Posts Tagged ‘Rochester’

I know I must accept that you are gone,
But I will look for you in rain and snow,
Where pilgrims trod through Black Boy Alley,
Up Castle Hill and Minor Canon Row.

I still sense your warm breath upon my cheek
In College Yard, The Vines and Blue Boar Lane;
Each whispered female voice renders me weak,
And shock of dark brown hair inflames the pain.

Thick Medway mud mocks my unavailing search
And careless castle pigeons torment me,
But La Providence provides brief release
And no shortage of shops for books and tea.

I pass where Estella taunted poor Pip,
As bat and ball collide on King’s School field,
Reminder of what I loved most till you
Bowled me over and my devotion sealed.

I turn up Boley Hill by Northgate arch
For sanctuary under cool Catalpa tree,
Spreading its graceful arms on holy ground,
I sit down and let my mind roam free.

For one perfect moment I see your face,
Hear your voice, smell your hair and taste your mouth,
But it’s all a foolish afternoon dream
In cathedral doorway in Keats’ warm South.

When I wake, to adjoining gardens I go
Where sun shines bright and birds sing oh so sweet;
Yellow roses wave in warm, gentle breeze,
But there’s no one beside me on “our” seat.

I know I must accept that you are gone,
But I will look for you in rain and snow,
Where pilgrims trod through Black Boy Alley,
Up Boley Hill and Minor Canon Row.

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I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.


My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.


My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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Today I read that you had died.
Saw it by chance, in black and white;
After a short illness, it said,
Surrounded by loved ones, at night.

First news of you in fifty years,
No photographs nor word of yours
Had I received in all that time,
Discarded then, beloved no more.

Now I’ll never know the answers
To questions I have asked for years;
Could we have built a life together,
Endured, then blossomed through the tears?

Do you recall that dress you wore,
Long, black, sleek, shimmering and smart,
You shone a smile across the room
That burned and melted this boy’s heart?

Do you recall that Sunday lunch,
Thin pretext for our swelling love,
Before you led my hand upstairs
And laid me on your goatskin rug?

Where I first tasted a woman’s flesh,
Caressed with slow and tender touch;
As your new son slept in the hall,
We basked within each other’s clutch.

Four weeks we laid in that warm bed,
Rising to feed and change your child
When passion eased and left us spent,
We lay with him and smiled, and smiled.

Do you recall the plans we made,
To leave together, your young son too,
And live in blissful poverty,
On student grant, somehow make do.

But then they said that we were wrong,
That you were ill and I too young,
That we should never meet again
Or I would pay for what I’d done.

Do you recall that still we met
Three times on my planned visits home,
When we sat on our favourite bench,
And snatched kisses from too sweet gloom?

Do you recall thinking of me,
While raising kids and making good,
At social settings with my parents
With talk of me prohibited?

Through sloping fields, by muddy river,
Along the ancient cobbled street,
Courtyards, cafes and Cathedral,
For forty years I yearned to meet.

To see once more your lovely smile,
Across unheeding crowd you’d send,
But that can never happen now,
A second and more wretched end.

Today I read that you had died.
Saw it by chance, in black and white;
After a short illness, it said,
Surrounded by loved ones, at night.

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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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.




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


And the dances – and fashion  – got weirder.



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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My home county of Kent has long worn the accolade of the “Garden of England” lightly but it also boasts an enviable heritage, including many fine castles. Below are photographs and brief descriptions of some of the most celebrated.

There is only place to start – with the great twelfth century Norman keep in my home town of Rochester, beloved of Charles Dickens. Standing on the east bank of the River Medway, it was besieged four times during its first three hundred years, but has survived, if much changed and as a magnificent ruin, ever since. Open to the public all year round, its pigeon poop encrusted turrets offer outstanding views of the river and beyond.




Romantic Leeds Castle, described by the historian Lord Conway as the “loveliest castle in the world”, is approaching its nine hundreth anniversary, though the modern structure dates largely from the nineteenth century. More than half a million people visited the castle and its maze, aviary, grotto and golf course in 2010. As the third picture illustrates, all the public rooms are beautifully decorated for Christmas.




Tonbridge Castle, with its magnificent twin towered gatehouse, is another product of the Norman invasion, and whilst it might not attract the volume of visitors enjoyed by Leeds, it occupies a prominent position alongside the River Medway towards the northern end of the high street, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the attached public park .


The principal attractions of Sissinghurst  Castle are the stunning gardens created by novelist Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, in the nineteen thirties.  The adjoining buildings may not resemble everyone’s idea of the traditional castle (it was originally a mansion set within a working farm), but, along with the imposing prospect tower, the beautiful brickwork and hanging foliage are  a delight. 



My personal favourite is achingly beautiful Scotney Old Castle, whose ruins are the very essence of the dreamy fairytale English castle. Technically, Scotney Castle is the name of the “modern” house at the top of the gardens, but it is the older, smaller version,   complete with lily pad decorated moat, that entrances visitors.



These are but a few of the beautiful castles and manor houses that are dotted around the Kent countryside. I am conscious that, on this occasion, I have omitted the mighty “Gateway to England” at Dover, Anne Boleyn’s home at Hever and the neighbour on the coast at Deal and Walmer. And I haven’t started on Knole, Chartwell, Groombridge Place and Ightham Mote.

I can see this becoming a series in its own right.

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Anyone with the merest acquaintance with this blog will observe a strong bias towards the city of San Francisco in it. If the heading of “A Golden Gate State of Mind” and accompanying photograph did not immediately give it away, the preponderance of posts on the city certainly will.

So what, you ask, is the attraction of what San Francisco based Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “this far-out city on the left side of the world” to a cricket loving, warm beer drinking Englishman?

Well, that is a very good question (I do wish you hadn’t asked it).  It’s not sufficient to say it is because I “love” it.  After all, there are many things that I love – my wife, my father, my football team, my favourite rock band, skiing, fish and chips, and the BBC Breakfast presenter, Susanna Reid (I’d be grateful if you didn’t tell my wife about that one) – the list goes on.

But “love” – like “great” – is an overused – or rather over abused – word today. In fact, I may have proved this conclusively in the preceding paragraph. Everyone will have places that they “love”, whether it be Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New York or even Leysdown-on-Sea. Few of us would deny “loving” their favourite holiday haunts, particularly if they return to them time and again.

So I think you deserve a more substantial explanation than that. After all, it took me nearly 43 years to finally feast my hungry eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, even though I had venerated the city from afar for nearly three decades before that. So what do I find so special about it now?

Before I answer it – and I’m not prevaricating, honest – I think it is worth considering what it is about a place that makes us become attached to it. After all, isn’t it nothing more nor less than a collection of natural features and man-made buildings?

I suppose that many of us, including myself, claim that we “love” the place in which we were born and / or raised. It is this emotional attachment, linked to childhood memories, that, I believe, is the crucial factor here. And the acknowledgement of that attachment may not manifest itself without the aid of age and distance.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “there’s no place like home” may be cliches but they still have a sturdy ring of truth. James Joyce – that incomparable chronicler of place – could not, as he himself admitted, have written so profoundly or entertainingly about Dublin had he stayed there instead of leaving it to work and live in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.

My last post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/walking-with-our-mutual-friend/) conveys my affection for my own home town of Rochester in Kent, and an earlier one (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/to-my-home-county/) describes the pride I have in being a Man of Kent, a grateful product of its rich embrace of coast and countryside.

So our attachment to place begins, as with so many of our passions, with our childhood experiences.

But I digress. We’re not in Kent(as) anymore, Toto. You want to read about why I “love” San Francisco. Well, I presume you still do or you would have given up by now. So here goes.

I could cite the stunning beauty of the bay and its glittering “bracelet of bridges”, the gorgeous skies, the cute, clanking cable cars, the abundance of fresh seafood in its classy restaurants, the diversity of its music and theatre scene, the richness of its ethnic neighbourhoods, the thrilling exploits of the Giants and 49ers, and, of course, its renowned tolerance and reputation as a haven for the otherwise discarded and disaffected – all of these are part of it.

However, thousands of other visitors have been equally captivated by most, if not all, of these qualities. It is not for nothing that many leave their heart in San Francisco.  But their “love” is invariably on loan, perhaps until the next trip or another geographical gigolo snatches their affection. Mine is permanent, organic, forever.  

So what is it about this place that has lured this individual into spending what time he can’t reside in it dreaming and writing about it?  Why has this place gotten hold of my heart” where other cities I delight in visiting, such as Venice, Florence, Barcelona, Dublin and New York have not? And why, with relatively little time left, and  just as I am about to resolve to go somewhere else, does it sing its siren (or is that sea lion) songs to me, steering my boat back into the dock of the bay?

For much of my life it was a platonic, long distance affair.  It started with the Summer of Love (1967) when San Francisco snared the imagination of many people across the globe, including one 14 year old English schoolboy an entire continent and ocean away. Intrigued by the love and peace mantra, he was inspired by Scott McKenzie and the Flowerpot Men to commit fashion suicide by wearing paisley shirts and, on at least one occasion, flowers (almost certainly plastic) in his hair, to football matches that year – fortunately, it pre-dated the skinhead era or he may not have been given such an easy ride!

Three years later, the music of the Bay Area, in the form of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service began to fill my head. “Everyone’s favourite city” had become the epicentre of my cultural universe. However, another two and a half decades passed before I set foot on San Francisco’s ever shifting soil.

And, for me, Haight-Ashbury, from whence that dazzling music came, still represents, more than any other location in the city, MY San Francisco, and where I gravitate to on every trip, however short. Free concerts by the Dead on flat bed trucks in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park, tie-dye shirts and the pungent waft of marijuana smoke remain enduring images of that time.

And there is just enough of that atmosphere – at stores like Positively Haight Street, Haight-Ashbury T-shirts and Pipe Dreams, as well as Sami Sunchild’s Red Victorian (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/great-san-franciscan-characters-14-sami-sunchild/) – to keep me enthused as I saunter down Haight Street today.

That is not to say that other parts – the Tenderloin and Civic Center no less than the trendy neighbourhoods and tourist honeypots – are not equally “real” embodiments of the modern city, all too real some might say. Though I embrace them all, the Haight remains the heart of my San Franciscan experience. Its only failing is that it does not aford bay views!  Or does it? I really must check on my next trip!

Another earlier post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/my-san-francisco-top-ten/) summarises those parts of the city that captivate me most, so I will not bore you by repeating them here.

It’s not just the physical sights and sounds that appeal, but the literature (Armistead Maupin, Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Dashiel Hammett, Jack London) and history (the Barbary Coast, the earthquake and Great Fire, the cultural movements of the fifties and sixties) that fascinate me too.  And has there been a better chronicler of a city anywhere than Herb Caen(www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/great-san-franciscan-characters-6-herb-caen/), renowned columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle?

Indeed, it was Caen who wrote half a century ago in one of his many ruminations on what made a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

I like to think that I fit into Caen’s San Francisco “newcomer” category, though I’ll settle for being the “sophisticated tourist” who is “charmed and fascinated” by the city.

I have used the word “home” in a number of features on San Francisco, and that, I think, is the key here. That is not to say that it replaces the town in which I was born and raised – though, equally, it might – but rather that the city engenders those same feelings, not just of comfort and security but also of confidence and pride that allows me to engage with it on all levels. Venice and New York do not. Nor even does “dear, dirty Dublin”, despite my Irish ancestry.

Back where we started then.

And my wife and I have deliberately fostered this feeling in recent years where, by staying in apartments in different neighbourhoods – Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle, and for our upcoming (ninth) visit, Noe Valley – we aim to “live like locals”, whilst continuing to take in the traditional tourist sights too (our stays are still too short to omit them, even if we wanted to). It is another of San Francisco’s virtues that we can do both.

How many of us can say that anywhere, at least beyond the place in which we live, that we can call it “home”?

Do you have any place that exercises that same grip on you?

I’ll end with Herb Caen again:

thank God or Allah or whoever it was that blessed this small, special, annoying, irresistible place at the tip of a peninsula and the end of the world.

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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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It is November 21st and the preparations for Christmas are in full swing. Supermarket special offers vie with insurance companies for predominance in TV commercials.  Small children walking to nursery with their mothers can be heard singing “Jingle Bells” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” under their breath, though just loud enough to act, they think, as a subtle reminder to Mum.  The cable TV channel Movies 24, renamed Christmas 24 for the duration, is showing festive films throughout the day and night – with a two hour break between 6am and 8am for………….teleshopping! Christmas trees are also beginning to peer from behind curtains.

Much as I enjoy Christmas I have always tried to keep it at arms’ length, at least until the second week in December.  But the date upon which I am sucked into its tentacles has got earlier and earlier. I suppose Halloween now acts as the catalyst for a full scale assault on the holiday season, though the retail world, more desperate than ever to eke every penny out of customers grudgingly trying to resist such attempts, has been playing Christmas carols, Dean Martin, The Pogues and Kirsty McColl, not to mention that infernal Slade song, since mid-October.

So here I am – still a week of November to go and I am already wrapped up in Christmas (unlike the presents I haven’t even started to buy).

Unless we are devout Christians, and I certainly do not claim to be one, I suspect that our perceptions of the occasion vary over our lives.

My childhood Christmas mornings were spent opening the bulging sack of presents that my father, whom, out of loyalty, I had never exposed until now for his obvious mugging and impersonation of Santa, had lain at the bottom of my bed at between 1.30 and 2.00am (how do I know that when I was so obviously asleep at the time?).  At least I had the decency not to disturb my parents before 5am with the revelation of its contents.

After visiting several friends for drinks, we would walk to my paternal grandparents’ house for the traditional Christmas dinner, surrounded by assorted cousins, aunts and uncles, followed by party games, a “good old sing-song” and an elaborate tea comprising such Dickensian delicacies as pork pie and piccalilli.  Once the organisation of such a large event had become too much for them, their children rotated responsibility for accommodating fifteen, sometimes more, celebrants for three nights.  The women and children slept in the beds upstairs and the men sank onto any available floor space downstairs, where the evening’s drinking would be rounded off by the annual world farting championship (which a certain uncle won every year).  Joining the menfolk in this charming ritual became a rite of passage for the boys in the family.

Since leaving University thirty five years ago, the holiday season has, with the exceptions of one New Year in New York and a couple of years where bad weather grounded us, entailed a near six hundred mile round trip between the two events to ensure that both my and my girlfriend’s / wife’s parents were neither offended nor disappointed.  Inevitably, therefore, Christmases and New Years have taken on a familiar and staid pattern.  “Christmas is really for the kids” may be a cliché, but the presence of each succeeding generation of children does enliven the occasion and bring back warm memories of one’s own childhood.

But, in recent years, I have developed a growing affection for Christmas.  For a long time it was an enjoyable if routine experience, which the travelling did little to mollify.  Especially since my disenchantment with football, around which my Christmas diary had revolved, took hold, the lead up to the holiday season has become one long round of social events.

This year alone, I have already booked to see Cinderella, the first pantomime in the new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and English folk singer, Kate Rusby’s Christmas Concert at the Barbican Centre in London.  Both of these have become essential annual events.  In addition, we are attending the Christmas Evening Special at Hever Castle and Rochester’s annual Dickensian Christmas and linked German style Christmas market.  We may also be part of the congregation at the Rochester Cathedral Carol Service.  Several Christmas meals are also planned, and there will be the inevitable procession of  shopping excursions, including a visit to the new Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, close to the Olympic Stadium.

And then there’s the Christmas CDs which have been stuffed away in my wardrobe for the past eleven months.  They will need a dusting before my favourite songs are reloaded once again on my iPod to enable me to create the playlists that act as the soundtrack to the “big day”.

The DVD collection will also get an airing with assorted versions of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street being essential viewing.  Purporting to have a literary disposition, it might be expected that I would cite It’s A Wonderful Life as the ultimate Christmas movie, but I’m sorry to disappoint you – Bad Santa and Elf take pride of place in my collection!

Which brings me to a question that preoccupies me a lot these days – whether my shifting interests and attitudes on this subject, or any other for that matter, are, in any respect, attributable to the ageing process or not.  I have no idea what the answer is. My political views, musical tastes and sporting allegiances remain broadly the same as when I was younger, although they have been subject to some fine shading with the passage of time.  I dare say this phenomenon has attracted scientists who will have theories for it.  Perhaps it will, one day, be the subject of another blog post.

The connection to the Christian dimension of Christmas is a particularly interesting one.  Although I was brought up as a Church of England Christian, and was presented with a bible for 100% attendance at Sunday School when I was nine, any faith that my parents might have gently encouraged me to adopt, has long disappeared.  And I have never been one, unlike my father, to bellow out a carol or hymn – in fact I was only selected for the school choir and placed in the front row because I was a champion mimer.  But, long after those days in primary school when I would sit cross-legged singing (my talent for miming had not been discovered yet) Away in a Manger and Rocking, I remain genuinely touched by the music in particular.  It has the same emotional impact upon me as listening to a reading of the 400 year old King James version of the Bible. I am sure that I am far from alone in harbouring such contradictions.  

So I’m looking forward to Christmas – the social and theatrical events, my father round for dinner and, yes, the travelling to the in-laws for New Year.

But I will not be able to suppress an irritated groan when I hear that damned Slade record for the first time.

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