Dickensian London – alive and well in Kent

A Slice of Britain: Dedicated fans of the great Victorian novelist get into bustles and bonnets for their annual parade in Broadstairs
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The Independent Online

Lee Ault is formidable, with a posture so upright she appears ready to topple backwards at any minute. She stands at a distance mindful of poise, and of the volume of her crinoline skirt.

Mrs Ault is the curator at Dickens House – the museum in Broadstairs, Kent, created in the former home of Mary Pearson Strong. Quite rightly, she is proud of her position: "I am the hon gen sec of the International Dickens Fellowship", she says, then checks herself. "Well, joint hon gen sec, I should say. It's a very impressive title, though."

Honorific clarified, Mrs Ault attends to the museum's visitors: both of them. This should be a big morning for her. It is the opening day of the Dickens Festival, which has descended on the Kent town every year since 1937, pausing only for the Second World War. Things seem a little quiet, though.

"I was working on the festival when it was huge," she recalls. "Then there were 15 horses and carriages and hundreds of people in costume. But those days are gone now." And she sighs. In a refrain that might well have been penned by her literary idol himself, she mutters: "gone now", several times more, before gazing dolefully out of the window.

The festival was started by Gladys Waterer, a previous lady of the house, who put on a production of David Copperfield and paraded people in fancy dress to draw publicity. Since then, the third Saturday in June has seen enthusiasts promenade through the town in Victorian costume and converge on the green to launch a week's festival celebrating the author.

Not everyone shares Mrs Ault's gloomy view, however. Vernon Mee, 68, a former buyer for a Jermyn Street shirt-maker, has been coming to the parade for years. Resplendent in a top hat and tails, 19th-century spectacles, a yellow waistcoat and a claret cravat, he admits: "I try to avoid normal people." He plans to return to the festival in the morning dressed as Tulkinghorn from Bleak House.

But for most at the gathering, the literary provenance of their costume is of little concern. Asked which Dickens character she has come as, Veronica Brown, 61, from the Isle of Sheppey, seems confused. "Upstairs, Downstairs," she replies. "And if anyone says that's wrong then I'll have words with them."

Of course such an event would be incomplete without a Dickensian hint of resentment against the local gentry. Richard Hilton, a millionaire jeweller who bought Bleak House – where Dickens used to stay and write – has little to do with the festival. The front page of the Kent and Sussex Courier reveals the Hilton family plans to open the house as a hotel and museum.

Mrs Ault – like many others – has strong opinions about the plan. "All I'm saying is his place is a Grade II listed building and this [Dickens House] is Grade II*," she declares tersely.

Mr Hilton's son, Richard Hilton junior, 44, welcomes the IoS into Bleak House even as enthusiasts gather for the parade. After a brief tour of the bedroom where Dickens slept, he seems more excited to show off a portrait of his father with Margaret Thatcher. "I don't really read much Dickens," he confesses. "I find it too hard in the original."

Back at the parade, a group of 40 new enthusiasts begin to walk down the hill in the drizzle, accompanied by a marching band. Apart from a ripple of applause outside La Dolce Vita Italian restaurant, onlookers appear nonplussed.

Regardless, the promenaders will be back again next year. Joyce Roach, 85, from Broadstairs, is one of the last to make it down the hill. "I've been doing this for 30 years now and I'm very nearly a Victorian lady myself," she says, adjusting her bonnet.