England: In Dickens' footsteps

By Colin Hogg

A pint of ale in the great author's local pub, a visit to Miss Haversham's house and a tour of the city's most famous cemetery - Colin Hogg slips into the shoes of London's illustrious writer.

A patron sips his beer in the Ground Bar of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese at 145 Fleet St. The Victorian London of Charles Dickens can still be seen, touched and smelled in places such as this. Photo / Bloomberg News
A patron sips his beer in the Ground Bar of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese at 145 Fleet St. The Victorian London of Charles Dickens can still be seen, touched and smelled in places such as this. Photo / Bloomberg News

In January, 1847, Charles Dickens wrote he was feeling "very mouldy and dull. Hardly able to work. Disposed to go to New Zealand and start a magazine".

Just as well then that the great English novelist cheered up a bit. Many of his famous books were still ahead of him and it's hard to imagine them having the same impact set in Wellington or Auckland instead of London, the city Dickens both loved and loathed and called his "magic lantern".

The Museum of London is featuring a major exhibition celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the man they still insist is the greatest urban novelist, and they might be right.

The exhibition is a strangely gripping experience and a timely reminder that, two centuries on, the great writer does not appear to have a "best by" date. His mighty catalogue has never been out of print and remains a treasure trove for TV, film and stage producers. His book titles remain household phrases.

Amid the exhibition, which mixes high-tech atmospherics with artefacts, a fan might find it is the presence of a couple of Dickens' writing desks, scratched, battered and dulled with use, that provide its emotional heart. Elsewhere the exhibition is often a bit dark and scary - as London was in Dickens' day.

In the early and mid-1800s, for almost anyone but the thin upper crust of the wealthy, the city was a kind of hell where the air was thick and stinking and the poor and starving thought themselves lucky to find refuge in the workhouses.

These days, they say you're never more than three feet from a rat in London. In Dickens' day it was probably more like three inches and that rat would have been old and grey and horribly fearless.

As a reminder, there's rat poison set out in the hallways of the short-term apartment I'm renting in a handsome Gothic pile right across the road from the Bank of England in the City - a fitting base for my Dickensian exploration of London.

The City is the old square mile that was the original walled medieval London. Chunks of the wall now stand like wobbly monuments just a walk away. This is a part of London Dickens might still recognise. There are others - more than enough to provide a theme for a Dickensian tour.

If a tourist wasn't careful, the visiting spots might be mostly pubs. Dickens, like any man of his time, enjoyed a drink and there's no shortage of his old watering holes, some of which predated him by centuries.

The best of them is Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet St, where Dickens spent his early days as a parliamentary reporter.

"Rebuilt 1667" its sign says, placing it the year after the Great Fire. It's a bizarre, half-underground place of nooks and whiffy crannies. The beer - a pint of Samuel Smith's - is excellent and the crusty steak and kidney pie possibly the best in town.

After that, Dickens seems present in almost every old pub. He may not have made it his local, but Ye Olde Watling, in Watling St, also in the City, seems full of Dickensian characters.

There's Uriah Heep in the corner with his long face and the portly old man by the fire could be Pickwick, gobbling his pie with his one tooth, not eating his veges.

Down at Blackfriars Bridge, the muddy Thames is being pushed upstream by the tide. Near here was the blacking factory in which a 12-year-old Dickens was made to work after his father was put in debtors' prison.

At that time, there was no Embankment confining the river, which was then rank and stinking with human and factory waste and the occasional body. Now it's just murky.

Over in Covent Garden there's another Dickens must-see at Seven Dials. He was captivated by the area, which in his day was a notorious haunt of thugs and prostitutes. He wrote of standing where its seven roads meet, looking down its forbidding streets and noxious alleys.

These days it's another world - filled with trendy shops and coffee bars, enjoying an almost village-like atmosphere. But standing in the middle of the Dial, looking down the seven narrow streets, is still a slightly dizzying experience.

London's most famous cemetery, Highgate, is where Dickens' mother and father ended up, which provides a good reason to visit the monumental Victorian boneyard. There's an East and a West cemetery - the former open, for a small fee, to wander at will. Just inside the entrance is the grave of the great singer/guitarist Bert Jansch, who died only last year. Further in, you'll find Sir Ralph Richardson and Karl Marx.

Over in the West where the Dickens seniors lie, the bossy boots Friends of Highgate run things and whisk visitors around on hourly guided tours. Even on the trot, it's breathtakingly atmospheric, madly, crumblingly gothic. We don't see the old Dickenses, though. They're off the beaten track somewhere and visiting's not allowed.

Finding the remains of Charles himself is easier. He's in Westminster Abbey, a pricey treat at around $30, but unmissable.

On this damp day the abbey smells like an old sock, an unglamorous pong for the huge house of the famous dead. Wind your way past the crowds of statue-topped coffins and crypts to Poets' Corner and there he is, next to Handel and Kipling and just across from Dylan Thomas, Lord Byron and the great music hall comic Max Wall.

Dickens didn't want to be buried here - which is a nice excuse for ending the Dickens tour by leaving London for another of his favourite places.

Rochester Cathedral smells of earth, especially down in the spooky crypt. It was here Dickens actually wanted to lie, but his pop star status moved Queen Victoria to rule he be buried in much grander company at Westminster.

Rochester is a custom-made day trip excursion from London on the Dickens trail. Just under 40 minutes from Victoria Station by train - Dickens' favourite mode of travel - it's a picture-perfect tiny cathedral city hugging the beautiful River Medway, impossibly ancient and offering the fairytale bonus of an 11th century ruined castle. And this after rolling through the green openness of Kent.

Rochester is almost a Dickens theme park. Turn right from the railway station and up the madly picturesque high street and there, on the left, is a white-timber building Dickens featured in both Great Expectations and his final and darkest novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is almost totally set in Rochester.

On the right, tucked behind a gloomy 16th century pile called Eastgate House, is the strangely cute Swiss chalet Dickens used as a writing room. He wrote his last words here and it was moved to Rochester from his last home, just out of town.

Up the hill, in Crow Lane, is the gem of the tour, the darkly charismatic Restoration House, which Dickens renamed Satis House, the home of the mad jilted bride Miss Haversham, in Great Expectations.

Dickens was observed three days before he died, standing across the road from Restoration House, "as if studying every brick", making it almost possible, even after all this time, to stand, briefly, in his shoes.

As if.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand connections to London start from $2771 (including fees and taxes), return via Asia. From London, you can get a return train trip (leaving from Victoria or Charing Cross) to Rochester for around $37.

What to do: Wander the Dickens locations yourself or join a tour like those listed on britishtours.com. Entry to the Museum of London is free, but the Dickens exhibition will cost $16.50.

Further information: See dickensworld.co.uk or visitrochester.com.

Colin Hogg travelled to London at his own expense.

- NZ Herald

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