In search of Dickens

Published: Wednesday 15th Aug 2012

A great friend came to stay last weekend and we decided to follow in the footsteps of Charles Dickens. I had managed to get tickets to his final home, Gad's Hill at Higham, which was open to the public for a few days this summer, in honour of the great man's 200 birthday. As it is now a school the only other way to get to see it is to enroll one's child in the school at vast expense. Dickens lived in Chatham as a young child and on his frequent walks with his father had come to admire Gad's Hill and to dream of owning it one day. It must have been quite something to achieve such a childhood ambition. We started our trail at the house in Chatham where he lived from the age of 5 and evidently enjoyed his happiest years. His father worked at Chatham Dockyard and many of the sites that the young Charles encountered were to appear in many of his writings. The handsome Georgian terrace at Ordnance Terrace still stands but is not open to the public. From there we drove to Cooling Church where 13 pathetic children's graves were the inspiration for the 5 little graves of Pip's siblings in Great Expectations.

This is the graveyard where Pip first met the escaped convict, Magwitch. The Church itself has an unusual vestry decorated with shells and a lovely weather-vane with shell motif installed by Jools Holland who owns the nearby Cooling Castle. From Pip's Churchyard we headed for Gad's Hill for our 12.30 tour which was given by an expert on Dickens from the Dickens Museum in London. We were only allowed to see the ground floor and the grounds but there were some fascinating insights into Dickens's family life and his approach to writing. The Swiss Chalet, where he loved to escape and write undisturbed, has now been moved to the garden of Eastgate House in Rochester.

After a filling tea of scones and cup cakes in Dickens's conservatory, we set off for another Church, St Mary's in Higham where Charles's daughter Katey was married in 1860. A portrait of her painted by her second husband and now on display in the house showed her to be a great beauty.

Then we headed for Rochester for our final exploration. By the time we had parked and figured out where we wanted to go we realized we would never get to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham, let alone Dickens' World and certainly no possibility of a trip to Broadstairs. A quick visit to the Cathedral presented another chance to see the Jubilee portrait of the Queen assembled out of 5,000 photos submitted by the public (me included!), it really is a clever work of art and has generated a huge amount of interest wherever it appears. From there we went to The Guildhall, a magnificent 17th Century building housing a Museum and we sped through just catching the Dickens highlights.

Then to Eastgate House to admire the Swiss Chalet and then to Restoration House which is reputed to be the model for Miss Havisham's Satis House in Great Expectations. It is named Restoration House to mark the fact that Charles II stayed here on his way back from exile in France to be restored to the throne in 1660. Externally it is a stunning rambling redbrick building, step inside and be prepared to be amazed. This building was condemned by the local Council and was due to be demolished until rescued by Roy Hudd.

The present owners bought it as an empty shell and have had to undertake some mammoth restoration of the fabric of the house before beginning the process of furnishing and decorating the interior. It is really hard to believe that the house has not evolved over the centuries with all its astonishing contents - perfectly chosen pieces of antique furniture are complemented by wonderful paintings and tapestries as well as an extraordinary collection of historic china and ceramics.

It is a complete delight to intrude in this special place and we felt very privileged to be allowed in. After the house, come the gardens! Another fantastic treat! Unbelievable to have so much outdoor space in the centre of a city and it is so carefully designed. The owners have an amazing sense of history and inherent good taste combined with humour and you can only marvel at their generosity in sharing it with the general public. It is such an unexpected delight. After a glass of rose at a pavement cafe it was time to go home to my humble little home in Cranbrook. Happy 200th Birthday Charles, we enjoyed walking in your giant footprints!