Sunday, 29 July 2012
Our tickets were booked within an hour of them coming on sale. There was much fretting about travel arrangements when we belatedly realised that the date we'd chosen clashed with the first day of another big event. (Thankfully, London hasn't ground to a standstill - we didn't even have to queue for train tickets this morning - possibly because everybody was at home in front of the telly.)
This was a pilgrimage ... to Dickens' house at Gad's Hill, which is hardly ever open to the public. (It's a boys' school.)
From the moment I arrived at Rochester railway station, I was walking in his footsteps because this was the spot where 10-year-old Dickens caught the mail coach to London, travelling alone, packed in damp straw to absorb the bumps ... on a coach that was melodiously named Timpson's Blue-Eyed Maid.
We walked past the theatre where he saw Shakespeare's plays and Grimaldi the clown.
We walked up the High Street to the house that inspired Miss Havisham's Satis House, almost expecting Estella disdainfully to invite us in.
We saw the Swiss chalet that Dickens constructed from a Victorian IKEA kit that was delivered in 58 boxes and where he worked on Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend and wrote the last words of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before he died.
I have put five mirrors in the Swiss chalet (where I write) and they reflect and refract in all kinds of ways the leaves that are quivering at the windows,and the great fields of waving corn, and the salt-dotted river.
My room is up among the branches of the trees; and the birds and the butterflies fly in and out ...
We were tempted by the biggest secondhand bookshop in the country and a box of Victorian boot blacking bottles (£2 each, outside a charity shop) just like the ones Dickens pasted with labels in the blacking factory. We had lunch in the monastic herb garden of the Cathedral, dashed into the Guildhall to see an exhibit about the Hulks and the great chamber where Pip was apprenticed to Joe Gargery.
And then we caught a bus over the bridge (at least, a more modern version of the bridge) that David Copperfield limped across on his way to find his Aunt Betsey Trotwood.
And all that was before we even got to Gad's Hill ...
Where we had tea in Dickens' conservatory, from teacups decorated with Dickensian scenes.
Deciphered some of his letters, describing his traumatic railway accident in 1865, and another complaining that he was stuck for ideas for a Christmas book. 'I sit in the chalet like Mariana in the Moated Grange, and to as much purpose.'
Saw the mailbox in his porch, and the dumb-waiter that brought up his dinner, and the corner of the dining room where he had a stroke and died.
But do you know what was almost the most exciting thing of all ....
You might call it an intimate connection with literary history...
It was going to the loo on Charles Dickens' own, original, Victorian lavatory. Still in working order.
(The curator said that they have similar ones at Buckingham Palace.
But I have never 'been' there.)