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Rochester has for centuries been of great strategic importance through its position near the confluence of the River Thames and the River Medway. Its castle was built to guard the important river crossing, and the dockyard at Chatham was the key to the Royal Navy's long period of supremacy at sea. The town is surrounded by a circle of fortresses - Forts Amherst, Luton, Borstal, Pitt, Clarence, Delce and others - built during the Napoleonic wars and in the 1860s. During World War II the Short Brothers' aircraft company manufactured flying boats at its factory on the Medway not far from Rochester Castle. However, the decline in naval power and in shipbuilding in general led to the Navy abandoning the shipyards and the demise of much of the marine industry in and around the town. Rochester and its neighbouring communities were hit hard by this and have experienced a painful adjustment to a post-industrial economy, with much social deprivation and unemployment resulting.
Rochester and its neighbours, Chatham and Gillingham, form a single large urban area known as the Medway Towns with a population of about 250,000. However, Rochester has always governed land on the other side of the Medway in Strood, and in recent times included the parishes of Cuxton, Halling and Cliffe, and the Hoo Peninsula. Watling Street passes through the town, and to the south the River Medway is bridged by the M2 motorway and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
In 1264, the dissident barons, led by Simon de Montfort, attacked Rochester. They crossed the Medway under cover of the smoke from a fire-ship, and took the city. Like John before them, they quickly gained control of the castle bailey and then attempted to undermine the keep. This time the siege was not successful, being relieved after only a week by Henry himself. However, the rebels did burn down many of the buildings, including the Royal chambers. Repairs were not carried out until 1367, under Edward III, by which time much of the stone had been removed for other use.
The Wars of the Roses were not fought in Kent, so the castle was spared. It was briefly taken by Wyatt's men during his futile uprising. But with the invention of gunpowder and introduction of cannon, this form of castle was no longer so secure. It became expensive to maintain so fell into disrepair.
Rochester castle is maintained by English Heritage and the keep is open to the public. The wooden flooring in the centre of the building is gone, but many of the passageways and spiral staircases within the thickness of the walls are still usable. Decorative chevrons ornament the archways and the water well in the cross-wall is clearly visible. Visitors with a head for heights can climb 27 m to the battlements and enjoy their commanding view of the river and surrounding area.
Rochester remained of strategic importance, and the neighbouring Chatham Naval Dockyard grew in importance. In the Napoleonic wars, the dockyard was protected by a circle of Palmerston forts, including Fort Luton, Fort Borstal, Fort Pitt, Fort Clarence, and Fort Amherst. HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship was built in Chatham (though now "exiled" in Portsmouth). During the twentieth century wars, Chatham has provided a home for the Royal Engineers, and built aircraft such as the Sunderland. The Dockyard also built and serviced nuclear submarines.
Rochester Cathedral is a Norman church in Rochester, Kent. The bishopric is one of the oldest in England, second only to that of Canterbury. It was founded by Justus, one of the missionaries who accompanied Saint Augustine to convert the pagan English to Christianity in the early 7th century. Justus was given permission by King Ethelbert of Kent to establish a church of St Andrew the Apostle on the site of the present cathedral, which was made the home of a bishopric. The first Bishop of Rochester being Justus himself, with subsequent bishops being recruited from among the Christianised English.