Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Rochester Castle Keep - The Interior

A view from the top of Rochester Castle keep

With the White Tower still very fresh in my memory, from a visit to the Tower of London a few weeks previously, it might be thought by some that a trip to Rochester Castle – with its ruined keep and fragments of curtain wall – would be a bit of a let down; however, when I first visited this magnificent castle more than 25 years ago, it was the views from the battlements that left a great impression on me and I looked forward to experience this again.

The entrance to the keep

Like the Observation Tower at Lincoln Castle and the keep at Conisbrough Castle, which I visit whenever I can, it gives me great pleasure to climb up a spiral staircase when – once at the top – you can take the time to admire the views and to imagine what it must have been like to be here at the height of its prosperity and power.

The doorway to the forebuilding

Entering the forebuilding via a restored stairway, which is protected from falling masonry by a mesh canopy, there are fine examples of chevron details to the round arches to both the entrance and to the first floor, with the latter once containing a portcullis - although the use of the forebuilding as a shop makes it a little difficult to stop and admire the details here.

A view of the interior of the keep

Once inside the keep itself, the spine wall possesses further examples of chevron decorated arches on the second, principal floor and, apart from containing the castle well, it provided a line of defence after the south-east corner of the keep was destroyed in the siege of 1215The date of the conflagration doesn't appear to be recorded but, sometime after the end of the Middle Ages, a great fire destroyed its floors and roof and the keep has been a ruin since at least 1665, when Samuel Pepys described meeting “three pretty mayds” here.

The spine wall on the principal floor

Being exposed to the elements for a few hundred years has obviously been detrimental to the condition of the masonry, with much of it being covered with moss and algae and with severely blackening in places; however, despite this, the reddening of some of the masonry due to the heat of the fire is clearly visible and it is still quite easy to distinguish between the Kentish ragstone rubble walling and the Caen stone quoins, voussoirs and other dressings.

A view along the gallery

At the gallery level, a section of walling containing a small arch and window is seen to largely replace a large pre-existing arch that was mainly destroyed during the 1215 siege and, looking closely at the stonework, the quoins and voussoirs are of are different stone to the Caen stone that has been used for dressings throughout the castle. Although only seen from the distance, the pale grey/green colour suggests that this could be Reigate stone.

A section of restored masonry with the 'missing arch'

Continuing up to the battlements, although most of these are original 12th century masonry, George Payne reports in his “The Reparation of Rochester Castle” that the walkways were renewed and extensive work was undertaken to the turrets, which involved the replacement of much of the Caen stone quoins with Kentish ragstone.

Pigeon nesting holes beneath the battlements walkway

Of particular interest at this level, and something that I had never seen before, is the presence of mediaeval pigeon nesting holes – restored in the 1890's – which would have provided a source of much needed food during the various sieges.

Nesting pigeons

Having had a good wander around the interior of the keep, I made the most of the T-shirt weather on the last day of October to have a good look at my surroundings. As well as getting good views of the River Medway, Rochester Cathedral - my next port of call - and the rest of the historic city of Rochester, it is possible fully appreciate the Chalk landforms of this part of the North Downs.

Views from the top of Rochester Castle keep

Finally, I then proceeded back down to the exit, having taken a closer look at the construction of the various spiral staircases. Here, I was surprised to find that the steps are built from irregular blocks of flint that are set into hard mortar and, although a little uneven and polished with wear in places, are still very solid.

Blocks of flint used in the steps of the spiral staircases

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