DICKEN’S TOUR AT ROCHESTER
Having seen pictures of the Swiss Chalet which Dickens used as a writing room it looked an interesting place to visit and searching the internet I found there was a Dicken’s Tour run by the Museum in Rochester each year on the last few weekend’s before Christmas. A coach took visitors to several well known Dickens sites, and there was tour guide to give the background. This sounded ideal as it would save trying to get Thebus up lanes too narrow for him and into spaces to small, and phoning was told that although there was some walking it was not too far at each of the stops, so I booked up for the last one before Christmas, which was exactly a year to the day since I started on this journal.
As usual the day started early ( I think I may have to follow another diarist and write “up betimes” at the beginning of my journal entries, though I compare myself in no other ways!) So with Strict Lady programmed, and her new Chinese sidekick mumbling away as well we started. Strict Lady is set to inform me of any toll routes and I heard nothing from her or her new assistant regarding charges as we approached Dartford Crossing.
This is another bit where my lack of geographical knowledge plays against me. Now I have told you that I haven’t listened to the TV or radio since I was up in Shetland, and of course I never buy the papers, so I am not exactly up to date with what is going on in the world outside my own little part in it. I do get on the internet, and I knew something was happening with Dartford Tunnel tolls, though whether they were going up or being removed I had no idea, but in any case that did not concern me as I was headed for the Dartford Crossing - obviously something completely different! There were largish signs which in the dark with early morning rain, looked like something about Congestion Charge or Pollution Charge, its difficult to read long notices when you are merging into lanes of traffic on busy roads you have never used. But I wasn’t bothered. I was skirting the city, and I was running on LPG. Then suddenly we were approaching some barriers. Okay, I would just stop and give them some money, but when we reached the barrier there were no toll booths! Thinking I would just have to hold up the traffic behind me whilst I got out to find out what to do next the arm of the barrier lifted. Fine - they must have done away with the tolls, or being early I had avoided the charge. Wrong of course on every single count above. Though I didn’t find out till two days later, and am currently waiting to see if by paying late I have avoided the £70-£110 penalty for not paying a toll charge. Fortunately for me I casually mentioned it to someone and it turns out one now has to pay the toll upfront by card or within twenty four hours of using the tunnel or bridge (the two combined make up the Dartford Crossing). According to the Internet the tolls are now run by a French firm, so I think they will be making a fortune!
Still - onto Rochester.
When booking I had asked about parking, though the lady seemed vague but thought The Esplanade might be wide enough. Thinking a carpark would be a safer option I googled and found the only carpark in Rochester without a height barrier, other than the Coach Park which I was strictly forbidden from entering with the threat of another £70 fine.
Strict Lady, as usual fell at the last hurdle and took us to Tesco’s carpark, but her Chinese counterpart refused to even acknowledge that either the post code for the carpark or its actual address existed - so one-love to Strict Lady. I eventually found said carpark, but spitefully the council had now erected height barriers and I had to reverse quite a long way back down the narrow approach road to escape - Now you know why I am ‘up betimes'
Stopping a very nice lady out for her early morning jog she agreed The Esplanade was my best bet, in fact my only bet, so I headed there and as it was still before eight it was easy to park, and even better Sunday parking was free. So Rochester missed out on the £12 ish I would have had to pay for my two spaces.
Several people had mentioned that Rochester was an interesting place to visit and it certainly is full of beautiful old buildings, one can really imagine Dickens walking around its streets. The tour started from the Museum in the High Street, and I have to admit my heart fell when I saw two men in top hats preparing to act, (and act) as our tour guides. I am not generally comfortable with people dressing up and pretending to be the character you are interested in, but I take all those thoughts back, and another time will be far more open minded. They did a wonderful job of bringing Dickens and his novels to life, and bearing in mind that the area surrounding Rochester and Chatham is not picturesque in every particular their performance was even more welcome on the boring journey between the sites of interest, and before long I was fully immersed in the experience. And I was very pleased that I had chosen this way of viewing the spots we visited, as although I was convinced the tour coach was narrower than Thebus its driver still had quite a job getting it through the narrow Kentish lanes once we left the A2
The first church we visited was in the village where Dickens once lived and would have regularly spent time both as a child, and later after he was rich and famous, bought a nearby property - Gads Hill, and moved back to the area. Just to the right of the pathway to the church, and backed by the old Leather Bottle Inn was a gravestone inscribed - Marley - and the opening lines of A Christmas Carol begin "Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that."
The Leather Bottle itself was featured in The Pickwick Papers as where the lovelorn Mr Tracy Tupman fled after being jilted by his sweetheart. And Dickens not only drank there regularly in the 1860 but often stayed, using Room 6. I would have liked to go back after the tour to visit and look round the pub, which apparently has lots of Dickens memorabilia, but remembering those exceedingly narrow lanes it would have most definitely had to have been by taxi.
At the back, behind the church was a timeless and charming group of old almshouses clustered round a courtyard complete with cooing white doves on the old tiled rooves.
The next place really gripped my imagination. It was the churchyard of St James, at Cooling on the Hoo Peninsular which overlooks The North Kent marshes. Dickens' son describes this particular church as his father's favourite, and it is said that it was here, on a walk, and having set out his picnic lunch using the large table tomb just by the plot containing the entire family of two parents and thirteen of their children, looking out across the marshes he set the opening scene of Great Expectations - where Pip meets the escaped convict Magwitch. I found it a surprisingly moving experience, even with a whole busload of folk standing beside me. I would think to visit it alone would be even more stirring. It feels high and slightly desolate, and one can feel the coastal breezes coming in and imagine the hulks.
Then onto Gads Hill where Dickens spent the last years of his life. Having lived in the area as a young child he would take long Sunday walks with his father, often passing by this particular house and gazing at it longingly through the gates, Dickens wrote later "I can recollect, my father, seeing me so fond of it, (the house) has often said to me, if you were to be very persevering, and were to work hard, you may someday come to live in it.
Dickens father was not good at managing the family finances and they had to move several times to avoid debts, (the character of Micawber was based on him) Finally when Dickens was twelve his father was arrested for debt, and with the rest of the family was sent to the Marshalsea - the debtors prison later to feature in Little Dorrit . The twelve year old Dickens stayed outside in order to earn money to help the family, and was employed pasting the labels on shoe black bottles. Reading what Wikipedia has to say about the Marshalsea one can see why this was necessary, but it must have had a profound effect on the young lad’s mind.
'Run privately for profit, as were all English prisons until the 19th century, the Marshalsea looked like an Oxbridge college and functioned as an extortion racket. Debtors in the 18th century who could afford the prison fees had access to a bar, shop and restaurant, and retained the crucial privilege of being allowed out during the day, which gave them a chance to earn money for their creditors. Everyone else was crammed into one of nine small rooms with dozens of others, possibly for years for the most modest of debts, which increased as unpaid prison fees accumulated. The poorest faced starvation and, if they crossed the jailers, torture with skullcaps and thumbscrews. A parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates had starved to death within a three-month period, and that eight to ten were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather.
The prison became known around the world in the 19th century through the writing of the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose father was sent there in 1824, when Dickens was 12, for a debt to a baker. Forced as a result to leave school to work in a factory, Dickens based several of his characters on his experience, most notably Amy Dorrit, whose father is in the Marshalsea for debts so complex no one can fathom how to get him out.'
The next stop was Gads Hill itself. Though Dickens never imagined he would, he did in fact buy the house of his childish daydreams, and though originally intending to let it off, it was just around this time that he was putting on a play in conjunction with Wilkie Collins, and fell in love with the leading actress, then just eighteen. He and his wife separated and he moved into Gads Hill, with most of his children, and then seemingly carried on a clandestine affair for the rest of his life.
At Gads Hill his study was open to walk round, and is still very similar to when he was alive, and we had a reading in his drawing room, much as he might have done to entertain his own guests. Opposite the study window is the tunnel he had made beneath the road to the area of garden where he had the Swiss Chalet which was sent from Switzerland by a friend to be used as his writing room. This has since been moved to Rochester where we saw it, though currently it is too unstable to view the inside. Not far from there is the old redbrick house which Dickens used as a model for Miss Havisham’s house, though now beautifully maintained.
A walk round the beautiful Cathedral close, and up to the castle completed my day, and most enjoyable it was. I would have stayed on longer and explored more of the heart of old Rochester, but with nowhere to park it was a case of having to move on. It would surely be worthwhile for some of the places which seem to want to encourage tourism to make provision for motorhomes, certainly when I was touring in Scotland there were droves of them mostly from the continent, but in Scotland of course stopping in a motorhome is allowed pretty well anywhere, whereas in Rochester even stopping for a few hours was difficult, and had I been visiting on a normal weekday I think impossible.