“Kent,sir — everybody knows Kent — apples, cherries, hops and women”
Last week I spent two days back in the county of my birth – the country of Kent – and it was a wonderful time.
I was in The Garden of England for two reasons, the first of which was to give a talk to the Rochester and Chatham Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, of which I am President; and the second was to show Cindy Surgue, the Director of the Charles Dickens Museum, around the county most associated with my great great grandfather’s works.
I arrived in the city of Rochester on a blustery afternoon and met up with Cindy and her partner George in the heart of the High Street, ready to begin the first part of our tour.
At the start of Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Charles took the four members of The Pickwick Club out of London and into Rochester and many of the subsequent scenes feature buildings that still stand today (although Mr Snodgrass did not dine at the Indian restaurant called ‘A Taste of Two Cities).
Our first stop was on a narrow strip of pavement, abutting a busy road, in front of a dishevelled, peeling building which announced itself as The Conservative Club. A small plaque over the door bore a silhouette of the elderly (be-bearded) Dickens and told us that we were at the site of the Theatre Royal in Rochester.
Charles always loved the theatre and as a young boy, living in nearby Chatham, he would visit the Royal. He recorded his memories in The Uncommercial Traveller:
The Theatre was in existence, I found, on asking the fishmonger, who had a compact show of stock in his window, consisting of a sole and a quart of shrimps — and I resolved to comfort my mind by going to look at it. Richard the Third, in a very uncomfortable cloak, had first appeared to me there, and had made my heart leap with terror by backing up against the stage-box in which I was posted, while struggling for life against the virtuous Richmond. It was within those walls that I had learnt as from a page of English history, how that wicked King slept in war-time on a sofa much too short for him, and how fearfully his conscience troubled his boots…
Many wondrous secrets of Nature had I come to the knowledge of in that sanctuary: of which not the least terrific were, that the witches in Macbeth bore an awful resemblance to the Thanes and other proper inhabitants of Scotland; and that the good King Duncan couldn’t rest in his grave, but was constantly coming out of it and calling himself somebody else. To the Theatre, therefore, I repaired for consolation. But I found very little, for it was in a bad and declining way…
No, there was no comfort in the Theatre. It was mysteriously gone, like my own youth. Unlike my own youth, it might be coming back some day; but there was little promise of it’
And the Royal is still in the same state, sadly, with little prospect of ever being filled with the noise and gaiety of live performances again.
Our stroll took us back into the High Street and then left into Crow Lane, at the top of which is situated Restoration House, where Charles the II spent a night in 1660 on his way to London to be restored to the throne.
The house is a magnificent, brooding, red-bricked pile hiding behind a large iron gate and a small patch of garden and was well known to Dickens as he walked around Rochester:
Within a quarter of an hour we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred. There was a courtyard in front, and that was barred.
Restoration House became Satis House and would be the home of one of Dickens’ greatest creations.
We ambled through a green space known as The Vines and were soon in the precincts of the Norman cathedral featured so prominently in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. As we walked through Minor Canon Row (the fictitious home of the Reverend Crisparkle), it was wonderful to reflect that the City was an ancient one when Charles Dickens lived and worked there, and that the crumbling walls, the rotting wooden doors, the gnarled trees and the moss-covered roofs that we saw would have been just as familiar to him. In the time scale of the city the years that separates us from Dickens are but a minor blip.
The cathedral itself is the second oldest in England, after Canterbury, and is a magnificent specimen of Norman Architecture.
Overlooking the cathedral is the Normal Castle situated above the River Medway and overlooking the vital bridge which carries the main road from Dover to London (a road that we would revisit on the next day).
In The Pickwick Papers Mr Jingle describes the castle as: Ah! fine place, glorious pile–frowning walls–tottering arches–dark nooks–crumbling staircases–old cathedral too–earthy smell–pilgrims’ feet wore away the old steps–little Saxon doors–confessionals like money-takers’ boxes at theatres–queer customers those monks–popes, and lord treasurers, and all sorts of old fellows, with great red faces, and broken noses, turning up every day–buff jerkins too–match-locks–sarcophagus–fine place–old legends too–strange stories: capital’.
The Guildhall Museum in Rochester High Street houses a fine collection and Cindy, with her professional hat on, was particularly interested in how the various rooms were prepared. From prehistoric times, through Saxon, Medieval, Victorian and to the modern day each display was carefully presented to appeal to children, whilst not alienating the more historically-minded adult.
In the old, and lavishly gilded, council chamber a series of huge portraits hang high on the walls, looking down. It was in this room that young Pip received his indentures to be apprenticed to Joe Gargery, the blacksmith.
Having finished in the Guildhall we made our way back to our starting point but noticed as we walked that the Six Poor Travellers House was open. In 1579 local MP and philanthropist Richard Watts died, leaving in his will a provision for an almshouse to be made available to six poor travellers to stay in for a single night.
The house, which was 100 years old in 1579, still stands and a great sense of peace and kindness seem to emanate from the whitewashed walls. The bedrooms, although tiny and spartan, are warm and comforting, whilst the courtyard garden is carefully tended and on that sunny day felt like a place of meditation and reflection.
Dickens visited the house in 1854 and was inspired to write a Chauceresque account of the six gentlemen he found staying there. His story was called The Seven Poor Travellers (Dickens himself becoming the seventh).
As a minor footnote, Richard Watts lived in a grand house near to the castle, which is called Satis House, the name that Dickens attached to Restoration House in Great Expectations.
Our daytime rambles completed Cindy and George returned to their guesthouse, whilst I made my way to my hotel in order to prepare for the evening’s presentation.
The Rochester and Chatham Branch of the Dickens Fellowship
Ever since I became involved in the world of Dickens, back in 1993, I have had a close connection with the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Fellowship. My father had been President, and I took over from him as, with advancing years, he felt as if he could no longer give them as much time as he would have wanted.
The group is filled with enthusiastic Dickensians, who not only study and revere his works, but also love to take the message out into the community. No opportunity is missed to get into Victorian garb and perform readings. The group’s secretary, and driving force is Steve Martin, whilst the Chairman is Norman Munn, who dons a beard and portrays Charles himself when on show.
The June meeting was at the Brook Theatre in Chatham (just a short walk from young Charles’ childhood home). The Brook used to be the town hall and our meeting was held in the sombre surroundings of the wood panelled Mayor’s Parlour. There was a fabulous turnout, with many dear old friends there: hugs there were a plenty.
After a short introduction Norman handed the floor over to me and I read two memoirs: one written by Henry Fielding Dickens (my great grandfather), remembering life with his father Charles, and then a speech written by my father remembering his childhood Christmases with Henry. It is a programme that I have performed in America and gives a charming, gentle insight into the Dickens family, and links the generations back to the man who we all have to thank for bringing us together.
After my talk the meeting of the Branch was conducted in a suitably formal and Pickwickian manner. The recent activities of the branch included an appearance at the Senior World Fencing Championship, where many members featured in the opening ceremony in costume.
Eventually it was time to leave and everyone drifted away to their homes, guest houses and hotels.
A Day’s Drive in Kent
Friday was the day when Cindy, George and I would take a road trip from north to south Kent stopping along the way at various sites that are important in the Dickens story. Our drive started by leaving Rochester on Watling Street, the ancient Roman road that linked Dover to London and beyond. In modern parlance we were on the A2 but as we drive over across the Medway Bridge, guarded by the castle, it was impossible not to be aware of how strategically vital this thoroughfare has been throughout history.
The A2 took us uphill, away from Rochester to the summit of a hill: Gad’s Hill, and there we were able to get a glimpse of the red bricked house, with a white cupola on top.
“Bless you, sir,” said the very queer small boy, “when I was not more than half as old as nine, it used to be a treat for me to be brought to look at it. And now, I am nine, I come by myself to look at it. And ever since I can recollect, my father, seeing me so fond of it, has often said to me, ‘If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you might someday come to live in it.’
The young Dickens had greatly admired Gad’s Hill Place, and heeding his father’s words he did work hard and he was persevering. In 1856 he bought the house and would eventually die there in 1870.
We drove on towards Gravesend where, Cindy was astonished to learn, Pocahontas is buried. We turned off the main road and dropped down hill towards the marshes. Our drive took us through the small village of Chalk, where Dickens spent his honeymoon with Catherine, and also where the forge belonging to Joe Gargery in Great Expectations is believed to be situated.
The Kentish countryside was looking wonderful and it seemed as if every field and hedgerow was blossoming even as we watched. Great bunches of cow parsley dominated the roadsides, but there were plenty of buttercups lending a golden glow to the morning.
The traditional industry of Kent is agriculture, with fruit predominating and large orchards of apple trees lined our route. Further into the marshes we drove, leaving the villages and towns far behind us, until we finally reached St James’ Church, Cooling which stands proud overlooking the bleak, wild, low marshland.
This spot inspired one of the greatest opening passages in English literature:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
And there we were, in the overgrown churchyard looking down on the large gravestone, surrounded by tiny lozenge shaped child’s graves. But not five, as Dickens described, but thirteen – all victims of marsh fever.
As we looked at the church itself, we notice bees swarming around a crack in the stone, and birds flying beneath the eves to their nest. On the roof moss was growing and from that soft prehistoric carpet, tiny pink wildflowers were flourishing. It was as if the scenery was slowly repossessing the Church and taking it back to nature. Out of all the Dickens related places that I am fortunate enough to visit, this is one of my favourites.
From Cooling we drove back through the mashes, until we rejoined the main road and headed south towards Broadstairs. The drive took over an hour, so we talked of many things. As we passed the small Roman settlement of Reculver I mentioned to Cindy and George how keen I am on the Ian Fleming James Bond Novels (Goldfinger is partly set in Kent, and the villain’s smuggling operation is based at Reculver). We discuss who our favourite Bonds are, and then our favourite Doctor Whos (for the record – Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby, with Roger Moore bringing up the rear; as far as Doctor Who is concerned, I am a John Pertwee fan.)
Broadstairs itself is a respectable seaside town, which has managed to avoid the kiss-me-kwik, fish and chips, amusement arcade sprawl that has blighted so many others. Dickens spent many long happy summers there, staying in either the Albion Hotel or in a small house on the cliff, called Fort House. Of course thanks to Dickens’ notoriety the locals cashed in on his patronage many years ago, changing the name from Fort House to Bleak House.
We were there to meet Lee Ault in the wonderful Dickens House Museum situated in a tiny house overlooking the bay. I know the museum in Broadstairs well as I perform to a packed house each Summer (the drawing room which serves as my theatre only holds 35 people.)
The cottage in which the museum is housed was once the home of Mary Pearson who firmly believed in her right to prevent donkeys passing in front of her home. Charles knew Miss Pearson well and described both her house and her donkey habits in David Copperfield (although he moved her to Dover in the book giving her the name of Betsy Trotwood).
Although small, the Brodstairs Dickens House Museum holds an incredible collection and we all spent a happy hour or so poring over letters, pictures and artifacts. The great treat, however, came when Lee unlocked a cabinet and brought out the auction catalogues for the sale of Gad’s Hill Place and its contents.
A few things struck us as strange: the first sale of pictures and furniture was held on July 9, 1870 – exactly a month after Dickens had died. Why the rush? Were the Dickens family that desperately in need of the financial injection; did they need to strike whilst the Dickens name was still hot?
The auction of the house itself took place just another month on and the agent’s description of the house is extraordinary. Every line of text is in a different typeface as though someone were trying each one out before making a decision on which to use. The descriptions of each room are detailed and complete but make almost no mention of Dickens having lived there – wouldn’t you think that an agent trying to sell the house would push the Dickens connection as hard as he could? As it happens Charles’ eldest son Charley purchased the house and lived there for another 9 years.
After a quick lunch in The Albion Hotel we said goodbye to Lee and got back on the road driving to the largest City in Kent, Canterbury. Although there is no specific museum to Dickens in Canterbury, he did set a large part of David Copperfield there and John Ingram from the Fellowship was on hand to show us around.
The city is a beautiful one and any excuse to walk around it is to be welcomed, but our journey with John took us to all sorts of nooks and crannies searching out the possible and probable sites of the various houses mentioned in the book. We started in the cathedral precincts searching out the location of Doctor Strong’s Academy, based on the literary descriptions, before walking into the bustling city to track down the house of Agnes Wickfield, passing the possible lodging of Uriah Heep on the way.
John’s enthusiasm and knowledge was infectious and it was a pleasure to be in the company of a man so wrapped up in the world of Dickens.
Back at the cathedral our tour was over, and we shook hands and thanked John for his time and kindness. I drove Cindy and George back to Rochester station and bid them farewell as they headed back to London.
Kent had certainly put on a good show for me but the best memories from last week are of the wonderful people I was fortunate enough to be with: Cindy with a huge breadth of knowledge but so anxious to expand it and discover more; George in a seemingly permanent state of delighted astonishment at the things we were seeing, and determined to re-read the opening chapters of Great Expectations following our trip to Cooling; all the members of the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship who are brought together each month thanks to their love of my great great grandfather’s work, and who perpetuate his flamboyance and theatricality in all of their events; Lee Ault, and her husband Eddie, who run the museum in Broadstairs as a real labour of love and spread the word as widely as they are able; John with his enquiring and academic mind trying to discover Dickens in Canterbury.
Most of all however I spent the entire trip in the company of a very great man indeed: thank you Charles John Huffam Dickens.