Charles Dickens: Old curiosities with a new twist

Broadstairs in Kent was once Dickens's holiday retreat. As the bicentenary of his birth arrives, Hilary Macaskill pays a visit

In 1842, Charles Dickens spent six months in exotic America – a trip that took him and his intrepid wife, Catherine, from a log house in Pennsylvania to a steamboat along the Mississippi. The next year, however, he took his family away for the summer from his London home opposite Regent's Park to ... Finchley, north London.

Nowadays, on the site of that holiday home stands a street of Edwardian villas, a plaque on 70 Queen's Avenue marks the spot. Then, it was the "sequestered farmhouse" of Cobley's Farm, his "Arcadian retreat" of "green lanes" where on long walks Dickens devised Mrs Gamp while writing Martin Chuzzlewit.

The 200th anniversary of the birth of this most prolific of Victorian novelists will be marked on Tuesday with a wreath-laying at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey – and this bicentennial year offers a frantic itinerary of ways to honour the great man (see

Dickens himself was very good at taking a holiday (even though he never entirely switched off). A summer home was always important to him, though he usually went further than Finchley. Broadstairs, for example, a favourite for many years, was his "home from home".

Back then, travel to Broadstairs was generally by river and sea from the wharf at London Bridge. Once established, he sent invitations to friends with instructions about boarding the Ramsgate steamer.

I took the train instead, trundling along the North Kent coast. On arrival, there was time for lunch in the stripped-back stylishness of The Royal Albion, now somewhat removed from the jolly "Albion Hotel" where Dickens spent "merry nights". It still offers the same wide views of the sea that so enticed him: for three years his summer home was next door, a house later absorbed into the hotel. From the terrace, I had a perfect outlook on to the bay, the smooth sands, and the sailing club.

Later, I joined the Saturday walking tour which starts on the seafront at 2pm. It's led by Peter Shaw, who besides being a guide is also chairman of the Cramptown Tower Museum (engineer Thomas Crampton was responsible for laying the first telegraph cable under the Channel). As we took shelter by the Pavilion, Peter pointed out the sights: Eagle House, named after the captured French imperial standard brought ashore here after victory at Waterloo in 1815; the clock tower erected for Queen Victoria's Jubilee; and Bleak House, formerly Fort House – the holiday home Dickens aspired to during his years here.

His first stay, in 1837, was in lodgings overlooking High Street. It was here that he finished The Pickwick Papers. There's a plaque: one of many Dickens plaques here. (There's one in York Street that reads: "Charles Dickens did not live here.") Oliver Postgate, creator of Bagpuss and The Clangers, has a plaque too, in Chandos Square, together with a mosaic depicting two Clangers.

It was always important to Dickens to be close to the sea. The town has lovely beaches and he spent much time on them, with his children, with his friends, and swimming. Of course, being Dickens, he was also writing all the time. He started books here and finished books here. One reason for being fond of the Albion Street house was that he"started the old man and the child on their Curiosity-Shop wanderings from that mansion". One year Dickens, unusually for him, kept a diary of sorts.

Entries for 15 days had one word: "Work" (he was writing Nicholas Nickleby); the next five days involve, simply, "Sea Bathing". Dickens finally got his wish to stay in Fort House, which "stood prominently at the top of a breezy hill". He finished David Copperfield here. Later, Fort House was extended in the crenellated style of the original and renamed Bleak House. This causes confusion: he neither wrote Bleak House here, nor used it as a location: that novel was set near St Albans. When it changed hands, the small museum here was discarded in favour of an upmarket B&B.

The Dickens House Museum, despite the name, is one house he did not stay in. It was the home of Mary Pearson Strong, the inspiration for Betsey Trotwood, the magnificent aunt of David Copperfield. Today, it is an interesting little museum where Betsey's parlour has been recreated as described in the book and there's Dickens memorabilia including letters.

In Our English Watering Place, Dickens enthuses about the sparkling sea and the boats "dancing on the bubbling water". He was less fond of St Peter's Church, a "hideous temple of flint, like a giant petrified haystack".

Many of the landmarks he describes are recognisable today: the "queer old wooden pier, fortunately without the slightest pretensions to architecture, and very picturesque in consequence"; the lighthouse; and the "fancy shops", stocking "objects made of shells that pretend not to be shells".

Broadstairs has repaid this devotion. The library and assembly rooms have now been replaced by The Charles Dickens Inn. Close by are: Barnaby Rudge restaurant, Nickleby's Takeaway, Marley's café, and Dickens's Thai Diner. And, each June at the Dickens Festival, locals dress in Victorian costume and enact scenes from his books.

By 1851, he had become disenchanted with Broadstairs, complaining of "vagrant music", including a "violin of the most torturing kind" under his window. "I fear Broadstairs and I must part company," he wrote. The following year he switched his allegiance to Boulogne, but just two years earlier, he had written boisterously to a friend "Veeve la Broadstairs!"

Charles Dickens at Home by Hilary Macaskill is published by Frances Lincoln

Let Dickens be your guide to ...

... Brighton (148 King's Road)."I couldn't pass an autumn here: but it is a gay place for a week or two."

... Dover (10 Camden Crescent). "The sea is very fine and the walks are quite remarkable."

... Folkestone (3 Albion Villas). "The Down-lands in this neighbourhood – principally consisting of a chain of grass-covered hills of considerable elevation – are enchantingly fresh and free."

... The Isle of Wight (Winterbourne Country House, Bonchurch). "Cool, airy, private bathing, everything delicious."

Travel essentials

Getting there

Fast trains from London St Pancras to Broadstaires take 82 minutes. Slower trains run from Victoria (0845 000 2222;

Staying there

Bleak House, Broadstairs (01843 865338;; Dickens House Museum (01843 863453; branches/broadstairs) where, from Easter, the museum will open 2-5pm daily and 10am-5pm from June.

More information

Broadstairs Dickens Festival runs from 16 to 22 June ( Broadstairs tourist information: 01843 862242; Visit Thanet:

Suggested Topics
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas