What better way to spend the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens than to stroll the streets of the town in which he enjoyed both his formative years and the last 14 years of his life, and from which he drew the inspiration for many of his finest characters and works, including The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Rochester in Kent also happens to be the town in which I was born and educated, and remains no more than a 10 minute drive or train journey away. It is less than three days since the first snowfall of the winter, and whilst the relatively mild temperatures since have provoked a slow thaw, this morning had dawned bitterly cold and foggy.
But as I disembark from a London bound train at 7.50am, the sky is brightening and the sun is making a brave effort to combat the cold. Across the street the Medway Little Theatre’s production of The Inimitable Dickens all this week is the first indication of the connection between the area and our greatest novelist. But it was not always so.
When I attended Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School in what was then still a city (its status has subsequently been forfeited due to a shocking oversight by the local authority), the crucial impact of tourism on the local economy was not as well appreciated and, aside from the societies dedicated to celebrating his works, the relationship was little exploited.
Dickens based the fictional town of Cloisterham in his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, on Rochester and, as I turn into the high street this morning, I am minded that he wrote “So silent are the streets of Cloisterham”, and remarked also on its “oppressive respectability”. But a steady procession of pedestrians - commuters heading for the station in one direction and King’s School pupils shuffling towards the Cathedral precincts in the other – creates an impression of bustle.
As the bitter chill takes hold, I am gratified to see that the Rochester Coffee Company, a fine, modern cafe with art and TVs on its walls and comfortable leather sofas and chairs, is open. It currently stands opposite Eastgate House, ” a venerable brick edifice” built in the reign of the first Elizabeth. The owner explains to me that she is moving to larger premises opposite the War Memorial in the Cathedral precincts in a couple of weeks. It is heartening to learn that an independent coffee shop is doing so well.
I pass a municipal car park, skirted by a fragment of roman wall, the only remains of the school that was already over a century old when Dickens first walked this street with his father in 1817, and which had the pleasure of my company 150 years later. The presence of snow reminds me of my, depending on your point of view, most glorious, or nefarious, performance at school when I earned a Saturday morning detention, and instant hero status, for lobbing snowballs at the Latin teacher.
The Dickens influence is everywhere in the names of retail and refreshment outlets – Peggotty’s Parlour, Mrs Bumble’s Tea Rooms, Oliver’s Wine and Cocktail Bar, Topes Resturant, A Taste of Two Cities (Indian), Dickens House Wine Emporium, Copperfield’s (antiques), Pips of Rochester (greengrocers), Little Dorrit (retro clothing and accessories), Ebeneezers (gift shop) and Sweet Expectations. And I am sure I may have missed one or two.
One of Rochester’s great servants and benefactors is the splendidly named Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the Fleet and MP from 1695 until his death in 1707, but there is no reminder of that name as the dawn mist has now completely disappeared to reveal a brilliant, pale blue sky with a glaring if tepid sun. With so few people around this is the perfect time to wander around the environs of the Castle and Cathedral to take photographs.
It is difficult to take a bad picture of either of these magnificent buildings (though you may think differently). The Cathedral, second oldest in England (AD604), and the Norman keep have stared, sometimes smiled, at each other for more than a thousand years, and look at their loveliest in this light. King’s School preparatory boys, complete with matching grey blazers, shorts and boaters are being marched into the former for morning service, whilst their elder brethren amble into the array of school premises adjacent to it.
The Castle Gardens are deserted, apart from myself and a couple with a brown and white spaniel spraying snow everywhere in his excitement at being let loose. Walking back through The Vines I stop to admire Restoration House, inspiration for Miss Havisham’s Satis House in Great Expectations and the “finest pre-Civil War town house in England” according to Simon Jenkins.
A gloveless hour spent pointing the camera has removed virtually all feeling from my fingers, so it is time to warm up. A mid-morning pot of tea and toasted teacake are, therefore, taken in Peggoty’s Parlour, a traditional English tea rooms overlooking the High Street, with Dickens art on every wall. It doesn’t take long before I get into conversation with several other afficionados of the author on the benefits to the area of having such a famous son. I discover that one of them was the organiser of the inaugural Dickens Festival (when the town was still a city) in 1981.
The narrow high street is becoming busier as the morning wears on. My first sighting of a film crew occurs opposite the award-winning Visitor Centre where BBC South East Today is setting up. ITV Meridian is also here. Parties of animated French schoolchildren are being led around by guides in Dickensian costume. One is now standing outside the Six Poor Travellers’ House, the one with the “queer old door” that inspired one of Dickens’ shorter stories. Another group can be seen wriggling up Two Post Alley for a tour of the Cathedral and Castle Gardens.
A number of events are being held in the area to commemorate the bicentenary. Eastgate House is the venue for many of these, starting today at 11am with an exhibition on Dickens’ connections with Medway and a display of his autographs. In addition, merchandise – notebooks, pictures, keyrings and fridge magnets - can be purchased to pay for the restoration of the Swiss Chalet, where Dickens wrote his later novels. It was once domiciled in the grounds of Gad’s Hill, but now resides in the gardens of Eastgate House, though is in a state of disrepair. There is a raffle too for a lock of the writer’s hair and portrait.
After a short delay to accommodate BBC Radio Kent and other media groups, 50 of us are escorted up creaking stairs for a reading of the storming of the Bastille from A Tale of Two Cities. There are further readings during the week, including Wackford Squeers in full flow in Dotheboys Hall from Nicholas Nickleby, David’s journey to Dover to meet Aunt Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield and Pip’s first meeting with the convict, Magwitch, in Great Expectations.
Shortly after lunch at Tony Lorenzo’s (a cafe, unusually in this Dickens obsessed place, named after the owner rather than one of the author’s characters), the fast sinking temperature deters me from venturing into Chatham for “readings, anecdotes and memorials and the laying of flowers to remember members of the Dickens family” in St Mary’s Church in Chatham. And, after all, as the birthday boy said: “Every traveller has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it from his wandering”.
In conclusion, an understandably low key but civilised celebration for the great author in his spiritual home. But there will be many more events later in the year, notably at the ever-popular Dickens Festival, commemorating its own 32nd anniversary in June, and Dickensian Christmas at the beginning of December.