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A Dickens of a Walk at Rochester

Rochester's characterful streets are straight out of a Dickens novel.

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 98ft (30m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths City streets and footpaths/cycleways

Landscape Historic townscapes and some rundown riverside sections

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 163 Gravesend & Rochester

Start/finish TQ 746682

Dog friendliness Too busy for most dogs

Parking Blue Boar car park and cathedral car park (fee)

Public toilets At tourist information centre, also at Northgate and Eastgate

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1 From the Park-and-Ride point go right into the pedestrianised part of the High Street. Turn left up Crow Lane, then right by Restoration House, following the signs for the Centenary Walk. After crossing the small park turn right and walk down the hill to the cathedral.

2 Cross the road and turn left round the castle. Pass Satis House, then turn right and walk by the River Medway until you reach Rochester Bridge. Cross the bridge and ,at the traffic-lights, go right along Canal Road, which runs under the railway bridge.

3 Walk along the river, pass the Riverside Tavern and follow the footpath sign. This brings you out to a new estate where you bear right along a footpath/cycle track, which is part of the Saxon Shore Way. Keep walking in the same direction along this track, which is intersected by roads at several points. At one point, pass the rusting hull of a ship that could have come from the pages of a Dickens novel.

4 At a bend in the road the Saxon Shore Way bears right, crosses industrial land, and then finally takes you close to the riverbank again. At the river continue walking ahead as far as the entrance to Upnor Castle.

5 Turn left along Upnor's tiny, and extremely quaint, High Street, and then go to the right. Where a road joins from the left, keep walking ahead to join the footpath that runs to the right of the main road. Follow this to Lower Upnor, where you turn right to reach the quay and enjoy great views of the Medway. For even better views, take a short detour up the hill to your left. Prehistoric wild animals once roamed these slopes, as archaeological evidence shows. One of the most interesting discoveries in the area was made in 1911, when a group of Royal Engineers working near Upnor dug up the remains of a mammoth dating back to the last ice age. It was taken to the Natural History Museum in London.

6 Retrace your steps back into Rochester. After crossing Rochester Bridge walk along the High Street, passing sights such as the Six Poor Travellers' Inn and the Dickens Centre. Continue back to the Park-and-Ride point.

In Our Mutual Friend (1865), Charles Dickens wrote of 'a ship's hull, with its rusty iron links of cable run out of hawse-holes long discoloured with the iron's rusty tears'. You pass a decaying ship just like this as you walk along the Medway from Rochester to Upnor, and the spirit of Charles Dickens (1812-70) is with you throughout this walk. In the streets of Rochester you'll half expect to meet genial Mr Pickwick coming out of a pub, or see mad Miss Havisham peering from a window still wearing her ancient wedding dress.

Charles Dickens first came to live near Rochester in 1816 as a 'queer small boy' of five, and the area held a fascination for him throughout his life, inspiring much of his work. Wherever you go today you pass places that featured in his novels. There's Eastgate House, which appears as Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers (1836-37); Rochester Cathedral, the focal point of his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870); and Restoration House, which became Satis House in Great Expectations (1861), the mysterious, cobwebby home of Miss Havisham. Travel a few miles from Rochester to Cooling churchyard and you can see the tiny 'stone lozenges', the children's gravestones that feature in the opening passage of Great Expectations.

Dickens' life in Rochester was happy, although he was a delicate child and never enjoyed good health. However, when his family moved to London a few years later, his life changed. His father John, who always lived above his means, fell deeply into debt and was sent to the Marshalsea Debtor's Prison. Dickens had to work in a blacking factory to help support the family, an experience that shamed him and haunted him throughout his life. He went to work at an attorney's office at the age of 15, but was so keen to write that he taught himself shorthand and eventually found work as a journalist. In 1836 his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published.

His books made him wealthy and in 1856 Dickens bought Gad's Hill Place near Rochester, a house he had dreamed of owning since he was a child. Here he would write, entertain fellow authors like Hans Christian Andersen and Wilkie Collins, and go for long walks beside the desolate Medway marshes, just as he used to do with his father. He loved to work in an ornate Swiss chalet, which he built in his garden. It had been sent to him as a gift by a friend and arrived, IKEA style, flat packed in boxes - you can imagine the fun he must have had assembling it. The chalet has now been moved and is in the centre of Rochester, by Eastgate House. Dickens died at Gad's Hill in 1870.

Where to eat and drink

There is plenty of choice in Rochester itself, which has several pubs, tea rooms and restaurants. On your way out to Upnor you'll pass the Riverside Tavern, which offers food like jacket potatoes, baguettes and burgers, and in Upnor itself, next to the castle, there's the tiny Tudor Rose pub offering real ales and home-cooked meals.

What to look for

There's a salty, maritime flavour to the pretty hamlet of Upnor. The tiny High Street at Upper Upnor is dominated by the castle, built in the 16th century to protect the English fleet, which was frequently anchored further up the Medway by Rochester Castle. The castle saw no action at all for about 100 years and was taken by surprise when in 1667, the Dutch, then at war with England, sailed right past it. They attacked the fleet, burning several ships and stealing the flagship, before sailing back to Holland. It was a national humiliation.

While you're there

Rochester Castle was built by the Normans on the remains of an earlier Roman fort. Its walls are 12ft (3.5m) thick in places. Dickens wanted to be buried in the small graveyard in the castle moat but instead Queen Victoria decreed that he should be buried in Westminster Abbey.

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