowds throng Rochester High Street. Picture: Taylor Williams
Crowds throng Rochester High Street. Picture: Taylor Williams

The Victorian extravaganza, which was cancelled last year because of the pandemic, is a much-loved part of the town's calendar.

But despite the event being described as a great success, questions have been asked about whether it should have gone ahead.

Among those worried it could have been a super-spreading event is ward councillor Alex Paterson (Lab).

He has accused the council of being irresponsible in allowing it in the wake of increasing Omicron variant concerns.

Photographs showed crowds at a standstill in the High Street with some traders unable to cope with the number of potential customers.

Snow machine wows crowds. Picture: Taylor Williams
Snow machine wows crowds. Picture: Taylor Williams

Cllr Paterson, who recently contracted Covid, says questions should be asked.

He said: "There's the argument it was an outdoor event, so the risks are lower. But that's negated when you see this level of crowding.

"It would seem the council is acting with indecent haste to return to normal.

"We know little about this variant but we do know the risk of these events as super-spreaders.

"It doesn't help the government's advice is at best confusing and at worst contradictory.

Cllr Alex Paterson
Cllr Alex Paterson

"People are taking it with a pinch of salt and it worries me the number not wearing masks.

"I will be accused of being a killjoy, a Scrooge, but it's crazy that we have got this far to risk everything.

"I have had Covid, and I don't want to get it again. I seriously question whether the council should be a party to such a large-scale gathering."

Last winter, he criticised the council's decision to go ahead with the farmers' market during lockdown.

He argued products sold at the market, such as homemade soaps and delicatessen goods, were non-essential.

A marshal instructing crowds to keep to the left. Picture by: Taylor Williams
A marshal instructing crowds to keep to the left. Picture by: Taylor Williams
Thousands converged on Rochester. Picture: Taylor Williams
Thousands converged on Rochester. Picture: Taylor Williams

In response to fears about the weekend's event, a Medway Council spokesman said: "The safety of residents, visitors and staff is of paramount importance to us.

"In line with government advice, visitors were advised that they would need to wear face coverings in the craft tent at Rochester Christmas Market as well as in all the shops in Rochester High Street and on public transport.

"Although the majority of market stalls and attractions at the Dickensian Christmas Festival were outdoors, we recommended that visitors wore face coverings as the festival is incredibly popular.

"There were also extra hand sanitising stations at the festival and inside Rochester Christmas market."

Costumed character add to the festivities. Picture: Taylor Williams
Costumed character add to the festivities. Picture: Taylor Williams

"The health, safety and wellbeing of visitors, and staff, is of the highest importance and the council will continue to follow government advice regarding large-scale events."

There was a wide range of entertainment on offer, including entertainment, food stalls selling mulled wine and roasted chestnuts and a craft fair in the castle moat over the two days.

The usual characters from the works of Charles Dickens, including Fagin, Bill Sikes and Miss Havisham, mingled with crowds and joined in the parades. And an open-air carol concert saw festival-goers join in a good old sing-song.

Festivities started on Friday night with the Mistletoe Costumed Ball at the Corn Exchange with more than 100 guests in their finery enjoying a traditional Christmas dinner and dancing to a live band.

Chairman of Rochester City Forum Sarah Tranter
Chairman of Rochester City Forum Sarah Tranter

Proceeds from a raffle are going to the Dickens Chalet in Eastgate gardens which has fallen into disrepair and in desperate need of restoration.

Rochester City Forum chairman Sarah Tranter said: "It was fantastic to see so many happy faces at the Dickens festival – particularly children and young people who were delighted with the funfair and the Christmas lights – Rochester looked just stunning.

"Many of the cafes, restaurants and pubs made brilliant use of their outside seating and of course – we all had to wear masks when visiting shops to keep people safe.

"Thousands turned up and yes, it was busy, but being outside in the fresh air is good – that has been the message all through this pandemic.

"Huge thanks to all who organised such a well-run and happy event."

Guests at The Mistletoe Costumed Ball
Guests at The Mistletoe Costumed Ball

More than £3,000 was raised for Parkinson's UK at a special charity event held at the boutique hotel, The Vines of Rochester.

Indie band the Maida Vales and the Kent Police Male Voice Choir attracted large crowds to the restaurant and wedding venue.

Owner Rebecca Collins said she was delighted at the turn-out for its first public event.

She said: "We are delighted with how it went. It was lovely to see so many people enjoy our amazing food and drink and the music was fantastic.

"It was so nice to be able to open our gates and doors and show people what we've done to the place.

"We are excited about moving forward with the business next year."

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