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