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“A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful, with the lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air.”
These were among the last words the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens would ever write, from his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The city he describes is Rochester, which he loved as a boy and returned to again as the world’s most famous author.
That’s easy to understand. Even today there is much to lure the visitor to return.
From Copperfield to the Curiosity Shop, Scrooge to Bill Sykes, Charles Dickens and his characters seem most at home in London. But if anywhere was home to the famed novelist, it was the old maritime towns of the broad Medway estuary in Kent. His father, John, brought the family here to Chatham in 1817, when the elder Dickens came as a clerk in the Naval Pay Office for the famed Royal Dockyards.
‘VISUALIZE HERE THE SCENES OF DICKENS’ LIFE AND NOVELS—THE GHOSTS BEHIND THE FAÇADE’
In long rural walks with his father, Dickens explored the towns, countryside and marshes of the estuary where the Medway joins the Thames as they broaden into the sea. Famously on these walks, Dickens coveted the brick Georgian house known as Gad’s Hill Place on Gravesend Road. Years later—in 1856—he bought it, returning to spend the last 14 years of his life there.
In the intervening years, Charles Dickens became the most celebrated writer of his day, interweaving scenes and people he’d known here as a boy into his short stories and novels. As with only a few of the great English novelists (perhaps Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence), one can visualize here the scenes of Dickens’ life and novels, and glimpse the ghosts behind the façade of contemporary life.
If maritime Chatham does the industrial heavy lifting in the Medway estuary, it is ancient Rochester that adds old-English style. The ruins of Rochester Castle and its huge Norman keep look down over Rochester Cathedral (the second oldest in the country) and a cobbled High Street laid out in early medieval days. A plaque in the grassy castle moat says Dickens wished to be buried here. Rochester Cathedral is a principal setting for Edwin Drood, which Dickens was working on at the time of his death.
Rochester and Chatham have long played up their celebrity association with Dickens. Along Rochester’s ancient High Street there is barely a shop, pub or eating place that doesn’t play on a Dickensian theme in its name, décor or marketing.
Twice a year, Rochester’s High Street is given over entirely to its Victorian past during Dickens festivals. The first weekend in June, Rochester’s Dickens Festival sees local residents, shopkeepers and enthusiastic visitors from around the world in high Victorian dress, parading to see and be seen along the historic street. The process is repeated at the Dickensian Christmas on the first weekend in December, culminating in a Victorian parade through town to sing carols outside Rochester Cathedral.
In addition to Edwin Drood, episodes of The Pickwick Papers and much of Great Expectations are set in Rochester. In fact, Rochester styles itself the “City of Great Expectations.” A great walking map, “In Dickens’ Footprints,” available at the centrally located tourist information center, makes Dickens’ Rochester easy to explore.
To add an exclamation point to the area’s Dickensian associations, a new indoor visitor attraction brings the writer to a multimedia generation. Opened last summer, Dickens World sits just across the Medway Tunnel from the old Chatham Dockyard. Though some would chill slightly at the description, the only fair way to characterize Dickens World is as an indoor theme park—the Great Expectations boat ride, the Haunted House of 1859, Fagin’s Den, Dotheby’s School (complete with mean Master), the Britannia 3-D Theatre and more. Dickensian characters walk the appropriately drab indoor streets and people the interactive, hightech world of Dickens’ Victorian London.
Every care was made in the development of Dickens World to make the whole visitor experience as accurate as possible to Dickens’ times and novels. The result is still a theme-park experience, but it is a fun visit; a memorable, if pricey, family attraction that might well spur a child’s interest in reading the stories that inspired such a cool place. Dickens World is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. throughout the year. You can check it out at www.dickensworld.co.uk.
In the nearby quiet village of Cobham, the old ivy-covered Leather Bottle pub proudly announces its appearance in The Pickwick Papers. Dickens used to hoist a few pints here himself. Just across the street, the modest parish church of St. Mary’s unceremoniously houses one of the finest collections of medieval brasses in the kingdom.
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Gad’s Hill Place, just down over the hill from Cobham in Higham, is currently a private school on the now busy A226. A plaque marks it as Dickens’ beloved habitation. The author used to drink beer at the Falstaff Inn across the street, too—or have it delivered to him.
North of Rochester lies the tidal marshland of the estuary leading to the Isle of Grain. At the crossroads village of Cooling, the old parish churchyard is where Pip discovered the convict Magwitch in the opening scene of Great Expectations. The melancholy row of infant graves became those of Pip’s brothers. They are as dramatic today as they were when Dickens walked here as a boy. From the ridge behind Cooling, there are impressive views over the grassy reaches of the Thames, and birds and waterfowl are everywhere.
It is not much farther afield to go along the A2 or busy M2 to Canterbury—about an hour’s drive or half that by train. Illustrious Canterbury Cathedral, of course, has been drawing pilgrims for a millennium. Dickens’ autobiographical hero, David Copperfield, spent schoolboy years here at King’s School. The pedestrian-friendly city center spreads out from the cathedral, with great shops, pubs, attractions and dining options.
Rochester and Chatham do a wonderful job promoting their visitor attractions. The Historic Dockyard at Chatham, where ships of the line were built for more than 300 years, is a magnificent maritime visit (www.thedockyard.co.uk). And both Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral would justly attract more attention if they were not overshadowed by the Dickens connections.
Lying just about an hour southeast of London, Rochester and Chatham make an efficient destination for a day trip by train or vehicle. The Medway Visitor Centre on Rochester’s High Street is a great place to start exploring the compact city center and its environs (www.medway.gov.uk/tourism).
Within a dozen miles or so lie Leeds Castle, Churchill’s Chartwell and the great National Trust properties of Knole and Ightham Mote. For those who want to explore the area more thoroughly, the modern Bridgewater Manor Hotel on the outskirts of Chatham makes a convenient base. There are several smaller, more modest options on Rochester’s High Street: the Gordon House, the King’s Head and the Royal Victoria & Bull hotels.
Just as Charles Dickens found great stories to tell here, so does every visitor who follows in his steps.
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