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Photograph: Visit Medway
Photograph: Visit Medway

Five reasons to visit Medway in 2023

Plan a trip to Kent that’s filled with culture, history, food and more

Written by Time Out. Paid for by Visit Medway

Craving a weekend away? You won’t have to go far because we Londoners have some lovely spots right on our doorstep. And one of them is Medway in Kent. The towns of Rochester and Chatham here are threaded together by the River Medway, which means there’s a strong history underpinning it (we’re talking castles, cathedrals, dockyards – you name it). Oh, and it’s where Charles Dickens grew up and wrote some of his most famous novels, so there’s plenty of literary connections to explore. Hop on a train for 30-ish minutes and you’re in a vibrant area that’s beyond expectations, with bustling food and drink, shopping and a thriving cultural scene. Plan a trip that won’t break the bank and make sure to hit up all the things on our bucket list.

Now, this is quite the attraction. From February 10 to 11, the streets of the historic naval town of Chatham will be transformed into an illuminated work of art and performance. Starting with a huge parade on the Friday night, this two-night light extravaganza features 18 epic installations. Marvel at a 12 storey-high interactive light display, have a go at arcade classics in the Gaming Projection Challenge and check out flames and chemical reactions in the Fire Laboratory. On top of that, there’ll be performances, entertainment, and tasty food and drink. Medway isn’t known as Festival City for nothing – this is just one of a jam-packed programme of festivals this year which includes the renowned folk Sweeps Festival, Food and Drink Festival, Gaming Festival, and Christmas Dickensian Festival and markets.  

If it’s culture and heritage you’re after, Medway more than delivers. Rochester is home to the second-oldest cathedral in England and it's here that King Henry VIII met Anne of Cleves! As well as some of the earliest forms of graffiti and one of the most important of all medieval manuscripts – Textus Roffensis (aka ‘the Book of Rochester’) – you can gaze in awe at the beautifully sculpted ‘Peace Doves’ installation by Peter Walker from February 12 to April 21. You’ve also got The Historic Dockyard Chatham to explore – over 400 warships were built here including Nelson’s HMS Victory – and you may recognise many of the facades from being featured in films and TV like The Crown, ‘Living’ with Bill Nighy , A spy among friends, Sherlock Holmes Call the Midwife and Les Misérables.

For something a bit more contemporary, head to Rochester Art Gallery for the University for the Creative Arts Rochester’s 'Retrospective: Creativity Past, Present & Future'. Here until April 15, you’ll get to catch fabulous pieces of work by iconic fashion designers Dame Zandra Rhodes, Wendy Dagworthy OBE and internationally acclaimed jeweller Stephen Webster MBE alongside works by students, graduates and staff, current and upcoming artists.

The Creative Heritage Quarter is Medway’s hidden gem connecting Rochester with Chatham. Artists, makers, designers, performers, chefs and publicans have naturally gravitated towards this area. It is now studded with unique studios, galleries, friendly pubs, restaurants and bakeries hosting live music, comedy and drag, with a sprinkling of fashion, faith and fascinating heritage including one of the UK’s earliest known LGBTQ+ pubs. Definitely worth a look.

History and literary buffs will be delighted to know there are plenty of Dickensian sights to see. Dickens spent his happiest childhood years in Chatham and the area was an inspiration for much of his writing. Restoration House at Rochester is the Satis House from ‘Great Expectations’ and Eastgate House is home to the chalet where Dickens wrote his final novels from his country home in Gads Hill Place. The Medway Marshes, particularly from Higham to Cooling, were amongst Dickens’ favourite places to walk. You’ve also got Rochester Castle to climb, a twelfth-century Norman tower that features in ‘The Pickwick Papers’. If it’s a permanent Dickens exhibition you’re after, the Guildhall’s ‘The Making of Mr Dickens’ has everything you need in one place.

Whether you’re seeking out old-fashioned pubs or sleek modern bistros, there’s a world of food experiences to enjoy. One favourite is the tour of The Copper Rivet Distillery which produces gins, whiskies and vodkas from grain to glass in a stunning converted Victorian pumphouse. The Pumproom here serves delicious menu offering a contemporary take on classic dishes, Fish at 55 serves top-quality seafood cooked to perfection and you’ll find great fare at Café Nucleus’ two fabulous settings in Rochester and Chatham. For a more relaxed vibe, seek out modern international cuisine and hand crafted beers, lagers, craft spirits and cocktails overlooking the stunning marina at Pier Five – or kick back after a day sightseeing at the wonderful Poco Loco in Chatham, a family-run cocktail, tapas and live music venue. If cocktails are your thing don’t miss Rochester Cocktail Week from 1-12 February. From March 31 to April 2, you’ve got the exciting Medway Food and Drink Festival, which will showcase some of the very best food vendors in from the area.

Rochester’s cobbled streets, exuding Victorian charm, are packed with independent shops to while away an afternoon. Lose yourself in Baggins Book Bazaaar, England’s largest secondhand bookshop, browse fabulous vintage shops, art galleries and boutiques for unusual purchases and discover your fandom with the epic Get Ready Comics selling American comics, comic supplies, action figures, pop vinyl and cult entertainment merchandise. Most notably, this area plays host to the monthly Rochester Artisan Market, which sells a wide range of homemade crafts, art and collectables.

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