Although commonly perceived as something of a wasteland, raced through on the way to or from the Channel ports, northern Kent has its fair share of attractions, all easily accessible from London. Rochester boasts both historic and literary interest, while the old-fashioned seaside resorts of Whitstable and Broadstairs have a growing cachet among weekenders from the capital.
The handsome Medway town of ROCHESTER was first settled by the Romans, who built a fortress on the site of the present castle; some kind of fortification has remained here ever since. The town’s most famous son is Charles Dickens, who spent his youth here but would seem to have been less than impressed by the place – it appears as “Mudfog” in The Mudfog Papers, and “Dullborough” in The Uncommercial Traveller. Many of the buildings feature in his novels: the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel, at the top of the High Street, became the Bull in Pickwick Papers and the Blue Boar in Great Expectations, while most of his last book, the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was set in the town.
Two miles away in neighbouring Chatham, there’s more historic architecture at the Chatham Historic Dockyard, which records more than 400 years of British maritime history.
Two miles east of Rochester lies the Chatham Historic Dockyard, founded by Henry VIII, and once the major base of the Royal Navy, many of whose vessels were built, stationed and victualled here. By the time of Charles II it was England’s largest naval base, but the shipbuilding era ended when the dockyards were closed in 1984, reopening soon afterwards as a tourist attraction.
The dockyard, with its array of historically and architecturally fascinating eighteenth-century buildings, occupies a vast eighty-acre site. Attractions include the 400m-long former rope-making room, a restored Victorian sloop, and the Ocelot submarine, the last warship built at Chatham, whose crew endured unbelievably cramped conditions.
One of the most agreeable spots along the north Kent coast and a popular day-trip destination for Londoners, pretty, bohemian WHITSTABLE has been farming the oysters for which it is famed since classical times, when the Romans feasted on the region’s marine delicacies. Oysters are still farmed in the area today, but Whitstable is nowadays more dependent on its commercial port, fishing and seaside tourism. The annual Oyster Festival (last two weeks of July) sees the town come alive with parades, performances and a raucous oyster-eating competition.
Follow the signs at the top of the vibrant High Street, with its delis, restaurants and gift stores, to reach the seafront, a quiet shingle beach backed by pretty weatherboard cottages and a line of colourful beach huts.