On the trail of Charles Dickens in the South-East

By Culture24 Staff | 20 July 2010
a photo of a Regency terrace

(Above) Portsmouth's Dickens Birthplace Museum, where Dickens lived for the first three years of his life

In search of an icon: A Charles Dickens trail

Pompey beginnings

Portsmouth may be a place more readily associated with maritime heroics than literary geniuses, but it has the Navy to thank for being the birthplace of one of the greatest English storytellers ever to put quill to ink.

John Dickens arrived in Portsmouth after being transferred there by the Royal Navy, and his first son, Charles, was born there in 1812.

Twenty-five years before he was first noticed for Sketches by Boz, his collection of short pieces augmented by George Cruikshank's illustrations, Dickens was born in a modest house on the South coast city's Old Commercial Road. To this day, it's preserved in the Regency style in which John Dickens and his wife Elizabeth lived.

a photo of a man at a writing desk with a quill pen

Charles Dickens, photographed by George Herbert Watkins. Courtesy NPG

The Dickens Birthplace Museum has undergone significant restoration work along the way, and these days it remains popular with schools and public alike featuring a parlour, dining room and the bedroom where Dickens was born. There are also displays on the history of Portsmouth and snuffboxes, ink and paper knives which once belonged to the man himself.

Readings of his work take place on the first Sunday of each month until September (11am-3pm), and the most poignant piece the house contains is probably the couch where Dickens died in 1870, having suffered a stroke while trying to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

His final words were penned in his writing retreat, the ornamental Swiss Cottage in the grounds of Gad's Hill, a beautiful, imposing house in Gravesend where, as the tourist board has it, Charles's father once told him he might live if he were to be "very persevering and work very hard".

a black and white photograph of people stanidng in the entrance way

A group portrait in the porch at Gads Hill Place. HF Chorley, Kate Dickens, Mamie Dickens, Charles Dickens, CA Collins and Georgina Hogarth. Reproduced from The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911)

Dickens and Kent

By the time Dickens got to buy it, in 1856, he'd written The Adventures of Oliver Twist, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield and Bleak House among a shelf full of classics, so perhaps he deserved the home he longed for.

These days the famous former resident is more likely to be used as a figure of inspiration by teachers tutoring in the private school, which now occupies the Grade I listed building. But it's still viewable by appointment or for special occasions and festivals, and there have been rumblings about building a heritage centre there.

The Swiss Cottage has survived but is in a parlous state – currently residing in Rochester, tucked behind Eastgate Mansion on the High Street, the Dickens Fellowship is campaigning to raise £100,000 to restore and preserve it.

a photo of a Victorian street scene in a museum

The spooky Dickens World. Image © Oast House Archive

Staying in Kent, where most of Dickens' legacy lies, Dickens World is an altogether more polished testimony to his spirit.

It has a haunted house from 1829 full of wraithlike characters from his novels, the ghosts of Victorians which float up staircases, boat rides, 4D theatres and animatronics displays.

You can find yourself being lectured by stern schoolmasters or entertained by mimes, so it's a particularly good option for giving children an introduction to the worlds Dickens imagined.

Just a spit away from Dickens World, Dickens spent four years (from 1817) at 2 Ordnance Terrace in Chatham. Despite being ostensibly unimpressive compared to some of his more glamorous dwellings, it remains well worth a look if only for its proximity to Chatham Railway Station.

You can see the plaque on the house from Platform 1, or walk 50 yards and turn right along the Terrace to see it, although it’s been renumbered since its days as number 2.

a photo of a terrace of large houses

Dickens' former home at Ordnance Terrace. Image © Clem Rutter

While Dickens was living at Ordnance Terrace, his father was working in a cashiers' office at Chatham Historic Dockyard, which is always good value for a visit.

In the 1800s it was transformed into a mechanised and industrialised dockyard fitting of the Victorian Navy, and today its buildings offer a favourite location for film directors in search of an authentic backdrop - including an adaptation of Dickens' Christmas Carol.

Perhaps the man himself drew inspiration from the Dockyard's No 1 Smithery, the steam powered Saw Mill or the steam engine house at the South Dock Pumping Station? It is said the Dockyard was the inspiration for scenes in A Tale of Two Cities and for those in search of a full unabashed description of the Docks, a read ofThe Uncommercial Traveller offers a rich reward.

Dickens also used to live nearby in a house since replaced by The Pentagon Centre, a set of shops at the bottom of Chatham Hill, but that may be better viewed from the vantage point of a car window on the way to the wonderfully Dickensian town of Rochester.

a photo of a 16th century country house

© Restoration House

Dickensian Rochester

One of the most popular destinations in Rochester is Restoration House, a pre-Civil War Town House which inspired Dickens to create Satis House, the crumbling and cobweb-strewn pile where Miss Havisham entertained and beguiled Pip in Great Expectations.

The house is named after King Charles II, who stayed there on the eve of the Restoration in 1660, and it's a glorious late Medieval structure with immaculately-maintained walled gardens. The property is open on Thursdays and Fridays until September 24 2010 (10am-5pm).

After the house and gardens of Restoration House, avowed Dickensians will want to spend the day in Rochester exploring the town's many connections to the man and his novels. Sometimes it takes a bit of detective work, as Rochester is sometimes subtly disguised in many of his books such as The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations.

But unlike most English towns, Rochester has been almost untouched by modernisation, and many of the places Dickens visited are still recognisable, including the Castle and Cathedral so jauntily described by Mr Jingle in Pickwick Papers (1837).

Head along the High Street to the Six Poor Travellers House, a Tudor Almshouse founded by a local politician to provide free lodgings for poor travellers in an act of selflessness any backpacker would worship.

Dickens portrayed himself as one of the visitors welcomed by the house in The Seven Poor Travellers, his Christmas short story in 1854 which you can read at www.dickens-literature.com.

The travellers were given one night's stay, receiving a ration of half a pound of meat, a pound of bread and a pint of ale. The House, which boasts evocative Tudor period rooms and a herb garden, is open until October.

a photo of a Regency period municipal building

Rochester Guildhall - the fulcrum of a good day of Dickensian wandering in Rochester. Image © Rochester Guildhall

Dickens and Broadstairs

However no exploration of Dickens in the South East is complete without a visit to the wonderful seaside town of Broadstairs. Here Dickens holidayed for a period of 15 years from 1837 – often basing himself at the Royal Albion Hotel, which he reputedly chose because it served the best Hollands (Geneva Gin).

Avowed Dickensians in search of full immersion can stay in the very room where the great man penned some of his greates works - and presumably even treat themselves to a gin in the bar before bedtime.

Such was his affection for Broadstairs that Dickens went on to immortalise the seaside town and its many hostelries and pier in his affectionate essay, Our English Watering Hole.

Many of the hostelries (and some would say their clientele as well) haven't really changed since Dickens' time but the centrepiece of any visit to the quaint seaside town has to be Dickens House Museum.

a pen and ink drawing of an old three storey cottage

Dickens House Museum in Broadstairs. Image © Lee Ault

The Museum resides in the former home of Mary Pearson Strong, who Dickens met on one of his seaside jaunts. Among a town full of Dickensian characters Mary and her home became the inspiration for Miss Betsey Trotwood, David Copperfield's aunt.

Over the years Dickens and his son Charlie were regular visitors to Mary's humble cottage and its been a popular destination for Dickensians worldwide ever since. This evocative little museum that now occupies the Tudor/Jacobean cottage rewards visitors with intact period interiors and furniture together with an array of artefacts ranging from first editions and personal letters to the writing slope Dickens used on his 2nd great tour of America.

Among the many letters is one written by Charlie Dickens in which he vividly recalls enjoying many an afternoon at Mary's eating cakes and drinking tea with his father.

The house was bought by a family of Dickens devotees in 1919, who set about amassing a collection of Dickens memorabilia. They would be comforted to know it is now a Dickens hub that attracts visitors from all over the world and serves as a base for talks and lectures by members of the Dickens fellowship.

Dates for your Dickens diary: The festivals dedicated to Dickens

a photo of people dressed in Victorian clothes in the sea

Fun and fables at the annual Broadstairs Dickens Festival

The Broadstairs Dickens Festival: A festival in the Medway town Dickens regularly visited between 1837 and 1859, launched in 1937 when the owner of Dickens House convinced locals to dress up to publicise it. This year’s events included parties, performances, walks and fairs. Takes place in the third week of June, visit www.braodstairsdickensfestival.co.uk for details.

Rochester Dickensian Festival: Much-loved event in the town in the first weekend of December, featuring entertainment, readings, song and dance against the settings of Rochester Cathedral and Castle. Launched in 1988, it will take place on December 4 and 5 2010. Visit the festival website for full details.

More articles on Dickens and Kent:

Great Expectations of Dickens’ Kent from the Daily Mail.

Dickens’ Kent at Visit Kent

Dickens and Kent from information Britain

Dickens 2012 - the 200th anniversary of the birth of Britain's great novelist will be celebrated in 2012 with celebrations in the South East and beyond. Visit www.dickens2012.org for more information and to access an evolving online portal to the world of Charles Dickens.

2010 is Year of the Museum in the South East, discover a museum at www.culture24.org.uk/southeast and find out about the Beautiful South campaign at www.visitsoutheastengland.com.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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