It was wet yesterday, so I decided to take my family to Rochester. The alternative was an indoor soft-play centre - the sort where several hundred children run around screaming while their parents sit drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.
I'm a big fan of drinking coffee and reading newspapers, but my visits to the horribly named "Monkey Bizness" never quite go according to plan and I usually end up having to sit in the soft-play area, trying to dodge a succession of overweight children with poor motor skills. Even worse, while these children's parents are enjoying coffee and croissants, as the one grown-up present, I end up attracting a string of hangers-on.
I remember one occasion when a boy and his two younger sisters decided to adopt me as a surrogate parent and wouldn't leave me alone. "Look at me. I can jump!" said the boy for the ninth time, as he leapt from a 15-inch high cube. I wanted to say "Go away, child. That's boring enough when my own children do it and I love them. I don't love you and I want to read my paper, so shove off ." But instead I just smiled benignly and made encouraging noises.
I must have been with these children for the best part of an hour before their mother finally appeared and when she did, all I received was a suspicious glare that said, "And why are you talking to my children?". Sadly, I hadn't perfected a return glare that could have reminded her that whilst she was enjoying her Daily Mail and latte (which she would have called a lar-tay), I was working as an unpaid childminder, being bored to death by her children.
To add insult to injury, in the seven seconds it took for me to put my belongings in a bag, my youngest son managed to escape from a supposedly baby-proof enclosure and merge into a crowd of 300 people. The ten minutes it took to find him were among the longest in my life.
So that's why soft-play centres are out.
Rochester, on the other hand, has a medieval castle, a very good museum with free entry and lots of hands-on exhibits, plus a cathedral with some fairly spooky cloisters. That might sound terribly worthy, but boredom is good for children.
Given the choice, my sons would always choose to visit a theme park or zoo, but in the slightly more austere surroundings of a ruined castle, they often end up having more fun, using their imaginations rather than being spoon-fed a succession of experiences.
Officially a city, Rochester is, in reality, a tiny enclave of olde England, sandwiched between two towns of unremitting ugliness. Rochester likes to trade on its Charles Dickens connection. Many of the shops, like Pip's Bakery, alude to Dickens and even the local Indian restaurant is called "A Taste of Two Cities", but the Dickensian atmosphere is slightly ruined by the constant roar of traffic thundering to and from neighbouring Chatham.
There is no discernible boundary between Rochester and Chatham from the air, but on the ground it is quite a different matter. One minute you are walking past genteel restaurants and half-timbered houses, the next, you are surrounded by people in hoodies with the tell-tale rodent-like faces of foetal-alcohol syndrome. The sudden change reminded me of the time I unwittingly entered the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.
There were some strange shops in Rochester, including a charity shop called "Hospices of Hope" (I thought that hospices were where you went when all hope was lost) and an art gallery, which, in addition to the usual insipid landscapes, had pictures by Banksy for sale:
Are these official Banksys? A few years ago, it would have been a typically subversive gesture of Banksy to place his art alongside paintings of country cottages and sailing ships. Has he completely sold out? On the strength of this encounter, perhaps we can now expect to see limited-edition prints on sale in the Mail on Sunday?
The museum was a success, mainly thanks to an exhibit which allowed my sons to control the local CCTV cameras and spy on the locals. The zoom function had a scarily good resolution, to the point where I felt like a rather unsavoury voyeur. Never again will I confidently perform dance moves from West Side Story in empty car parks.
After the museum we tried to visit the cathedral, but our route was blocked by a military parade. Apparently it was the 150th annivesary of the Kent Cadets and I overheard a steward saying that there were several V.V.I.Ps present. Here they are, applauding the cadets:
I don't know why these people were classified as very very important people, but I was very taken with the moustache of the gentleman in the middle:
Although I prefer to be clean-shaven, I do enjoy facial hair in other people, male or female. I remember a woman in Richmond who, in addition to wearing a striking leopardskin coat and bright red lipstick, sported a fine black beard. As fashion statements go, she made Vivienne Westwood look like Iris Murdoch.
A service of thanksgiving was about to begin and the cadets filed into Rochester Cathedral, watched impassively by this weathered figure:
There was something both very poignant and slightly absurd about the sight of hundreds of teenagers in military uniform, marching past a small group of World War Two veterans into a 900-year-old cathedral. Tradition and continuity. A century ago, it would have been all too easy to feel unmitigated pride and admiration at a sight like this, but that was before the Somme took away people's innocence.
Everyone slept on the drive home - was Rochester that enervating? I listened to a review of David Mitchell's new novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" and was disappointed to hear mostly negative comments. I shall have to wait for John Self to review it. Two of the best books I've read this year were recommended on the Asylum blog and I'm not surprised that John's status as a reviewer has grown to the point where he's now quoted in the Sunday Times.
As we reached Lewes, my wife dutifully said, "Let's thank Dad for a lovely day." I heard muted, half-hearted responses from the back. Later, my oldest son said "It wasn't that interesting. In fact it was quite boring. Next Saturday, please don't try and find any other places to go to, because Rochester was rubbish."