A Charles Dickens Walk in Rochester
Rochester was Dickens’s favourite city and, ‘as a small queer boy’, he was fond of exploring its ‘old corners’. Rochester features in several of his novels. The Pickwickians come here in the early chapters of Pickwick Papers. Although not named, it is obviously the city featured in Great Expectations, and is Dullborough Town in an essay in The Uncommercial Traveller. In the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood it becomes Cloisterham, and it is perhaps fitting that the last words Dickens ever wrote were about the city for which he felt genuine affection, and where he wished to be buried.
For three days every June, Rochester hosts the Dickens festival, a colourful extravaganza during which the city takes on the character of the Victorian age, as people dress in period costume and many of Dickens’s most colourful characters walk the streets. A similar celebration takes place in December, when the cast of characters is swollen by bell ringers and carol singers, and thanks to the wonders of modern technology, snow is guaranteed!
Start and Finish: Rochester Railway Station.
Length: 2 miles (3.2km).
Duration: 21/2 hours.
Best of times: Daytime when the castle, cathedral and Dickens Centre are open.
Worst of times: Evenings.
Leave Rochester Station. Go right along High Street, cross over the pedestrian crossing and bear right. At the next lights go over the busy roads into the continuation of High Street, heading towards the clearly visible spire of Rochester Cathedral. Keep to the left side, and pause outside the black and white timbered building, just before Eastgate Terrace.
A plaque reveals it to be the house of Mr Sapsea, auctioneer and Mayor of Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There was a late 19th-century tradition that Mr Sapsea, ‘the purest jackass in Cloisterham’, as Dickens described him, was an amalgam of two local townsmen: a councilman who lived in this building, and a former mayor of Rochester. The house was also featured in Great Expectations as the home and shop of Uncle Pumblechook.
Go right through the gates on the opposite side of High Street, passing on the left the 16th-century Eastgate House. Go left through the iron gates to find the brown and lime Swiss Chalet, which formerly stood across the road from Dickens’s house at Gad’s Hill.
The chalet was a gift from his friend, Charles Fechter (1824–79) in 1864, and Dickens used it as a summer study for the rest of his life. Indeed, it was in the upper room of the chalet that he wrote his last words on the afternoon of 8th June, 1870.
Backtrack to the entrance of Eastgate House.
In Dickens’s day this was a girls’ school, and he featured the building in The Mystery of Edwin Drood as The Nun’s House, a Seminary for young ladies run by the eminently respectable Miss Twinkleton. Dickens’s description of it as ‘a venerable brick edifice… The house-front… so old and worn… ’ still holds true today. It was at this seminary that Rosa Bud, Edwin Drood’s fiancÈe, was a pupil. Dickens had also used the house in Pickwick Papers as Westgate House girl’s boarding school, albeit he transported it lock, stock and barrel to Bury St Edmunds! The Charles Dickens Centre now occupies the property, wherein are exhibited many relics of his life and times. Imaginative recreations together with audio-visual displays, bring both Dickensian London and England vividly to life. Allow yourself a good 40 minutes to enjoy what is an essential part of the walk.
Return to High Street, go right then next left into Crow Lane and walk up the hill. Three quarters of the way along on the left is the dark redbrick Restoration House, so called because Charles II stayed here on his return to England in 1660.
In Great Expectations this was Satis House, ‘with its seared brick walls, blocked windows and strong ivy, clasping even the stacks of the old chimney’s…’ Here lived the embittered, jilted bride Miss Havisham, and here Pip met with the cold and contemptuous Estella, with whom he fell desperately in love.
On the afternoon of Monday 6th June, 1870, three days before he died, Dickens was seen leaning against the wooden railing across the street from Restoration House, studying it intently as if committing every brick to memory. There was comment at the time that ‘there would be some notice of this building’ in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.