My first impressions of Chatham made me regret not booking an earlier return train. It had every indication of poverty; so many shops with pound in the name, pasty faced people in cheap clothes, once fine buildings now unkempt and scruffy. Although Dickens spent his early life here, there was no obvious allusion of him, though I did find this rather wonderful statue of Waghorn.
I admit I had never heard of him, but his statue was arresting and Wiki filled in some of the blanks. Around the statue were railings with a trident theme.
A nice touch I thought.
I was less convinced by the fact that the smartest building by miles was an ex Post Office now Weatherspoon’s pub bearing his name. From Post Office[/caption]
There were bits of ordnance and naval wotnot scattered about the town, presumably to remind the inhabitants of its past status.
But the present and the future looked pretty grim.
It probably didn’t help that it was raining. After days of blue skies and warm temperatures the clouds were a uniform battleship grey. Before I had walked through the town I had almost resolved to leave Chatham after lunch, walk the few miles to Rochester and spend the afternoon there. Fort Amherts did nothing to make me change my mind. It may be one of the most important forts left from the Napoleonic Wars, but it had a neglected air, and when I walked into the cafeteria/reception not one of the three staff there bothered to smile or say hello.
The statue of Lord Kitchener outside was very grand, so I photographed it and continued along the path, following the signs to the historic docks. As luck would have it I stayed on the wrong side of the road, and so I could see the very grand entrance to the docks, but not access it. It was a hundred yards or so before I could cross, and saw a sign telling me to continue along the path in the direction I had been heading to the entrance. I walked on, thinking about other things. The signage started to improve. There were signs to St Mary’s Island. I had never heard of it, but it sounded interesting. Next I noticed the buildings around me looked smarter, more loved than in the town, and realised I was heading into the area where the non-nabla docks had been. Outlet stores. Oh well. Then I saw boats. A marina.Amazing how it lifted the heart. My pace quickened. We were on the Medway, but close to the sea, so these boats had that salty look the boats at my marina quite lack. There was a road bridge over the Medway that had been officially opened by Princess Anne and more signs to St Mary’s Island. I strode on. Disappointment hit when I realised St Mary’s Island is a new housing estate. At least that’s what it is now. What it was in the past remains for me a mystery.
The Outlet Stores were busy. There is something quite depressing about the way shopping has become so much of a hobby. Still, there were cranes and architecture that hinted at different preoccupations.
Finally I found the entrance to the Dockyards themselves. I don’t quite know what i had been expecting after the disappointment of the town, but I am happy say that Chatham’s Historic Docks far exceeded my expectations. I never did get to Rochester, and I did find a house near the station with a plaque saying it was the young Dickens had lived. A tour of a nuclear submarine, HMS Ocelot, was fascinating. The guide was informative and relaxed, dealing well with a young enthusiast who had obviously done the tour several times before and was keen to share what he remembered. A collection of lifeboats with pictures of crews and details of rescues was salutary. The rain continued to fall. All around there were pieces of engineering equipment whose purpose I couldn’t even begin to guess at. The site is extensive and I started to get a real feel of how it had functioned as a enclosed community. This is where the Temeraire was built, the Victory too. We often talk about places being steeped in history. This place is where the steeping happens.
I’d have enjoyed the tour of the Ropery better with a different guide. He was playing a part, but still struck me as more than a little misogynistic. None of the children in the group I was in was female, but I’d bet fairly freely that he’d have favoured the boys for questions and participation had there been.
In the end I hurried back to the station, fearful I would miss my train. In fact I was early which is how and why I found Dickens’ house.
It was a good day out.