Inevitably and naturally, Sunday was the day for a little more solemnity; certainly rather more solemnity than that provided by the hijacker of yesterday’s post, the scurrilous shade of Samuel Pepys himself.
Above all, the day featured a service at Rochester Cathedral to mark the 350th anniversary of the Dutch attack on the Medway. For those of you who don’t know Rochester, it’s not the grandest cathedral in the British Isles. In architectural terms, indeed, it’s not in the same league as the likes of, say, Wells, Lincoln or Ely, and suffers from a bit too much input from George Gilbert Scott. It’s also literally overshadowed by the immediately adjacent castle, the keep of which still towers over it, and which was the scene of one of the most remarkable and brutal sieges in the entire history of warfare – brilliantly described by my author chum Angus Donald in his The Death of Robin Hood, and rather less brilliantly in the ludicrous film Ironclad.
But Rochester Cathedral makes up in spades for all of this by the sheer weight of history contained within its ancient walls. It’s the second oldest cathedral in the British Isles, and Christian worship has taken place continuously there since 604 AD, which isn’t just ‘older than the USA’, the usual barb that we historically smug (or, alternatively, overburdened) Brits deploy against our cousins across the pond. but significantly older than England itself, too. Dickens knew it well, and based several scenes in its environs. (Indeed, the weekend also coincided with Rochester’s annual Dickens festival, which meant that several of those attending the service were in splendid Victorian garb.) The cathedral also has many connections with my own field of interest – in 1673, the French Huguenot admiral, des Rabesnières, was buried there after being killed while leading his fleet’s rear division in the Battle of Solebay, while a slab in the nave commemorates Captain Christopher Fogge, who died in command of the Third Rate Rupert in 1708, and other naval memorials, including the ship’s bell of a previous HMS Kent, can be found throughout the building.
This, then, was the setting for the service, which also marked the formal ‘seating’ of the new Mayor of Medway in his designated place in the cathedral quire. At first, I thought that doubling up the mayoral installation and the Medway commemoration was a bit inappropriate, but as the service unfolded, it became clear – to me, at least – that it was anything but. For one thing, the frankly ludicrous mayoral garb, complete with red robes, chain, and tricorn hat (not to mention the mace and its bearer, a kind of Kentish version of Black Rod) gave the proceedings an air of history that no amount of modern-day naval dress uniform and ‘men in suits’ (or even ‘women in crinoline’) could possibly provide, while the fact that the Mayor of Medway is also, for goodness sake, ‘Governor of Rochester Castle and Admiral of the River’, presumably in succession to the former Mayors of Rochester, and has been exercising the right to be installed in the cathedral since 1448, gave the whole proceedings a sense of historical continuity that stretched back a long way before the Dutch attack. Anthems with music composed by Daniel Purcell, the less famous brother of Henry, gave another sense of the seventeenth century, as did the entire order of service – the key elements, and most of the words, of the Anglican evensong service would have been very familiar to those who tried to defend Chatham in 1667, although they might well have baulked at the notion of the Old Testament lesson being read by the Dutch ambassador.
Today, though, it’s back home, to normality; or, in other words, there’s a lawn in Bedfordshire that needs mowing. Part of me wishes I could be back in Medway next weekend for its ‘Medway in Flames’ event, a spectacular show promised for Saturday evening. Instead, I’ll be in Portsmouth, attending, and presenting a report at, the AGM of the Society for Nautical Research.
Finally, though, and by way of a slight – but by no means complete – digression, I thought I’d mention two more naval history ‘memorials’, of very different kinds, that I visited during my stay in Medway. One is Cockham Wood Fort, a direct consequence of the Dutch attack – built in 1669, it was one of several new fortifications built along the river to ensure that such a disaster could never occur again. But the relentless power of several centuries of tides has very nearly done for it; large chunks of fallen brickwork lie in front of the surviving structure of the lower battery, and it seems probable that a few more decades will completely obliterate the remains of the fort.
The other memorial is the huge memorial to the men of the Royal Navy’s Chatham Division who were killed during both World Wars. Identical in pattern to the memorials at Portsmouth and Plymouth, this one stands in a very different location, high on the hill overlooking Chatham and Rochester. While this makes it much more prominent than either of its siblings, the distance from built-up, and thus more easily policed, areas means that it has been a target for vandals, to the extent that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission now only opens it between 8.30 and 5.00 – and when I went there, it wasn’t open at all. In one sense, this wasn’t a major issue for me, as I’d visited it before, but the principle of having to restrict access to such a hugely important part of Britain’s naval heritage is a depressing comment on some of the worst traits of modern society.
This much I know, though: every single name inscribed on the Chatham memorial is worth a thousand or more of the vacuous pondlife who find it entertaining to deface it.