Today we celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens one of my all time favourite writers. I am simply delighted to have as guest blogger, Helen Rappaport, historian and writer and author of my Book of 2011, Magnificent Obsession, who spent her childhood in Kent with all its associations with The Inimitable and has written this post for Random. So sit back, read and enjoy:
The view today across the rooftops of the modest Edwardian terraced houses of lower Gillingham down to the turbid waters of the river beyond is not what it was in my childhood. Back then, I could see the funnels and masts of dozens of navy ships in port – and beyond, the marshy reaches and mud flats of the Medway Estuary. You didn’t need a clock in lower Gillingham in those days; you could time your day by the wailing midday siren that sounded off the statutory lunch hour for dockyard workers, and blared out again at 5 p.m. to mark the end of the working day. Virtually every household down our street had someone who worked at the yard; we saw the men every day toiling home up the hill on their bikes after work.
Summer holidays as a child were free of the sedentary electronic distractions of today; they were spent outdoors – rain or shine – running around getting dirty, scuffing knees and shoes. What we loved best was to go out roaming the sea wall beyond The Strand – the rather forlorn riverside recreation ground located on the Medway estuary not far from home. For many local children this was the nearest they ever got to the seaside – a kind of Gillingham-on-Sea, with its murky and mildewed boating and paddling pools, its model train and swings. Many of us learned to swim here, in the no doubt polluted and certainly dangerous tidal waters of the Medway.
But as children we were fearless. Mean, and muddy, and at times dispiriting it may have been, but the Medway Estuary was our paradise. They’d told us in school, of course, all about the local connections with Charles Dickens’s ‘marsh country’. His early, happy and formative years were lived at Ordnance Terrace in Chatham and he died not far away in 1870 at Gad’s Hill Place at Higham – where, long after, local people ‘still felt the miss of him’, as they put it. The area held an important place in Dickens’s creative imagination: there was something about the ineffable bleakness of the salt marshes and mud flats stretching for miles along the ancient Saxon Shore that lured him, as he remarked in The Uncommercial Traveller:
'There are small out of the way landing-places on the Thames and the Medway, where I do much of my summer idling. Running water is favourable to day-dreams. And a strong tidal river is the best of running water for mine.'
My own daydreams drew me there too as a child. I happily roamed the long expanse of the sea wall to Sharp’s Green, Horrid Hill and Motney Hill beyond with school friends on hot summer days, camping out by the water’s edge and frying eggs on a primus stove. We loved to sit there watching the ships in the estuary, and clamber over the huge concrete anti-tank placements along the beaches – a vestige of World War Two – imagining ourselves as intrepid and adventurous as the Famous Five – only no turkey sandwiches and ginger beer for us: they were posh and we were poor.
My childish imaginings of the Dickensland I knew of from abridged versions of his novels read at school found its incarnation in the wonderful rambling old vicarage garden and parish churchyard of St Mary Magdalene up the hill from The Strand, with its tumbledown grave stones and old Victorian gas lamps lining a walkway of great chestnut trees. It was perfect for games of hide and seek and always made me think of the overgrown garden at Miss Havisham’s.
Equally spooky was the little church on the marshes at Cooling; the little grey, Kentish ragstone lozenges covered in lichen and marking the graves of the infant children of the Comport family of Cowling Court which were the inspiration for the opening scene in Great Expectations. Closer to home was the still familiarly Dickensian High Street in Rochester with its old coaching inn, The Bull, a favourite haunt of Mr Pickwick and his companions. Further down the north Kent coast, where we went for Sunday outings was the fishing port of Whitstable with its famous oysters so beloved by Dickens. Furthest away, on the periphery of my own Kentish childhood landscape, lay the white cliffs of Dover where David Copperfield first encountered his Aunt Trotwood, a scene ingrained in my mind by George Cukor’s 1935 film version of the book. The landscape of Dickens’s novels was subsumed into my subconscious, inspired my reading and in the end my development as a historian and writer.
In 1984 everything changed in the Medway Towns that I knew when they closed the Dockyard and thousands of men were thrown out of work. The demise of Chatham’s great naval tradition sounded the death knell of a once thriving and proud area. A long slow descent into decay and dereliction followed over the next twenty years. Lower Gillingham, never a pretty place even in my childhood, was virtually eviscerated of all its character. The old Victorian houses of the original working-class community along the river were demolished and with them the spit and sawdust dockworkers’ pubs that stood on every corner.
With the ships long gone and only commercial traffic out on the river, it was some time before eighty acres of the original site were redeveloped. The most attractive eighteenth-century buildings were refurbished as the Chatham Historic Dockyard, while the rest has by degrees been redeveloped into a mix of commercial port, shiny new apartment blocks, a posh marina and shopping centre.
In this, his bicentenary year, the traditional links with Charles Dickens will undoubtedly bring a resurgence of interest in this still economically depressed part of north Kent. Taking centre stage in the old Chatham docks – a stone’s throw from the original Cashier’s Office, where Dickens’s father John worked as a navy pay clerk for the Admiralty from 1817 to 1822 – a garish new Dickens World has been opened to celebrate the area’s ‘local boy’. It is however geared not so much to a serious celebration of his literary legacy as to the popular, tabloid image of his works, which can be experienced in an indoor street cum theme park of ersatz Dickensian shop fronts that looks like the film set of Oliver!
Despite the long periods he lived in London between 1824 and his return to Kent in 1860, we have always felt that Dickens belongs to us here, on the Medway. Some of the great moments of his novels are rooted in the county: from Mr Pickwick’s Rochester in his first, 1837 novel, to the chilling encounter between Pip and the escaped convict Magwitch on the marshes in the opening pages of Great Expectations in 1861; to his final unfinished novel in 1870, where Rochester brings Dickens the writer full-circle with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, set in the gatehouse and precincts of the cathedral.
Having long known and loved Gad’s Hill Place, which he had seen on his walks around the Hoo Peninsula, Dickens purchased it in 1856 and spent much of the last ten years of his life there. After his death in 1870 the house eventually passed out of the family and in 1924 became a private school. Restoration House, the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s Satis House, is located a short distance from the cathedral in Rochester; a fine Elizabethan building, it is as evocative as ever and is occasionally open to the public.
Whenever I go back to Kent, the nostalgia for the Dickensian world that was so much part of it tugs at me and I always head for the river. Dickens relied on the landscape around him as an important outlet for his restlessness. He often walked along the reaches of the Hoo Peninsula in sight of the Thames and Medway Estuaries on either side. It allowed him valuable thinking time in which to refine the characters and plotlines that crowded his overactive imagination. Most of the long, flat uninterrupted horizontal line of the river survives only in the descriptive passages of his novels now.
But we do still have the Saxon Shore Way that Dickens knew and loved and walking along it today, in sight of the river and the marshes that held such an important place in the great writer’s psyche, one can still sense his spirit – a man determinedly striding out, stick in hand, head up into the wind off the water, with the cry of the seagulls and plovers above him.
©Helen Rappaport, 12 January 2012