”And really”, added Mr Pickwick, after half an hour’s walking had brought them to the village, “really for a misanthrope’s choice, this is one of the prettiest and most desirable places of residence, I ever met with.”
In this opinion also, both Mr Winkle and Mr Snodgrass expressed their concurrence; and having been directed to the Leather Bottle, a clean and commodious village ale-house, the three travellers entered, and at once inquired for a gentleman of the name of Tupman.
“Show the gentlemen into the parlour, Tom,” said the landlady.
A stout country lad opened a door at the end of the passage, and the three friends entered a long, low-roofed room, furnished with a large number of high-backed leather-cushioned chairs, of fantastic shapes, and embellished with a great variety of old portraits and roughly-coloured prints of some antiquity. At the upper end of the room was a table, with a white cloth upon it, well covered with a roast fowl, bacon, ale, and et ceteras; and at the table sat Mr. Tupman, looking as unlike a man who had taken his leave of the world, as possible.’ The Pickwick Papers.
A few miles away from Dickens’s final home Gad’s Hill, the Leather Bottle in Cobham is a mediaeval timbered building described in The Pickwick Papers as ‘a clean and commodious village ale-house’. After the novelist’s death it became one of the more attractive landmarks of Kentish ‘Dickens Country’ or ‘Dickens Land’, the area associated with Dickens and his characters. From the 1880s onwards a number of guides promoted this topography to literary tourists, urging them by the early twentieth century to walk or cycle in the fresh air for the sake of their health while literally seeing what Dickens had seen before them. One landlord recalled ‘American captains slipping away from their ships as they lay at anchor at Gravesend would ask for “the room” and reverentially take off their hats in that trystying-place of literary pilgrims.’1
Writers of the Dickens Country often merged passages from the novels with the experience of visitors, encouraging them to suspend their disbelief and try to see Dickens’s characters as semi-real. Frederick Kitton is no exception, recording in 1905 that ‘The room in which Mr Tupman drowned his sorrows in the comfort afforded by a substantial meal remains practically the same to-day, with this difference, that the walls are covered with portraits, engravings, autograph letters, and other interesting items relating to the novelist and his writings – a veritable Dickens museum.’1
The Leather Bottle is still recognisable both from the description in The Pickwick Papers and from Kitton’s later account of it as a museum full of Dickensiana. Despite fears that a fire on Good Friday 1887 might have destroyed the Pickwick Room, the collection was preserved. To this day it includes numerous framed illustrations, engravings and ephemera such as cigarette cards that have now become heritage items in themselves. The plethora of artefacts on every wall create a sense of intimacy, and visitors may well feel that they have been invited to see a private collection assembled by a fellow ‘pilgrim’. Clearly the potential appeal of an old inn that can engage imaginative visitors with Dickens’s characters while also providing bodily refreshment has not been lost on proprietors from the late Victorian period to the present.
See also Mobile Landscapes
Leather Bottle - Scan by Philip V. Allingham
For more images of the Leather Bottle see dover-kent.com