Tours: Great expectations and hard times: See where the writer lived] Enter his imagination] Sabine Durrant joins a Special Interest trip to 'Dickens country'

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The Independent Culture
'NEE-AW, nee-aw, nee-aw, nee-aw.' The burglar alarm had been yowling for several minutes now and some members of the party were looking uneasy. Dr Parker, who had last been seen disappearing into a clump of bushes, emerged looking shaken. 'I appear to have set the burglar alarm off,' he said - unnecessarily. 'Trying to get in through a side door . . . But not to worry.' He looked around him. 'It's a lovely day.'

The weather had come under considerable scrutiny already that morning. It was a warm, blithe Saturday, the sort of breezy balm that brings Arthur Ransome to mind, or early Jane Austen. It was not the sort of weather, as Dr Parker kept reminding us, that you associate with Dickens. 'Sorry about the sun,' he'd said as we'd boarded the coach in Croydon. 'It should, of course, be dismal and wet; a grey, foggy day. I don't know where our arrangements went wrong . . .' Dr Parker, who is curator at the Dickens House Museum in Bloomsbury, was clearly trying to jolly the group along. But his audience - 22-strong, mainly women, with neatly folded packamacks and tidy day-packs and spare glasses in their bags - cocked their heads enquiringly. You do not sign up on a Special Interest Charles Dickens Weekend for a tan, said their smiles. You sign up for facts, to tread the paths trodden by the great man himself ('the whatever of Victorian writers,' to quote one of the participants), to see inside his houses. If it shone, all well; if it rained, it was water off a tourist's back.

Until the burglar alarm, everything had gone according to plan - well, almost. On Friday night, at the Hilton National in Croydon, our base for the two-day tour, the actor Geoffrey Harris gave a reading in the person of Mr Dickens (as he does every Wednesday at the Dickens House Museum). If he seemed to gallop rather through the opening of The Tale of Two Cities and trip on his tongue during the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist, it may well have been because he had a plane to catch (hot-foot to a self-catering holiday in Italy). This he'd confessed at the Carvery dinner earlier, where he was clearly demob happy. He'd been an actor for only six years, he confided to Alf and Jo, a retired couple from Essex: 'My children said 'Go for it, Dad', and my wife divorced me.'

While Alf was negotiating his complimentary glass of wine ('Glad to know it's complimentary - only we were caught out at the Brunel weekend, cost pounds 1.90 a glass]'), Jo asked Harris whether she'd seen him on the telly. 'Perhaps,' he said, 'But you'd need 20/20 vision and a photographic memory.' Things weren't going too well, he admitted, though luckily he liked his agent: 'Well, you've got to. She's got blonde hair and legs up to here.' 'Very nice,' said Jo.

The next day, en route to Gad's Hill Place (scene of the burglar alarm) in Kent, Dr Parker talked about the importance of the region to Dickens's imagination, stressing how we would see 'models' for literary landmarks, not 'originals': 'Dickens played with, embellished, reality'. He said 'that is to say' a lot, and 'to digress', but the woman in front of me remained alert throughout, mouthing along with his talk as if his information jogged her memory and she was getting to the facts only a fraction after him. She knew her Dickens inside out. 'I read it all on audio,' she said. 'I did all of Shakespeare too. If you read along with the books, there are huge chunks missing. But you get the gist.'

At a village called Chalk, the coach cranked into a narrow residential street and stopped, engine growling, outside a rather tarty cottage. 'Perhaps those in seats on the left would like to cross over to the right to get a better look,' advised Dr Parker. 'This is the model for Joe Gargery's forge. Note the low roof which would add to Pip's fear that Magwitch would climb in and get him. Note the plain glass windows upon which Pip remarks.' Stalwartly ignoring the lace curtains and discreet double-glazing, a number of the party got out to take photographs. What the inhabitants thought of such scrutiny was open to question, though the 'Neighborhood Watch' sign suggested they were used to it.

Then it was on, whizzing down the lane, past Dickens's honeymoon cottage ('That was the honeymoon cottage,' said Dr Parker, as everybody who had moved over to the right for the forge darted back to the left) and on to Gad's Hill.

Gad's Hill was a small coup for the Special Interest organisers. The house that Dickens always longed to own as a boy and which he bought from someone at a dinner party in later life is now a girls' school and closed to the public. But not if you're Dr Parker and you slip a donation into the school fund. Not in theory anyhow.

At first the delay was intriguing. There was the odd tut-tut ('First hiccup,' said one as if it was only to be expected). A handful were desperate to have a cup of coffee across the road. Others inspected the marigolds and chatted amongst themselves. There wasn't much mixing. Beryl and Marge, who teach at a college in South Wales, had tried to initiate conversation earlier: 'We told them about the other Special Interest weekends we'd been on,' they said. 'But they didn't seem interested. Richard III died an early death.'

Meanwhile, Dr Parker was busy trying to break in. When the alarm went off, coinciding with the arrival of a wasp, it looked for a moment as if everything might fall about his ears. He'd left a message on the Answerphone. What had happened? This was his first Special Interest weekend. Would it be his last?

'Hello sir]' A portly, red-faced gentleman with white whiskers strode across the lawn and raised his arm in salute. 'Heard the alarm . . . Happen to be President of the Dickens Country Protection Society . . . Can I be of any assistance sir?'

Within minutes the door was open, the alarm was off and tempers were appeased by glimpses of Dickens's study, the staircase he customised, the room in which he died and, attracting most attention, his lavatory. By this point, the clock was marching on and, after an unfortunate incident with a parked car (lane too narrow, coach too wide, car's owner in the greenhouse), there was only time for a quick, fascinating spin round St Mary's Higham and the church at Cooling - both 'models' for the churchyard in Great Expectations - before arriving at Rochester for lunch. Rochester and Chatham, we learnt, where Dickens lived for a time as a child (we know because we saw his house), 'excited his imagination'. Certainly, Dickens has been exciting the imagination of Rochester and Chatham ever since. It is the home of Rochester House (the 'model' for Miss Haversham's residence), of Eastgate House Museum, of Mr Pumblechook's premises and the 'cathedral' in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But it is also where you find Dodger's Diner, Drood's Antiques, Peggoty's Parlour, Estelle's florists and an Indian takeaway called A Taste of Two Cities. Miss Haversham's Bridalwear had closed down since Dr Parker's last visit ('Have they read the book?'), which didn't prevent general outrage in the face of an ethnic dress shop called Little Dorrit. 'My goodness,' said one lady, noticing a sign saying 'NOSE STUDS' in the window, 'What would Dickens say if he saw that? Some things should be banned.'

By late afternoon, enthusiasm was beginning to wane. Several people had nipped out of the Dickens Museum and into the cut- price crockery warehouse opposite. Then it was into the coach and back to the hotel in Croydon to prepare for Dr Parker's lecture in the evening.

'No (click). No (click) No (click). No (click).' The slide show wasn't going well. We were on to our second projector, our second anxious member of the hotel staff and still the screen was black. Dr Parker sighed. 'We'll have to do without. But if anything else goes wrong tomorrow I put myself forward for ritual disembowelment. Alright?' A few heads nodded - their owners having been asleep for some time.

Sunday dawned drizzly and grey and nobody commented on the weather. The coach cruised through south London and up through the city - Dr Parker pointing out the location of the Marshalsea prison, the bootblacking factory where Dickens worked, the 'slum' area of Saffron Hill where Fagin would have lived. And then we arrived at the Dickens House Museum - the museum where Dr Parker presides. His museum. No message on the Answerphone. Just a bunch of keys in his back pocket.

Dr Parker leapt from the coach, marched up to the front door, masterfully slotted in his keys, pushed and . . . nothing. The door didn't budge. He tried again. Nothing. Twenty-two faces peered out through the coach's wet windows. You could see Dr Parker beginning to panic - pealing on the two bells, hammering with the knocker. Even the coach driver had started falling about by the time he'd run for a phone.

For information on this and other Special Interest Weekends ring 0923 238877.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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