Welcome to Dickens Land!
You’ll need a map because there are no signposts. There are witnesses of course, hundreds of them queueing up to tell you that they are the original Aunt Betsey, or Broadstairs fisherman, or Janet, or how sorry they are now for stealing that pie. They are not all to be trusted. And don’t be fooled by the first ‘Pickwick Pub’ or ‘Pip’s Inn’ you see. There are many places to stop and refresh yourself on the way. And you will need refreshments, this is going to be tiring work.
Of course at this point you don’t exactly know where you are, let alone where you are going. But if you are coming from London, Duncan Moul’s turn of the century suggestion seems reasonable enough, ‘At Gravesend we may be said to enter Dickens Land’1. Just be careful, there are dangerous waters here. Or perhaps you are coming the other way, from the sea? Broadstairs or Dover, it doesn’t matter – you don’t believe it yet, but they are the same place after all. When you get to Higham you will stop for tea, won’t you? Dickens will be waiting for you there. You just have to know how to look.
The adventure begins
The study where parts of David Copperfield were written. The view from the Swiss chalet where Dickens was working on the morning of his death. The churchyard where Pip first meets Magwitch. Since the nineteenth century readers in search of Dickens Land, sometimes called the Dickens Country, have been willingly beguiled by Kent’s associations both with the writer himself and with the characters who move across the county. The idea of reading familiar passages in the places where they are set holds out the elusive promise of new meaning, or at least a deeper connection with the books. But Victorian enthusiasts were immediately confronted with a dilemma – most of Dickens’s novels, including David Copperfield – are huge. No one wants to stomp round Canterbury on a hot day in search of Agnes Wickfield’s house, clutching an 800 page hardback. Once found there might be just the slightest temptation to hit her round the head with it.
Enter the literary tour guide – portable, readable and the inspiration for this account of our own peregrinations. From the 1880s onwards guides to Dickens’s Kent provided helpful advice on where to go, how to get there, and what to feel on arrival. The more enterprising, such as Robert Allbut’s 1886 Rambles in Dickens-Land, even included helpful extracts from the novels so that the literary pilgrim could orient themselves on arrival. But 150 years after Dickens’s death, what is it like to revisit these places, tracking both the author and his characters where he has told us we will find them, to read the books in the places where they are set? And what does it mean to engage in this apparently naïve activity with someone else who is also old enough to know better?
Much like authors William Hughes and Frederic Kitton, who visited Kent around 1890 looking for Dickens Land, we began with considerable enthusiasm, vague expectations and a delicious sense that we could ramble around the countryside pretending to be fictional characters and legitimately call it work.
In this frame of mind it was inevitable that we should see Dickens everywhere. And it is only fitting that comestibles should have featured prominently – he invented ‘the fat boy’, we did not. What we had not foreseen was how these forays would transform not us alone, but the landscape itself. Landladies and local officials, unimpressed toddlers and workers on the roads – all were co-opted into our imaginative panorama, flickering across the scene at the oddest moments. ‘Like something from Dickens’ became a key marker of approbation for our more eccentric encounters. And the places where these things befell us somehow became different, hyper real. No longer small country towns, but focused stage sets, where anything might happen. Leaving Rochester one autumn afternoon we finally got it.
Did the High Street look like this when we arrived this morning?
No, definitely different.
Thought so. What have we done to it?
Dickensed it of course.
What follows is our attempt to capture something of this experience, one autobiographical novel at a time. In the manner of Arthur Helliar’s 1924 guide to Broadstairs, it includes incidents that are ‘strange and curious’ as well as 'much unreliable information and many quaint conceits.’
What we are calling David Copperfield: a curated walk is more ambitious than anything we actually attempted. Which is why it takes David so many hundreds of pages to get through it. Walking from London to Kent might have been Dickens's idea of a good time. It had never been ours. So we took the softer option and began in Broadstairs.
We parked the car half a mile out of town to avoid the Pay and Display, trusted to memory for the name of the road and friendly locals to help us find it again. Then down those irresistible breakneck lanes to the sea, where we sat on a wall kicking our legs and talking about mermaids. Broadstairs is an ideal place to start a Dickens pilgrimage, in that there is just no getting away from him. The Albion Hotel, Bleak House (originally Fort House ), even a Dickens Museum There’s a reason the museum looks suspiciously like Aunt Betsey’s cottage (it’s meant to be in Dover, but who’s counting?) - but why a later owner reinvented Fort House as Bleak House, to commemorate a novel set in Hertfordshire, is anyone’s guess.
All three buildings are within sight of each other at Broadstairs, and of the sea where Dickens swam like ‘a kind of salmon-coloured porpoise’ in the late summer of 1843. We began – almost – with the museum. But there was something we had to do first. By all means try this at home, your child’s teacher will love you for it, for a start. But two adults standing in a gateway, one declaring to the other that he has ‘been slighted, and taught nothing, and thrown upon myself, and put to work not fit for me’ is not quite what that teacher means by ‘reading together’. Little wonder that Aunt Betsey stared in desperate silence as she was told that ‘I was robbed at first setting out, and have walked all the way, and have never slept in a bed since I began the journey.'1(Actually David, you came in a Citroen Picasso and you’ve graciously offered to take your aunt to lunch). But if she then ‘got up in a great hurry, collared me, and took me into the parlour’, getting further into character with a series of energetic pokes in the ribs, at least she wasn’t shouting ‘DONKEYS!’ and upsetting the neighbours.
The museum parlour is a complete reconstruction of the room where David is randomly dosed with a series of bottles from a corner cupboard - we have never been quite sure that we too did not taste ‘aniseed water, anchovy sauce, and salad dressing’. More disturbingly David is later made to confront the Murdstones in this small space, in which there is barely room for the three of them as well as his aunt and Mr Dick.
It is a far cry from the grandeur of Fort House, where Dickens wrote part of the novel and where he had Wilkie Collins and other friends to stay. When we went a chirpy billboard suggested that visitors should come in and see Dickens’s study and then recover from the emotion with a cream tea.
We had of course planned to have lunch at the Albion, but like Dickens when the hotel’s kitchen boy made off with the last of the cold chicken, we were thwarted by circumstances. And if we had not gone to Wyatt and Jones instead, we might never have thought to go for the pie (wrong novel but who cared), nor would we have met the man at the window table who sat and beamed like Dr Strong, almost certainly without seeing us. We got lost on the way back, of course we did. But we were still singing when we reached Canterbury.
Our next adventure began in the Canterbury Christ Church University library, where we had a date with the 12 volume Pilgrim edition of Dickens’s letters. A few minutes after the time appointed came a sound like the trademark tapping of Long John Silver’s stick, followed by the mysterious greeting, ‘Wasp. Way here. Leg.’
At this point the narrative is interrupted while a brief debate ensues:
I have wasp spray. Show me the place.
I’m not taking my trousers off.
Don’t be so wet.
We’re in the middle of a library, for [unprintable epithet] sake.
Spot which one of us went to boarding school as a child (bath nights Wednesday and Sunday, three at a time, one bar of soap. Since you ask). Silver resolves the issue by seizing the spray, then disappears for a few minutes and hobbles determinedly back. Narrative resumes.
The three flights of stairs proved to be an interesting challenge, but healthier than using the lift. The real problem was that the volumes of letters are extremely heavy - and did we mention there were twelve of them? Didn’t Dickens have anything else to do with his time? But it just so happens that he really, really liked Broadstairs. Lucky neither of us is writing a PhD on Canterbury (which barely gets a mention). Oh. Clearly it was time for lunch and further immersive research into pies.
Revived and reanimated (for one of us at least elderflower jelly would become a symbol of all that is worth having in this life) we set off to find Dr Strong’s house, which we knew was on Lady Wootton’s Green because we’d read it somewhere. Although clearly not in the 1928 Canterbury and Charles Dickens, which could have told us that the whole idea was ‘absurd’.
With hindsight, a recurring feature of these expeditions was our enthusiasm for engaging passersby in conversation, something in the manner of the ancient mariner. As a rule they treated us as harmless eccentrics, which made us feel more than ever like Aunt Betsey and Mr Dick. But on this occasion an old man kindly got off his bike and directed us immediately and with confidence to the very spot where Dr Strong’s dictionary took shape. We all stared in awe for a while, took it in turns to identify conclusive architectural features and pontificate – we had, surely we all felt this, been drawn together in a shared experience that we would not lightly forget. It only occurred to us some weeks later that we had no idea who it was we’d been talking to and no reason whatsoever to believe that we had been looking at the right house.
We felt on safer ground with the House of Agnes ‘bulging out’ over the (Old) Dover Road in the Westgate, just as David describes. Sadly we could only get in if we requested a room for the night, which seemed excessive. But we peered determinedly through the windows and fingered the door handle – Agnes, or at least her representatives, spend much time polishing a door handle much like this one, which removed any lingering vestige of doubt.
Buoyed by our success, we made our way back down the High Street, where it was clearly time to block the flow of tourists and school groups while reading a passage or two from the novel to anyone who wanted to listen. The weekday shoppers, not unused to street preaching, took no notice whatsoever. Exhausted by our efforts, we followed Mr Dick’s excellent example and took tea in the Abode Hotel.
(In which we don’t go to) Folkestone
Chaucer’s pilgrims, may we remind ourselves, never get anywhere near Canterbury. Jerome’s three men in a boat give up two days early and return by train. And while Dickens in full holiday mode could ‘still in reason walk any distance, jump over anything, and climb up anywhere’ as he smugly tells us in ‘Out of Town’ in the summer of 1855, we were not Dickens. We had navigated the maze that is Broadstairs, been assaulted by wasps in Canterbury and lived to tell the tale. We weren’t about to ruin it all by tripping over the admittedly picturesque but painfully steep, cobbled streets of Folkestone.
Our detractors may infer from this that there are no pie shops in the town. Untrue. But none of the novels is set here either, and even if we were infatuated enough to stand and stare at the windows of 3 Albion Villas while reading ‘Out of Town’ to each other, the idea of explaining ourselves to the current owner - and possibly the police - was enough to deter us from anything so rash. We could have gone to Dover instead to look for Aunt Betsey’s cottage. But probably the less said about that the better.
In Broadstairs a few weeks earlier it had all been straightforward enough. Betsey Trotwood’s cottage is in the wrong place (it is after all meant to be in Dover), but just about everywhere connected with the novel is clearly visible from everywhere else, and there is much to be said for that.
The day we went to find Pip Pirrip nothing was initially visible from anywhere. Finding Dickens’s local church when we weren’t actually looking felt like an achievement at the time, although with hindsight it just makes us look incompetent. In any case it was locked, so we wandered around outside for a few minutes, took a picture of a gargoyle and left.
But the real stumbling block was Joe Gargery’s forge. In our determination not to miss it we must have stopped at every plausible cottage in a five mile radius. Finally we found one called The Old Forge in Chalk, believed to be the village described in the book. There was no obvious place to park, and anyway it was raining. But we had come here to feel something, so we stashed the car a hundred yards down a narrow lane, marched back in single file and tried not to look like burglars as we stared wanly at the cladding on the walls and told each other it was typically Kentish. Pip arrives back at the forge from his encounter with Magwitch cold, damp and frightened. We were cold, damp and slightly inhibited by thinking what fools we’d feel if this turned out to be the wrong house.
And then the moment that somehow changed everything. Reading the first scene of the novel where it is meant to have happened, in the churchyard of Cooling Church. The church porch is small with a bench on each side. Imagine sitting on one of these benches, legs pulled up in front of you, leaning back towards the church. From here you can see straight ahead into the churchyard. There is the tomb stone, just a few feet away, where Magwitch hoists Pip and demands a file and wittles. Imagine that facing you on the other bench someone is sitting with a scuffed paperback copy of the novel, open at the first page. They are not in your line of vision but you know that they can see you. You want them to see you, to register this book being written on your face. There is more than one voice here, you can hear the roughness of the man assuming rights over a child he has never met; the diffidence of the boy as he introduces his parents, the names of the dead who stand witness and can do nothing. You want to help, but it’s too late, and you know what will happen next but there’s nothing you can do. And you know how it will end – a fading away, the closing of the book, and silence. That will be thank you. You’ll have to move, look at each other, but that’s ok, you’ve done this before. And then you’re running through the rain, towards the river.
This is the river down which Pip will row so desperately in his abortive attempt to smuggle Magwitch out of the country from Gravesend. We nearly ended up in it when the sat nav helpfully directed us to the Ship and Lobster via a small yard hemmed in by industrial buildings, and over a jetty. Convinced we had taken a wrong turning we reversed cautiously back out and down the back road by which we’d just arrived. For one moment it seemed that lunch was going to be a burger from a layby kiosk. But before we gave in it was worth approaching those men in luminous yellow – you did just address them as ‘mate’, didn’t you? – and asking if the pub was nearby. Some gesticulating, much nodding, a word that sounded like ‘mate’ repeated several times; by this point the driver feared she might be eating alone. (It’s an experience in itself observing a male bonding ritual and marvelling at how much mileage can seemingly be got out of this one word). And then we were moving slowly back in the direction of the yard.
Pies. We’d been opting for them consistently since Broadstairs. ‘I’m sorry to say I’ve eat your’ - by now it would have felt like treachery to order anything else. This one came with chips or alternatively, was it salad? The juke box was new since Magwitch’s day, the paint job possibly not. But the landlady herself had so clearly stepped out of (whichever Dickens novel you like) and our need of wittles was by this point so intense, that we were by no means inclined to be critical.
It was just as well we had refreshed ourselves, because what happened next could have been serious. Where we were was anyone’s guess, but the last words either of us can remember were:
Hurrah, a fjord – I love fjords!
And then we stalled right in the middle of it, on one of those bends that only the designers of narrow country lanes know how to dream up.
So I’m going to be spending the next twelve hours stuck in a car with you somewhere in the Medway?
Never mind that, does either of us have a toothbrush?
Nothing if not practical, that’s us.
The next half hour was spent in restrained disagreement over whether to rev the engine and risk flooding it, or sit in a foot of water playing gently with the accelerator from time to time to let the car ‘breathe’. The monotony of these discussions was broken up by a succession of motorists coming the other way. One by one they came alongside, wound down the window and asked if we were all right.
'We’ve stalled' we would explain on each occasion, at which point the other driver would say indignantly, 'Well there’s nothing I can do about it', and spray us with water as they disappeared down the hill.
The temporal gap between lunch at the Ship and Lobster and a substantial cream tea at the Leather Bottle in Cobham may seem to the reader inadequate. All we can suggest is that the reader gets stuck in a fjord for half an hour and sees how they like it. Besides, the Leather Bottle is a living museum of Dickensiana, from newspaper cuttings to cigarette cards. It would have been a crime to miss it out. Sitting at a corner table, listening to the chuckling of the teapot over china cups, while peering myopically over each other’s heads the better to read framed autographs and old advertisements — there was no need to say another word.
Great Expectations Part 2. Rochester
As so often in Dickens, Magwitch’s sousing in the River Medway carries overtones of baptism and renewal. Possibly also vial’s disease (the fjord incident could have been worse after all) and one of us had school on Monday.
So for our next foray we carefully avoided the river and set off in search of Estella via the 'Blue Boar' otherwise the Bull Inn.
Whenever he leaves the forge Pip is confronted with a choice between the marshy expanse of his childhood trauma and the claustrophobic world of Satis House (or to give it its real name, Restoration House where he submits to be tortured by the only woman he will ever love. Later he will shamefully opt for the Blue Boar on his visits from London, rather than stay with Joe at the forge.
We were forced to question his decision when – having assumed we would find the inn without effort – we found ourselves in a startlingly empty, neon blue and purple bar, trying not to notice the prevalence of cocktail umbrellas or to look each other in the eye. Immediately we found ourselves speaking in whispers, as if we had been kidnapped or inadvertently walked into the wrong meeting. Clearly this was never going to do, but we spent several minutes plotting our escape in a kind of semaphore (which was odd, as there were apparently no staff to be offended, and the door was wide open), before finally bolting back into the sunshine and agreeing never to speak of this again. The actual Blue Boar was of course shut, so we took refuge in a quaintly oak-beamed pub a few doors down, where a motherly woman, almost certainly descended from Joe and Biddy’s children, took one look at our still ashen faces and put some extra gravy on the pie.
Renewed and revitalised by this act of kindness, we were ready to infringe some dignity at work policies in the park opposite 'Satis' Restoration House.
‘He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!’
A child on the opposite bench clearly didn’t care what he called them and went on playing with a convenient oak leaf.
'And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!’
Pip detected guiltily looking at his feet. Distracted glance in our direction from mother of still indifferent child.
Meanwhile Estella, enjoying herself enormously by this stage, ‘denounced me for a stupid, clumsy labouring-boy’ while throwing in ‘a look of supreme aversion’ for good measure.
It was a dejected Pip – or it should have been – who subsequently found himself touring a life size model of a hulk with said Estella in the very Guildhall (now a museum ) where he would later be apprenticed to Joe. Notably he perked up sufficiently to make threatening comments at the whipping post on the way past. And the sudden appearance of the curator may have been entirely coincidental, but we were not wholly convinced that the museum was really due to close, as he firmly told us it was.
Back in the High Street it was clearly time for further refreshments. With only a cursory nod to the Swiss Chalet, now held in the garden of the Nun’s House (otherwise Eastgate House) beloved of Rosa Budd in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (as one email memorably put it around this time, ‘With a few minor exceptions, I would merrily strangle most Dickens heroines with my own hands’), we spotted a charming looking establishment, went through the door and straight into Estella. The real one this time. She was at least seven foot tall, immaculately turned out and quite determined that if she had to serve us at all, we were both going to have tea. Pip, who by this time had had about enough, calmly explained that while his friend was indeed having tea, he himself had endured as much abuse as he was going to take from a fictional character, and had in fact asked her for a glass of moët.
‘So what,’ she demanded in icy tones, ‘am I meant to do with this tea?’
‘Drink it yourself’ suggested Pip promptly.
Her expression as she poured it down the sink would have shaken anyone but a born teacher.
Gratifyingly we had a cool half hour in which to show that she didn’t scare us, before suddenly remembering the meter and making a less dignified exit than we might have chosen.
Technically it still had a minute to run when we saw the traffic warden, but this was no time to take risks.
Has she seen us?
Just put your foot down, that way, quick.
It’s a one way system, we’re not allowed to do this.
What do you think she’s going to do, chase us?
And then we got lost again, but at least Estella wasn’t there to see it.
Gad’s Hill: Journey’s End
Of course we’ll keep all the broken china we find in the garden and you can use it to build a house when you grow up.
Maybe there really is a secret tunnel in your bedroom cupboard.
If you work hard perhaps you will even live at Gad’s Hill one day.
If you really feel that your child is destined to become one of the country’s greatest writers, you might want to try the third of these. It worked for John Dickens, as his son Charles was the first to acknowledge. Anyone currently studying English GCSE at Gad’s Hill School, you may also be interested to learn that Dickens left formal education by the age of 15. He’s probably on your syllabus now. Funny how life works out.
It was October half term when we found ourselves gazing over the very lawn where Dickens was photographed reading to his daughters Mamie and Katey in the last few years of his life. And if he could do it…
To repeat. It was half term. The school was very much closed. Memories of an unfortunate encounter with a geography teacher when late for an outreach meeting and spotted climbing a fence. But still.
You’re a head teacher. If we’re caught that will make it all right.
No it won’t. It will make it worse.
I could stand on your shoulders and get over the wall.
No you couldn’t.
Teachers. When all’s said and done, they can’t resist a challenge. And so we…
Oh come on, you didn't think we - two respectable middle-aged people in broad daylight? We looked through the gate, was what we did. There were shadows on the lawn. And then we turned and like David Copperfield before us, made our way back towards the Dover Road.
Conclusion: in which we justify all this gadding about by insisting that it was serious work
So – as any teacher worth their salt would want to be assured – what did we actually learn from this experience? Well for one thing, that neither of us has missed our vocation in the car industry.
But we also started to understand that the Victorians read aloud to each other – much as we read to children today – for one very good reason. Shared reading promotes familial, friendship and even romantic bonds because it is extraordinarily intimate (no there isn’t a ‘Knew it!’ twist coming up, this isn’t Strictly Come Dancing). When one adult reads to another they are helping to recover a meaningful tradition with - so the latest research suggests - demonstrable benefits to wellbeing.3
To add to that, looking for the ‘original’ place known only from a novel – an activity that was until recently much derided by academics – can throw up exciting questions about the fictional world, even the nature of creativity itself. Sometimes the topography doesn’t match up but the symbolism does, as when Pip makes his stark choice between decency and status (village or town). Or the reading experience is intensified by seeing what a character sees – just try being alone with someone on an isolated marsh while they growl something about ripping out your liver. Really, there’s nothing quite like it.
Dickens is prone to moving places around; as a successful London author David tells us that he can ‘be’ in Dover again just by remembering it, ‘As I laid down my pen, a moment since, to think of it, the air from the sea came blowing in again’. But reading Dickens literally ‘in place’ is particularly rewarding, not least as an acute reminder of how environment becomes character in his novels. Again and again landscape is mobilised to trap, rescue or change characters. To walk through these places, book in hand, can make us feel closer to generations of Davids and Pips, to the friendly strangers of our own chance encounters, and maybe even to each other.
Carolyn talks to Katie Holdway about the research behind 'Mobile Landscapes' in a podcast for the Dickens Society here
Allbutt, R. (1886) Rambles in Dickens land
Helliar, A. (1924) A Most strange and curious guide to Broadstairs.
Hughes, W. (1893) A week's tramp in Dickens land, [first published 1891]
Kitton, F. (1925) The Dickens Country London: A. C. Black, [first published 1905]
Allbutt, R. (1886) Rambles in Dickens land ↩
'One that is more tiring than one might imagine, and requires regular support in the shape of pies.' ↩