After spending a few days exploring all that London has to offer, people often book a day trip out of the capital eager to experience as much of England as possible during the limited vacation time they have at their disposal.
The usual suspects for such jaunts are, in no particular order, Oxford, Cambridge, Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath. Often the services of a tour company will be employed and the day out will include maneuvering through huge crowds of other eager tourists, often limited time at destination and sometimes long hours being ferried from one place to another in a coach which easily may get stuck in the heavy traffic both in and outside of London.
You know what?! You don’t have to follow the crowd in order to have an authentic English experience. You can have an amazing day trip out of London, visit two cities and a town, see several historical, cultural and literary sights plus enjoy fabulous shopping and delicious food with only short travelling distances from one place to the next. Yes, it is for real!
So, get ready for the best alternative day trip from the British capital.
In the morning you will take in the historic city of Rochester. Straight after lunch you will continue to the cathedral city of Canterbury and in the late afternoon you will reach the seaside town of Whitstable on the English Channel.
The beauty of this itinerary, apart from the amazing experiences each place on it offers, is that Rochester, Canterbury and Whitstable all have excellent train connections to and from London, so if you decide to visit only one or two out of the tree or if you want to continue straight to Whitstable after having spent the morning in Rochester, you can do it without any trouble.
Now, let me get into the juicy details!
As soon as you wake up on the day, head to either St. Pancras International or Victoria train stations in London. From either you can get on a direct train to Rochester. The trains leaving from St. Pancras are high-speed and take just over half an hour to transport you from London’s beating heart into the charming city which the literary giant Charles Dickens loved. The ticket price is higher though, so if you prefer to save some pounds, then the train from Victoria station will have you in Rochester in three quarters of an hour. Honestly, that’s quicker than getting from one end of London to the other!
Rochester is a lovely city with so much to offer you will be spoilt for choice. No matter if you are interested in history, architecture, shopping, food or just plain old British quirkiness you will find them all there by the bucketload.
Once outside of Rochester train station, turn right and walk the short distance (five minutes max.) to the start of the High Street. You will immediately notice the beautiful and unusual buildings dotted around town. Timber-framed houses stand side by side with red brick abodes and tin rooftops gleam in the sun. Several were built as far back as the 14th century whilst the ‘youngsters’ were erected as soon as the 18th century, making Rochester with its cobbled streets picture-perfect.
Pay attention to small details – like door frames dramatically crooked by the passage of time, naval-inspired wall decorations and weather-cocks and the joyous bunting adorning all of the High Street.
Walk around for a little while and soon you will feel transported back in time when the worldwide known author Charles Dickens would take inspiration from his beloved Rochester and recreate its people and houses in several of his novels. Everywhere you look in the city you will find Dickensian references – from the names of the local shops and restaurants (the fruit and veg shop on the High Street is cleverly called ‘Pips’, for example) to Restoration House – a glorious mansion in the heart of Rochester which was the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s abode in ‘Great Expectations’.
Don’t miss the beautiful Swiss Chalet with scalloped trims in which the author penned several of his literary works. You will find it right off the High Street and on the grounds of Eastgate House (which also features in two of Dickens’ novels), having been painstakingly moved there from the author’s country home in nearby Higham.
Don’t limit yourself just to Rochester’s literary connections, though. There is much more to be seen, explored and admired. England’s second oldest cathedral was founded here in 604AD by Bishop Justus. The present building dates back to 1080. It is simply glorious with its Norman nave, Romanesque facade and beautiful organ.
Right opposite from the Cathedral stands Rochester Castle.
The 12th century keep is incredibly well preserved. Make sure that you spend some time exploring it and going up its time-worn stone steps all the way to the top.
You will be rewarded with a stunning 360 degrees view. On one side you will see the river Medway with a gaggle of yachts moored in it.
A beautifully arched cast iron bridge straddles the river. Since 1856 and after extensive reconstruction in 1914 it stands on the exact same spot where the Romans first built a bridge for the traffic from London to Dover many centuries ago.
On the other side of the castle and spreading all the way to the horizon lies the vast valley with the interconnecting Medway towns of which Rochester is the most beautiful. The keep is also the best place to admire Rochester Cathedral’s fine facade from in all its glory.
Then, put some time aside for a quick visit to the Guildhall Museum. It has many artifacts to keep your interest for a while. For me the most impressive of them all is the exposition dedicated to the ‘hulks’ – decommissioned ships which were used as floating prisons in the 18th and the 19th centuries. There is a full reconstruction of one such ship and as you go from deck to deck you learn the story of the prisons on water holding desperate men within a very confined space. Some horrible things were taking place on the hulks, like prisoners would be placed in ‘black holes’, which were so small a person couldn’t stand upright in them. They were also shackled and often flogged.
In fact, Dickens’ novel ‘Great Expectations’ starts with the escape of Magwitch from a prison hulk as at the time several of them were moored in the river Medway.
Now, don’t think that Rochester is good only for literature and history buffs. As it happens, the city offers some great shopping experiences and it would be a shame to miss them. While most of the English cities and towns nowadays have a pretty uniform High Street sporting the cookie-cutter shops of the same multinational brands over and over again, Rochester High Street is unique not only in terms of architecture.
Little boutiques, independent artists and designers, craft sanctuaries, art galleries and one-of-a-kind shops populate the ground floors of historic buildings. There are several antic and vintage furniture, jewellery and clothes shops, too, where you can come across some amazing finds. Hey, there is even a vintage charity shop, a patchwork supplies shop as well as the largest rare and secondhand bookshop in England! And if you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss the sellers specialising in old English sweets and flavoured fudge!
My favourite places for some unique shopping experiences are:
- Demelza’s Boutique (said vintage charity shop) where you can find anything from decades-old wedding dresses to fashion which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Swinging 60’s;
- Pink Flamingo for their eclectic collection of clothes and shoes;
- Kiss Kiss Heart for their great jewellery selection and home decor items; and
- Fieldstaff Antiques for five floors of fabulous finds from times long gone by.
Lastly, If you happen to be in Rochester on the day that one of the many local events takes place, you will be in for a treat. From the bi-annual Dickens Festival organised in June and December through The Sweeps – one of the largest Morris dancing festivals in the world held each May – and down to the monthly farmers’ market, the city has a lot to offer in terms of open-air concerts, street food, colourful parades, lively fairgrounds and revived traditions.
Now, all this sightseeing and shopping is bound to leave you hungry. Fear not, as Rochester has a fabulous line up of restaurants, coffee houses and pubs representing all sorts of cuisines – from traditional British and refined French to Indian and Thai.
My personal recommendations based on many happy eating sessions are:
The Deaf Cat – a charming coffee shop overlooking Rochester Cathedral. It is a very relaxed place with art by local artists on its walls where you can sip a coffee and enjoy some traditional British bakes and cakes. It gets insanely busy, but people are happy to share a table until another one becomes available. The name of the coffee shop is inspired by Dicken’s favourite cat. The pet loved to sit on the writer’s desk while he worked and was indeed deaf.
Mr. Topes – the best restaurant in town! Make sure you call and book in advance as the place is very popular and gets booked fast. The restaurant is in a lovely timber-framed old house on the High Street with Rochester Castle right behind it. The food is out of this world. Seasonal, locally-sourced and full of flavour. There are set meal options and an a la carte menu. Prices are very reasonable, too.
The Cathedral Tea Rooms – with its lovely garden and tasty meals, this is definitely my favourite place in Rochester for a quick cup of coffee or a leisurely Sunday lunch. Chef Helen and her team make traditional British food – tasty, bountiful and super satisfying. Large jacket potatoes stuffed with generous portions of fillings, soups served with a little bowl of grated cheese and a large piece of buttered bread (try the parsnip and apple soup, it is great!), quiches, Ploughman’s lunches, salads and lots more. There is always a big selection of cookies and cakes. Do me a favour though and ask for the cherry cheesecake. It is rich, creamy and it melts on the tongue. The best you will ever have.
Once you have had your fill of Rochester, head back to the train station and catch the train going straight to Canterbury. In three quarters of an hour you will be arriving at this beautiful cathedral city which is the second stop on our best alternative day trip from London.