The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Broadstairs Remembers Dickens

Category: Culture

Every year the attractive old sea-side town of Broadstairs, close to the easternmost tip of Kent, puts the clock back a hundred years. Local inhabitants — including children and teenagers — walk through the narrow streets in colourful Victorian costumes, curtseying to passers-by in the best 19th-century tradition, and obviously enjoying the part they play in the annual festival in honour of Charles Dickens.

One of the Festival’s highlights is the Dickensian Garden Party in the grounds of Bleak House, the massive brown brick building which towers over the ancient harbour jetty.

Every Dickens-lover the town can muster parades as a costumed character from one of the novels, and the creations of the great novelist’s ever fertile imagination come to life as Mr Micawber walks with Sarah Gamp, a smiling Scrooge encounters a not too sinister-looking Bill Sykes and Sydney Carton seems to forget the cares that beset him in“A Tale of Two Cities’’ as he gallantly escorts Mrs Nickleby past the discerning eyes of the costume judges.

Throughout the week, a dramatised version of one of the novels is given at the Hilderstone Hall; and other attractions include a Dickensian dance, a concert of music of the period, talks on the novelist, a Dickensian-style sale of work and conducted tours of places of interest.

The Broadstairs Dickens Festival was founded in 1937. That was exactly a century after the novelist’s first visit to the town, and local people felt that the anniversary deserved something more than a mere celebration dinner. So the Festival was born and, with the exception of the war period, it has been held every year since then.

Dickens conceived such a liking for Broadstairs during his first holiday there in 1837 that he continued to visit the town regularly every summer for over 20 years (apart from two occasions when he was abroad) and described it with great affection in“Our English Watering Places’’. He would find much of it unchanged today — the chalk cliffs, the succession of sandy bays, the fine’ old parish church dating from the 11th century, the 400-year-old harbour pier, the old-fashioned houses and streets for which the most appropriate description that comes to mind is “Dickensian’’.

At first he spent his holidays in various apartment houses in the town, but later he used to rent Fort House — now called Bleak House — for months at a time and did a good deal of his writing there. Though not the Bleak House of the novel, it preserves much of the atmosphere of the days when Dickens stayed there and is open to visitors throughout the summer.

On one morning during the Festival, visitors have the opportunity of visiting the old house on the sea front known as Dickens House. In the novelist’s time it was occupied by a formidable spinster named Mary Pearson Strong, who was so proud of the strip of lawn in front of the house that when donkeys trespassed on it she would chase them and their riders with a broom. The young Dickens, who was a regular visitor to the house (though he did not actually stay there), used to chuckle to himself at the lady’s eccentricities — but the matter did not end there. His pen removed the strip of lawn to Dover, Miss Strong became the no less formidable Betsey Trotwood and the donkey-chasing lives on in the pages of David Copperfield. Visitors to the house can identify the cupboard from which, in the book, Betsey Trotwood obtained the ingredients for the alarming concoction which she administered to the fainting David, as well as a mahogany sideboard which belonged to Dickens himself.

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