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Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’


If ever I need a respite from the hubbub of Folkestone town centre, there is no better area to take cover in than The Bayle. Bordering the Harbour via the Parade Steps, the Creative Quarter by Bayle Street and Sandgate Road at the end of pretty Church Street, it provides a welcome haven of peace and quiet.

Just off the beaten track, it is largely undiscovered by all but locals.

Today, I am accessing it from the recently refurbished Parade Steps that run from Harbour Street, alongside Gillespies bar at the True Briton.

Folkestone has more than its share of crippling paths and stairways, not least the Metropole Steps and Zigzag Path that link the main beach from The Leas, but the hundred or more steps that need to be negotiated here match the most difficult. Their saving grace is that they do afford the intrepid climber fantastic views of the harbour and the Channel beyond when, as is essential, they pause for a breather at each level.

At the top you encounter not only Shangri-La, now discredited as a wartime German spy centre, but also fine multi-occupancy buildings like Blue Diamond House on Bayle Street.

Eschewing the Bail Steps, that lead back down to the Old High Street, I turn left at the friendly Guildhall pub onto The Bayle itself.  Within a hundred yards I come across the Bayle Pond Gardens, lovingly maintained by the residents’ association.

The pond is home to another of the Folkestone Artworks found scattered around the town. One of Tracey Emin’s collection of “baby things”, a bedraggled, brightly coloured mitten, is attached to the railings that encase the pond.

Properties, a mix of attractive brick and weatherboarded cottages and modern apartment blocks, are sought after and, as this recent house hunter can attest, relatively expensive.

Moreover, the significance of this part of town was recognised when number 5 Bayle Street was chosen to launch the fabulous Folkestone Living Advent Calendar programme on 1st December last and, fifteen days later, the Dance Easy / Folkestone Yoga studio at number 19 took its turn in the festivities.

In addition to the already mentioned Guildhall pub, this compact area also boasts Folkestone’s oldest watering hole, the British Lion, reputedly built no later than 1500, and Charles Dickens’s local when he stayed at nearby 3, Albion Villas.

Recovered remains from archaeological digs have revealed that the area was occupied in the late Iron Age and Roman periods, but it was not until the seventh century AD that Folkestone gained its most celebrated citizen.

The daughter of King Eadbald, St. Eanswythe, an intelligent, wilful and devout young woman, rejected numerous Anglo-Saxon suitors and opted for the religious life by establishing a small nunnery and dedicating herself and other women to prayer and service of the poor. On her death in 640, her tomb became the object of prayer and pilgrimage and her relics were sought after and venerated. She was made a saint almost immediately.

Standing between bare winter trees and amidst battered headstones, the current Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe, built upon a twelfth century original, is a lovely, tranquil space.

There are several routes in and out of the churchyard. My personal favourite is to walk through the internal gate, along the path (which starts on Priory Gardens) back to the War Memorial, taking in glorious views of the Channel above the rooftops of Marine Parade.

I’ll leave my favourite rock band (again) to encapsulate how I feel about The Bayle:

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart

You just gotta poke around.

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A biting breeze and thin drizzle denote December’s arrival as twilight descends on the narrow cobbled street that was once part of one of that prodigious walker, Charles Dickens’, favourite perambulations.

We are a long time from the heat of summer when Charivari, Folkestone’s own crazy carnival procession, had snaked up that old thoroughfare. Or the stones had groaned under the weight of red-laced “Doc” Martens, worn by pilgrims strutting towards the Grand Burstin or Gillespie’s Ska Bar for an afternoon of The Selecter, Prince Buster and Special Brew.

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I turn into the quiet street where old ghosts meet as it emerges, like an intermediate ski slope, from Rendezvous Street. I long for one last lingering look at the dazzling daily alchemy conjured up in Rowland’s Rock Shop, but its physical manifestation at least has long gone. The site is now occupied by The Great British Shop Ltd, an eclectic and attractive gift store which has the added class to have hung a photograph on its wall inside commemorating its much-loved former resident.

The aroma of craft beer emanating from Kipps’ Alehouse on the corner could never compete with the sickly sweet perfume that pervaded Rowland’s, where, along with other children (of all ages), I once gaped in awe at the long sticks of rock being concocted. A bag of broken rock pieces from here was always one of the highlights of my annual holiday in the town. It was often claimed that if Rowland’s were to shut its doors permanently, Folkestone would die. Thankfully, that prediction has been proved dramatically wrong, though many share my nostalgia for its heyday.

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In a predictable example of Pavlovian conditioning, I stumble into Steep Street Coffee House for tea and inspiration. Ordinarily, it might be a couple of hours before I could extract myself from here, but I want to experience the atmosphere in the harbour area before darkness fully takes hold.

The self-styled Folkestone Poet has vacated his customary sales point outside the Big Boys Fine Burger Co opposite, his heavy overcoat and leather balaclava no longer a match for the declining temperatures. I wonder whether there is anywhere he can comfortably ply his wares at this time of year.

The bitter cold slices through my flimsy jacket and hastens my progress down the hill, though not without stopping to inspect the crumbling stone steps that lead up to the Bayle, the Medieval heart of Folkestone.

Outside Bounce Vintage, the owner, spotting, or rather hearing, my battered old cowboy boots on the cobbles, accosts me and tries to interest me in an admittedly gorgeous two tone green pair. I decline his offer on the pathetically vain premise that my current pair represent the only thing I have in common with Johnny Depp, in that we wear them everywhere (well, almost everywhere).  Somehow, I suspect Johnny paid more than $50 – plus shipping and custom charges – for his.

I leave the Old High Street at Blooms 1/4, a sophisticated modern restaurant that is tonight’s venue for the second of the Folkestone Living Advent Calendar events organised by Jim Jam Arts for every night in December until Christmas Eve. I peer into the premises which look as cosy and inviting as it is possible to be.

But I must move on.

As I enter Harbour Street, I am overwhelmed by the looming presence of Parade House, better known today as Shangri-La, in the popular imagination the German Consulate and spy centre prior to World War I. This theory has been refuted by local historians and the German Embassy alike, but there is no denying, irrespective of the truth, that it is an imposing and eerie structure, with the cupola providing unsurpassable views of the harbour and Channel beyond.
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As I pass the Grand Burstin, another coach party, the combined age of whom must extend to several thousand, is being disgorged. On a gloomy afternoon like this, it is hard to understand why anyone would want to visit the town at this time of year. Perhaps the hotel’s dining, entertainment and competitive prices are the attractions.

I cross to the Harbour Arm where the only activity, apart from the odd ageing romantic shambling around the deserted car park, is restoration work on both the railway bridge and the recently erected scaffolding that was wrecked by last month’s Storm Angus. No more chicken gyros to be had at the Big Greek Bus, nor Kir Royale at the Lighthouse Champagne Bar, as they are firmly locked up for the winter. Even the derelict harbour railway station is now cordoned off again, suggestive of renovation work to follow.

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I walk through the low tunnel into the now closed fish market, tiptoeing my way around the puddles that congregate here. The occasional gull plods apologetically past, pining for Spring and the reopening of the seafood stalls on the Stade, where he can return to terrorising tourists for fish and chips and tubs of whelks.

Chummy’s, Bob’s, La’s, The Hatch, Shell Shop, Herbert’s and the Smokehouse restaurant are all now closed, leaving Rocksalt and Bob’s fresh fish shop the only, pricier, eating options. Even the pubs are empty, allowing the respective mine hosts to put up their final Christmas decorations without encumbrance from customers.  

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I don’t think I’ve seen so many boats in the outer harbour as today. To my untutored, landlubber eyes, I would estimate that the ratio of seaworthy to safe vessels would be no better than 50:50.

A large gathering of gulls wait patiently for the tide to turn and the resulting rich pickings to appear. They have several hours yet to endure.

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I pay a dutiful visit to the mermaid on the Sunny Sands rocks. Fading light and incessant mizzle cannot avert her gaze or disturb her poise.

I return to the Old High Street as the Christmas lights flutter into action. Most of the shops, if they opened at all during the day, have now closed their doors. The event outside Blooms 1/4 is only an hour away but the ugly weather, receding light and nagging memories, render my mood sombre rather than celebratory.

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The Old High Street echoes to the solitary sound of my cowboy boots as I set off for home.

But did I hear a childlike squeal and get a whiff of granulated sugar as I passed by the top?

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There are many reasons why I am grateful to have been born and educated in Rochester, notably the imposing castle keep, atmospheric cathedral and the close association with Charles Dickens.

The town also hosts a series of festivals and concerts throughout the year within its ancient high street and environs. Whilst the Dickens Festival, held on the weekend after the late May holiday is the oldest and biggest, it is the Sweeps Festival over the May Day weekend that I look forward to the most.

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For three days the town reverberates to the sound of accordions, bells, fiddles, clattering clogs and crunching sticks in one of the largest May Day celebrations in the UK.

But why sweeps?

Well, Dickens is again the inspiration for this extravaganza of music, dance and street theatre.  May Day was the one day’s holiday a year for chimney sweeps  or “boys” in Victorian England, and the novelist highlighted their plight.

The festivities actually begin earlier – at 5.32am on 1st May to be precise.  At the picnic site near Bluebell Hill, the principal road between Chatham / Rochester and Maidstone, the slumbering Jack-in-the-Green is brought back to life by sweeps, Morris Men and anyone else dedicated or foolhardy enough to rise at such an early hour.

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Back in Rochester, the narrow and sleepy high street stirs at around 11 o’clock each morning as shops and stall holders prepare their pitches against a backdrop of  Morris sides jingling into position for their first dance. Many of the pubs host live folk acts too. As you walk from one end of the street to the other you will hear snatches from every strand of the folk tradition.

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Already impassable to vehicular traffic, the street soon becomes clogged (pun intended) with human onlookers, some regular devotees but many others, local residents making their annual pilgrimage to gawp at the strange people from eight to eighty dressed in waistcoats adorned with badges, hats, handkerchiefs, bells and carrying the obligatory personalised beer mug (usually pewter).

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The 2014 Festival, blessed with the fine weather that can make or break such an outdoors event in spring in England, was the 35th since the tradition was revived. More than sixty “sides” from as far afield as Nottingham and Warwickshire performed the full gamut of Morris dances – Cotswold, Border, North West Clog and Black Face.

Kent was understandably well represented with, among others, festival favourites such as Bishop Gundulfs, Kits Coty and the Loose Women. Less traditional forms of dance, notably Gothic (the Screeming Banshees) and Sand (the Fabulous Fezheads), provided added spice.

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The entertainment was not confined to the crowded high street. The War Memorial was home to “Busker’s Corner” and stages behind the City Wall bar and on Boley Hill leading up to the Castle allowed further opportunities for singers. The car park adjacent to the castle moat was abuzz with enthusiasts trawling through the treasures in the record and musical instrument tents.

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The main stage in front of the Castle was permanently in use with a succession of folk acts, and the gardens contained a food, drink and lifestyle fair, children’s fun fair and a number of other craft marquees.

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Back in the high street again, the music – and the drinking – never stopped.

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And the dances – and fashion  – got weirder.

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It had barely been a fortnight since, empty and depressed, I’d left San Francisco. But there can have been few better tonics than a day at the Rochester Sweeps Festival, which was rounded off by a fine concert from the original English folk-rock band, Fairport Convention that evening at Chatham’s Central Theatre.

Moreover, it heralded the start of the English summer – light evenings, more festivals, cricket, seaside trips.

And even the prospect of some warm sunshine.

Now that’s not something San Francisco can guarantee is it?

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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.

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You may be familiar with Mr Jingle’s assessment of Kent in The Pickwick Papers: “Kent, sir – everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women”. Although the abundance of the first three may have been diminished in recent times (being a happily married man I could not possibly comment on the fourth), this still holds true to a great extent.

An alternative definition that I would subscribe to might be “coast, countryside and cricket”.  It is certainly a triumvirate of glories that make me a proud product of its soil. That pride has been rather dented over the summer months with the dismal displays, both on and off the pitch, of the county cricket club. The cradle of the game, home to some of its greatest ever players and with a tradition of playing cavalier cricket in front of large festival crowds in beautiful surroundings, now reduced to a laughing stock in the cricketing world.

Rising debts, the result of a succession of poor financial decisions, a stalled ground redevelopment programme at its Canterbury headquarters, poor communications with its members and supporters and woeful performances on the field leaving the team second bottom in the county championship, all combined to make the season one of the worst in the modern Club’s distinguished 141 year history.

And in the past few days, the coach and two of the senior batsmen have all departed, leaving the team desperately short of both numbers and experience. With doubts remaining too over whether the player of the season will get the new contract that he deserves, that situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But in the past week, I have sought solace in some of the county’s many other delights – country walks through the full to bursting apple orchards of haunted Pluckley and the beechwoods and meadows of handsome Harrietsham, a stroll among the bookshops in civilised Tunbridge Wells, and Kentish beer and seafood at the Broadstairs Food Festival, overlooking the packed beach of Viking Bay, basking in the baking October heat and looking like a scene out of the nineteen fifities.

Though I currently live in the “compost heap” of the “Garden of England”, I am no more than an hour and a half, by car, bus or train, from any of its attractions – the castles of Hever, Scotney, Leeds and Rochester, the gardens of Sissinghurst and Emmetts, splendid houses like Groombridge Place, Finchcocks and Knole and what J.M.W Turner called the “loveliest skies in Europe” along the Thanet coast. Throw in two world class animal parks dedicated to conservation, the White Cliffs of Dover, otherworldly Romney Marsh, the rolling North Downs and atmospheric Wealden woodland – the list goes on (my apologies to any favourites of yours that I have missed out).

I count myself lucky in having been born, educated and, after a brief but largely loveless affair with other parts of England, lived in this wonderful county. I’ve been equally fortunate to have grown up hearing and reading  of the exploits of Woolley, Ames and Freeman and watching Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood in their pomp.

But whilst the experience of the cricket, at least at the professional level, has sunk in the past couple of years, there are still those other two features, and much more, to fall back on in the coming months.

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