The old and the new in Charles Dickens’ Rochester

I went to Rochester in Kent yesterday on a visit loosely connected in my mind with the world of Charles Dickens, the English writer second only to Shakespeare in fame.


He was a child in these parts and, when he had made it as a celebrity novelist, he returned to a live in a house just outside Rochester where he lived the life of a gentleman and was often seen in what is now the wonderfully well-preserved High Street where, on another blog,  I will show you how to find the locations for scenes in The Pickwick Papers, Edwin Drood and Great Expectations.

There is so much of the past in this atmospheric Medway town that it would have been all too easy to drift back into the Nineteenth Century and to imagine yourself a character in a Dickens novel – a bad habit from my childhood which, yesterday was jolted out of me by a vibrant sense of modernity and not just by a woman of a certain age who breezed passed me perfectly happy looking like Zandra Rhodes in her pink hair and multicloured summer dress.
Even though this brave windowcleaner was still doing his job in the time honoured way before anyone had ever thought up the ridiculous phrase “Health and Safety,” the quaint streets of Rochester had taken on early 21st Century culture.
I don’t just mean mobile phones and a casual attitude to clothes…..
…or the necessity of going shopping with a bull terrier……..
….I am talking about education. It was Graduation Day for the very modern University For The Creative Arts which, at its Rochester campus, offers degrees in such exciting and vibrant subjects as animation, advertising, graphic design, crafts such as jewellery and ceramics, photography, architecture and interior design and, most noticeably, fashion and textiles.
There was a gathering of colourfully hooded arts academics trying to look respectable whilst having last minute cigarettes outside the magnificently preserved Eleventh Century Rochester Cathedral….
which was full to over-flowing with new graduates and their very proud relations  who soon seemed to be perfectly at home under those very fine carved Norman arches.
There was no old-fashioned sense of pomp and circumstance here just a celebration of the creative arts and a new generation of young people idealistic, optimistic or just foolish enough to have studied for a life in society’s most vulnerable economic sector.
Opposite the Cathedral is the equally old Norman Castle, forbidding someone with its ravaged look of historical experience.
What chance have they got, it seemed to be asking . Come in here and see how things used to be done with the power of the sword and the rule of the aristocratic elite. Dress up as a soldier for the day and have an icecream.
I was hearing none of it as those technicoloured academics filed into the cathedral….
..I just wish them luck in this new austere climate and hope that England will maintain its great tradition in the creative arts. Inside the cathedral there was enough hope for all of us and, oh yes, that woman with the pink hair, she was there to inspire too. I had thought when I first saw here that she looked like the bohemian fashion designer Zandra Rhodes – it was her, in her new role as the Chancellor of the University For The Creative Arts. Now there was a sight for sore eyes! If she wasn’t so real, Charles Dickens would have invented her.

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