Kent architecture

Think North Kent is a charmless dump? Don’t be so sly!

The sniffling attitude some people have towards North Kent disappoints me. The towns of Medway are considered run down and charmless, which makes no sense. The area is steeped in history from Roman times; there is the old Chatham Dockyard and beautiful churches in some of the surrounding villages. The real gem, however, is the ensemble of Rochester Cathedral and Castle, where the Medway is first bridged. Seen from the viaduct to the south of the city which carries the M2 over the river, it’s a lovely sight, but still a short drive from the sprawl of south east London suburbs.

There has been a cathedral in Rochester since 604, founded by a fellow missionary of St Augustine. The current building dates from the end of the 11th century, a few decades after the Conquest. The Conqueror gave the bishopric to his half-brother Odo, whose incompetence soon caused a dilapidated building to fall into ruin. But it was Rochester’s luck that Odo’s replacement was Gundulf, a Norman monk, who was also an experienced engineer and architect. Gundulf’s nave and quire were completed around 1140, only to suffer from three successive fires, one of which destroyed both transepts.

A reconstruction began around 1190 and continued until the middle of the 13th century. There were new transepts, an elongated nave and a reinforced tower. Inside the nave, there is a fine display of Norman works: large compound round columns surmounted by fretted capitals, supporting large semicircular arches decorated with chevrons and nail heads. But the true splendor of the work of the early Middle Ages is offered to the visitor when he reaches the western door, with its finely carved decorations in its great arch – five rows of ornaments from the beginning of the twelfth century, at once foliage and animals, surrounding a thin tympanum above the door itself of Christ in Majesty, with smaller representations of the apostles around him. It is a remarkable survival of craftsmanship from 900 years ago and a living embodiment of the life and faith of our distant past. Towards the east end, the architectural style changes to Early English, and some of the main windows – notably the one above the west door – are perpendicular, revealing a program of renovation that lasted throughout the medieval period.

When money flowed into the diocese in the 1870s, shortly after the death of Charles Dickens, a famous local resident, and with the rise of the nearby shipyard, George Gilbert Scott undertook a largely sympathetic restoration of the interior of the cathedral: but the impression of the exterior, with the blind arcades of the west facade, the squat tower and the decorations of the towers on either side of the west facade, is of a Norman building, although preserved.

The castle, which faces the cathedral through two sections of greenery interrupted by a cobbled street, is no less beautiful to see. John Newman, in his Pevsner guide to West Kent, writes that “the cathedral seems to shelter under the castle” because the keep is so powerful – and is situated on a mound – and the cathedral, for all its architectural merits, is squatting by Comparison.