Travelling south along Watling Street from London towards Canterbury, the seasoned pilgrim cannot avoid the mighty castle at Rochester and nor should he (or she) for this indeed is a castle worthy of the name. Dominated by its keep, tall and proud – I believe the tallest in the kingdom at 117 feet – Rochester is a place to rest and savour the passage of the years and marvel at the ingenuity of earlier times.
And what the years have done to this place! Of course, it is many centuries since last I rode this way in 1216, but looking upon the keep now it is different to how it was when I last saw it – with one of its corners blasted away following a siege by king John.
Oh how sad it looked then! In October and November of the previous year, King John had ordered a mine to be dug under the south east corner of the castle and the building propped on wooden stilts. I was told by a vassal that it took the fat of forty pigs to burn away the props and down the tower tumbled.
Today of course, it is still a ruin but at least a complete ruin – and one of the most remarkable keeps in all England. That corner of the keep was subsequently rebuilt in the rounded style of a later day and, although it differs but slightly from the original keep erected by William de Corbeil in 1127, the tower stands tall across the land.
Let us go inside for but a few minutes. Ascending the stairway of the forebuilding – now alas without its drawbridge at the top – entry through the old great door reveals the skeleton of what was once a busy and substantial place.
How I remember the grand hall – now only hinted at by the decorated arches high above – and the gallery where lords and ladies gathered for private conversations and where musicians once played! Now bereft of Tharsian tapestry and sendal shifts, the walls are cold but not without power to conjure thoughts of days gone by.
And of course, to my mind one of the most impressive features of that fine palace: the well shaft which ascended a central pillar to bring water to every floor. In all my travels I have not seen such a marvel; I recall how when this tower had floors, the lord’s children used to shout to each other down the shaft and how, if they were unlucky, one of them would receive a bucket of water thrown down on him from above!
Yet all is quiet now. The tower is but an empty shell; its stories, sounds, smells and sentiments there only to dress the mind of an imaginative soul. In the bailey – once vibrant and alive with horses, cooking, tradespeople and castle servants – is but a public park. Even the stone bridge which carried the road across the Medway has long since ceased to echo to the rattling of carts and the shouts of the watchman – being demolished, so I am told, in 1857 and replaced by the current, yet still impressive, iron structure.
Archbishop Stephen Langton – the man who held the place in 1215 and was described by King John as that “notorious and barefaced traitor” – might well have regretted his decision when he “failed to render up our castle of Rochester to us in our so great need”. Yet history shapes all things and architecture – like the English landscape – bears the scars of happenstance in silent obedience to the events of time.
Though kings and traitors, lords and ladies, vassals and serfs have gone away, Rochester still points to skies and stands with pride upon the river bank. The guardian of the Medway, valiant through the centuries.