As a devoted fan of Call the Midwife, Lynn Osborne headed to Kent to explore where it was filmed
Medway is an area with a rich military and maritime heritage as well as being the home of Charles Dickens
When my eldest daughter, Amy, fell pregnant, she suggested a Mother’s Day treat of a Call the Midwife tour around Chatham Historic Dockyard; the place where a lot of the episodes had been filmed. I had always been a fan of the show and was delighted with the idea so she booked a tour for me, her and my mum. I wondered what else we could do in the area over a short break.
A look on the Visit Medway website revealed an area with a rich military and maritime heritage as well as being the home of Charles Dickens. Rochester was top of the list to visit with a cathedral, Norman castle,
Guildhall Museum and its Dickens links including the Swiss chalet where he worked on several of his novels. Fort Amherst also looked like another must-visit place as Britain’s biggest Napoleonic fortress sited next to the Great Lines Heritage Park.
The Royal Engineers Museum in
Gillingham housed tanks, rockets, guns and a piece of the Berlin Wall which got my husband very excited. As if that wasn’t enough, Medway has another castle, Upnor Castle, built by Sir Richard Lee as a gun fort designed to defend the dockyard.
Tanner Farm Touring Caravan and
Camping Park in Marden is a lovely, quiet site set in the Kent countryside and a short drive from Medway. We set off early for our day at Chatham Historic Dockyard. Our tour wasn’t until the afternoon but we wanted to make the most of the day and see as much of the dockyard as we could. On the way we joked that Amy might have to call her own midwife as she only had a few days before her baby's due date!
Arriving at the dockyard we were greeted in reception and told our ‘midwife’ would meet us by the historic warship HMS Cavalier and to be there five minutes before the start of the tour.
We had several hours to explore before that so had a look at what else we could do.
Chatham Dockyard was established by Henry VIII in the 1550s and was used by the Royal Navy to build ships, and later submarines, until its closure in 1984. At its height the site occupied over 400 acres!
The current 80-acre site is now a visitors attraction and, in addition to the Call the Midwife tour, is filled with historical Georgian and Victorian architecture and gardens, a Second World War destroyer, a Victorian sloop, a Cold War submarine, a working ropery housed in a building almost a quarterof-a-mile long, a gallery with seasonal exhibitions, an interactive gallery called Command of the Oceans, a museum and so much more.
We started off looking around the Command of the Oceans galleries that tell
the story of the dockyard as well as showing what life was like in the heyday of sail. We learnt that HMS Victory was built at Chatham Dockyard; last summer we had visited Portsmouth Dockyard and looked around the Victory so it was interesting seeing how it had been designed and built. The galleries were
really interesting and before we knew it an hour had gone by, it was time to see more of the dockyard.
Next stop was the RNLI Historic Lifeboat Collection and No 3 Slip, a huge space with over 400 windows in its roof. When it was built it was the largest wide-span timber building in Europe. I used to be a technical illustrator and author in the aircraft industry. The huge space, old bits of engineering and smell of oil (even through a face covering!) took me back 30 years and reminded me of the shop floor at work.
At this point we decided we needed refreshments so had a nice lunch and cuppa in the Mess Deck restaurant before heading into No 1 Smithery with its huge collection of artefacts, artwork and models. We were blown away by the number of models and the detail each had. The historic models showed how ships had been constructed and showed the development in design.
No 1 Smithery also houses a temporary exhibition gallery and when we visited it was showing ‘Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed’. The exhibition displayed tattoo artwork and artefacts, including a wall of 100 silicone arms that had been tattooed by leading UK artists. It was fascinating to see the different styles and how tattooing had developed over the centuries from Jolly Jack Tar to Neo Tribal.
Time was running away with us and we hadn’t seen even half of what was on offer at
the dockyard but it was time for our Call the Midwife tour, so we made our way over. We were soon joined by our tour guide dressed in a 1950s midwife uniform looking like she had just stepped off the show. She explained that the dockyard had been used as a location for many films and TV programmes including Les Misérables, Sherlock Holmes, The Golden Compass and of course Call the Midwife.
The tour took us around the dockyard with frequent stops to explain what scenes had been filmed where and how the set dressers had cleverly recreated 1950s Poplar. We could instantly recognise the different places.
The Christmas Special, showing the long winter of 1962 to 1963 when it started to snow on Christmas Eve and didn’t thaw until March, was filmed during a heatwave in July. The poor actors had to wear coats and jumpers in 34-degree heat. Because the dockyard is a historical site, only certain materials and paints can be used so the snow drifts and ice were made using polystyrene models dressed with tiny bits of paper that would wash harmlessly away. They kept the camera angles low so the trees around the dockyard wouldn’t be seen in full bloom.
Part of the tour included an exhibition with costumes and props from the show. My mum loved seeing the inside of Nonnatus House with the table laid for dinner and the mock-up of Dr Turner’s surgery. I was blown away by the toys that were used in the show, I
remember playing with similar ones as a child – I must be getting old!
Most of the filming took part around the ropery, a Georgian/Victorian building almost a quarter-of-a-mile long with a cobbled street running alongside; it was a very imposing and atmospheric place. The tour guide showed us where Chummy learnt to ride her bike, the front of the police station and the pub where Nurse Dyer had pulled pints.
We ended the tour in the Commissioner’s House garden, a beautiful Georgian building now used for weddings and functions. It was in the garden that Trixie ended her relationship with Christopher.
There was still much to see, but the dockyard was closing so we decided to head to the nearby shopping outlet for some food. Over pizza we all agreed the dockyard was worthy of another visit.
The following day we had a big decision to make; there was lots to see but limited time so we agreed to visit Rochester and put the Royal Engineers Museum, Great Lines Heritage Park, Fort Amherst and Upnor Castle on our ‘to do’ list for another visit. Rochester is well known for its Dickens links and hosts two Dickens festivals each year, one in June and another in December with people dressing up as Dickens characters. The pictures online looked amazing and the Visit Medway website has plenty of information about the Dickens events and the annual Sweeps Festival where
hundreds of sweeps from around England gather to celebrate May Day.
Rochester is a quaint mixture of medieval, Georgian and Victorian buildings with lots of interesting shops and cafés, many with Dickensian names and links. We particularly liked Tiny Tim’s Tea Rooms which does the most amazing afternoon tea.
One of the most impressive buildings in Rochester is Eastgate House, a beautiful Elizabethan listed building that has been used as a Victorian boarding school, a museum and was the inspiration for Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The Swiss chalet where Dickens wrote stands in the gardens, having been relocated from his home in Gad's Hill.
A slow amble up the high street brought us to Sweet Expectations, an olde-worlde sweet shop crammed with traditional jars. The aroma was amazing and took me back to my childhood when my 10p pocket money could buy a hefty bag of sweets.
Opposite Sweet Expectations we found Rochester Cathedral, and unlike a lot of cathedrals we have visited, it was free. Founded by St Justus as a place of worship in 604AD, Rochester is England’s second-oldest cathedral. Stepping through the Great West Door into the nave we could sense the history and centuries of worship.
We walked along the nave admiring the Norman architecture and stained-glass windows up to the stunning quire. It was interesting to see ancient graffiti, mostly ship images, carved into the pillars. It’s believed a shrine to St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors was in the nave, prompting many to carve images before setting sail. We followed the Pilgrim Steps, worn away by centuries of pilgrims up to the sanctuary, and enjoyed a few moments in this quiet place.
It’s worth mentioning Rochester Cathedral website has a virtual and audio tour narrated by Jools Holland.
We had a leisurely walk around the cathedral gardens before making our way up to Rochester Castle. This impressive and wellpreserved Norman castle, built in 1087, stands proudly on top of a hill overlooking Rochester and the River Medway and is reputed to be the tallest castle in England.
Three days after our tour, Amy had to call the midwife for real – welcome to the world, baby Madison Katelyn Jones!