Tuesday, 26 November 2013

WHAT THE DICKENS! ROCHESTER AND CHATHAM



The celebrated British writer Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, but he spent part of his childhood at 2 Ordnance Terrace in Chatham, adjacent to Rochester.  He later bought a house at Gad's Hill Place, Higham, between Gravesend and Rochester.  It is evident from his writing that Rochester and the surrounding area made quite an impression on him, in fact it features in a number of his works.  Both Chatham and Rochester make the most of their associations with Dickens.  Chatham is home to the Dickens World attraction, while Rochester has the Dickens Discovery Room in the Guildhall Museum and the Footsteps In Time guided walking tours conducted by costumed Dickens characters.  The best time of year for Dickens fans to visit Rochester is just before Christmas, when the Dickensian Christmas Festival takes place, and there is also a Christmas market at the castle.  There is another Dickens festival in the town in June.

Rochester Castle

One of Dickens' best known works is The Pickwick Papers, originally written as a serial for a publication, 19 issues in all.  The story centres around Mr Pickwick, founder of the Pickwick Club based in London, and three of his fellow Pickwickians, as they set off on a journey full of amusing adventures - or more often misadventures - encountering a whole sub-cast of eccentric characters along the way.  The action kicks off with a stay in Rochester, where they put up at the Bull Inn on the High Street.  The castle makes an immediate impression on the friends: one of them, Mr Snodgrass, declares it a "Magnificent ruin!", while Pickwick himself adds "What a study for an antiquarian!" Pickwick makes some observations on the character of the town, describing its "principle productions" as "soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers and dockyard men", while commercial activities include marine stores and the sale of "hard-bake, apples, flat-fish and oysters".  He also comments on the smell of tobacco in the streets: as a sign of how different attitudes to such things were in those days, he describes it as "exceedingly delicious to those who are extremely fond of smoking".  

View of the Medway from the castle

In one of the story's many comic episodes, one of Pickwick's friends, Mr Winkle, becomes the unwitting victim of a case of mistaken identity following an incident at a ball being held at The Bull, which very nearly results in him becoming involved in a duel.  Another hilarious episode takes place on a journey from the inn out to the country, in which the friends make a disastrous attempt at controlling a horse.  One of their outings from Rochester is a visit to Chatham to observe some military maneuvers put on for the public on The Lines, an open space neaer Chatham barracks.  The friends get into trouble again, this time finding themselves in the line of fire by standing in the wrong place.  Dickens' affection for Rochester shows through in a contemplative scene in which Pickwick is standing on Rochester Bridge admiring the river scene.  There is a vivid description of the castle on the left with "the ruined wall, broken in many places", while the banks of the Medway are "covered with corn-fields and pastures, with here and there a windmill". 

The castle still makes an impressive sight today, as does the Cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  The inn featured in The Pickwick Papers (and also in Great Expectations, where it was named the Blue Boar Inn) still stands on the High Street at nos 16-18.  It is now called the Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel - the name acquired the Victoria part following a stay by Queen Victoria, who allegedly complained about the uncomfortable bed she slept in.  The High Street retains quite a lot of its old world charm, with a pleasant mix of pubs, restaurants and independent shops occupying the period buildings.  One of these, an Elizabethan mansion called Eastgate House, featured in Dickens' final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  As for neighbouring Chatham, the other big draw besides Dickens World is the Chatham Historic Dockyard, where the construction of ships dates back to Tudor times and has encompassed both surface ships and submarines.  The site is now a major tourist attraction for visitors to the area.  

Side entrance to Eastgate House


For more information about the area see the Visit Medway website. 

Map of Rochester.

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