Dickens and Kent, KentThose who don't know the area may have no great expectations of this corner of North Kent, but it has fascinating historical associations, a surprising variety of landscapes, and of course many links with its most famous (adopted) son, Charles Dickens.
Dickens came to the area aged just five when his father, a minor clerk in the Admiralty, was moved to Chatham . The town's naval history can be experienced at the Chatham Historic Dockyard , an 80 acre site with attractions like the 400m long Ropery among almost 50 scheduled monuments. The Dickens family lived first at what is now 11, Ordnance Terrace, which is still in existence unlike the smaller dwelling they removed to when Dickens senior hit financial problems.
In Chatham too is a very modern take on Dickens tourism, Dickens World , perhaps a painless way to introduce children to one of our greatest authors.
Chatham features in The Pickwick Papers, as does Cobham, just west of Strood. Dickens developed a passion for walking from an early age, Cobham with its woods and Hall being one of the destinations he and his father would make for when time allowed. The lovely old pub in the village, The Leather Bottle, is lauded in Pickwick, and the writer's love for the place lasted a lifetime - he walked in the park of Cobham Hall on the day he died.
Charles Dickens was a writer of terrific range - low comedy, mystery, the realism of his grimmer novels - and he employed the diversity of Kent's landscape to great effect in his writing, perhaps nowhere more than in Great Expectations, the mysterious marshes around Cooling the perfect setting for Pip's first encounter with Magwitch. These same marshes provide a wonderful wetland habitat for migrant and native birds, a wildlife haven within a short drive of London.
Such was Dickens' love of the area that he chose to honeymoon there, in the pretty village of Chalk near Gravesend , after his wedding in 1836. A cottage that may be where Charles and his bride Kate stayed can be seen, a white weather-boarded building, as can the church he passed on his daily walks while visiting, doffing his hat to the gargoyle over the porch.
Gravesend itself provided Dickens with colour for scenes including David Copperfield seeing friends off as they emigrate; and Pip trying to help Magwitch escape overseas. William Clark's pier here, built in 1834 but recently revamped, is the oldest cast-iron example still extant, and would have been known to the author. So would another Gravesend landmark, New Fort Tavern, constructed half a century before Dickens was born, and improved by General Gordon in 1870, the year Dickens died.
Rochester presents us, as it did Dickens, with another contrast, an ancient town with a Norman Castle and Cathedral; the latter worked into the unfinished mystery of Edwin Drood. The Charles Dickens Centre can be found here at Eastgate House on the High Street, complete with the Swiss Chalet bolt-hole where he often wrote, brought from his home at Gadshill. The Elizabethan Eastgate House is worth seeing for itself, as certainly is Restoration House nearby, a building from the same era that was supposedly the inspiration for Satis House, creepy home of Miss Haversham.
It was on one of his childhood ambles with his father that in 1821 the boy Dickens fell in love with Gads Hill Place, a beautiful house on a hill at Higham between Gravesend and Strood. When fame and consequent fortune allowed Dickens purchased it, and the redbrick mansion was his home from 1856 until his death in 1870. It is now an independent school. The area around Higham remains very rural, giving us an idea of the country Dickens the boy and Dickens the lauded writer enjoyed so.
Dickens Country in and around the Medway, just like his work, is a thing of contrasts: ancient towns, docks, the seaside, marshes and the gentlest of English countryside settings. If you love his books you may enjoy it all the more, but even if you have never read a word he wrote it is a place that repays a visit.
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