2500 word article, Winner of Canada's ANTOR Award for Excellence in Travel Writing. (Pam's second annual ANTOR award).


By Pam Hobbs

"We know nothing in nature more delightful! There seems a

Magic in the very name of Christmas" - Charles Dickens, 1812-70

Charles Dickens so loved Christmas and the Kentish countryside where he lived as boy and man, it seems a pity he can't enjoy the annual Christmas festival that honours him here in Rochester, Kent. Then again, maybe he does, since his ghost is seen regularly in Rochester Castle's graveyard at Christmastime, and also checking its watch beneath the High Street's big old clock.

Last year's two-day Dickens Christmas Festival brought 80,000 visitors to this city (population approx. 25,000), fifty minutes by rail from central London. A good number came in Victorian attire or dressed as Dickens characters.

This year it is scheduled for December 4 and 5, and the author's great-great-great-grandson Gerald Dickens will be heading the candlelight parades, along with his wife and three children in Victorian costume. A suitably rotund former city councillor is the lead Mr Pickwick, although there are bound to be others. All the favourite Dickens characters will be represented, including some very enthusiastic Oliver Twists and Tiny Tims, chimney sweeps and rat catchers swinging bunches of toy rats. Anyone in costume can be in the parade. High Street shopkeepers will dress to period. There's to be carol singing and bell ringing, readings by Mr Dickens, and mulled cider served from street stalls. Cyclists on penny-farthing bikes and other entertainers of the era will be out in full force. The city even has snow- making machines to perfect the Christmas-card scene.

Charles Dickens was a familiar figure in l9th century Rochester. For the last 13 of his 58 years he lived nearby in a house called Gad's Hill Place. He would walk into town almost daily - watching, observing, studying everything and everyone he chose to immortalize in his writings. Rochester appears in The Uncommercial Traveller as Dullborough. It is Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and provides a backdrop for Great Expectations. Numerous buildings in and around its High Street have plaques attesting to Dickensian associations. More are listed in a guide available from the Visitor Centre, so you can easily locate Miss Haversham's home and Westgate House, Mr Pumblechook's shop and the rest.

Even in late September there's a Dickensian Christmas feel to this city, so old it pre-dates Roman times. Perhaps it's all the festival talk, or the unseasonably cool weather. Or maybe it's the genuinely historic character of a High Street crowded with timbered buildings, some in use today as they were three or four hundred years ago. There are few visible changes to pubs and restaurants since the days when Rochester was a popular stage-coach stop between Dover and London. Hospitable hosts welcome us with steak and kidney puddings and full roast lunches in cosy alcoves beside the fire. Antique stores display oddities I would love to buy for collectors on my Christmas list. I suppose there are video stores and an Indian take-away somewhere in town, but I don't see them, as damp blustery winds propel me past shoppers trundling wicker baskets on wheels. Instead I see characters ripe for Dickens' pen. The end of summer has brought them out wrapped in woolly hats and scarves, to meet with friends in the café-cum-cake shop where windows display sticky currant buns and cream-filled eclairs disrespectful of healthy diets.

My introduction to the Rochester Dickens knew is at Watts' Charity, also known as The Six Poor Travellers' House. A mischievous little boy pressed the door bell and ran away, just as I was reading an overhead inscription. "Well I suppose it's awfully tempting" the owner murmured when I explained I wasn't the one who had disturbed his rest. "We're shut at the moment, but come in from the wet anyway." In this timbered fourteenth-century building Richard Watts founded the charity in 1579 for "six poor travellers who not being rogues or proctors may receive gratis for one night lodging entertainment and fourpence each." You can see the six tiny rooms, three up, three down, which Dickens wrote about in a tale of Seven Poor Travellers in his Christmas stories.

The High Street's grandest building is the red-bricked four hundred years' old Eastgate House, a.k.a The Nun's House in Edwin Drood, Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers, and until recently The Charles Dickens Centre. Closed at this time, it is due to re-open next Spring as The Dickens Literary Centre exhibiting original manuscripts, first editions and memorabilia kept in storage until now. The author's chalet where he wrote most of his later work will remain in the grounds. This gift from his actor friend Charles Fechter arrived from Switzerland in 58 packing cases to be assembled at Dickens' Gad's Hill home. He loved the privacy of his work space in the chalet, and even had mirrors installed so he could watch butterflies flitting about in the shrubbery outside.

Following The Dickens Trail we pass the castle featured in Pickwick and Edwin Drood, and the small graveyard in its moat where the author wanted to be buried. To Dickens fans nearby Restoration House is where Mrs Haversham lived in Great Expectations, though to historians it is where Charles ll stayed in 1660 on his way to London after fifteen years of exile. Before leaving town we go out to Gad's Hill Place, a girls' school now, but as Dickens home it was the scene of rollicking Christmas festivities.

With frequent trains between Rochester and London's Victoria Station, early evening finds us in London's Bloomsbury district, so fashionable with l9th century writers and artists. When 24 yrs old Charles married Catherine Hogarth the couple lived in rooms at Holborn's Furnival's Inn. A year later, with the first of their ten children, they moved to Bloomsbury where their home at 48 Doughty Street has become The Dickens House Museum. For the next four days we too are lodged in this captivating neighbourhood, at a gem of a hotel called The Montague on the Gardens . Both the museum and The Montague have great plans for Christmas.