Now the writer cannot believe that his sources of pleasure are altogether peculiar, or that that which has beguiled for him many a weary hour will not prove to many others equally interesting. He proposes, therefore, to go in turn through each of the great books of Dickens, and to dwell for a few moments lovingly on those London sites and streets which in his pages have a home.Dickens’s London by T. Edgar Pemberton (1876)
As I made my way by train from St. Pancras to Dover Priory on the morning of my Cliffs of Dover Hike, I was still only on the fringes of the awareness that my Dickens London theme was bewitching my imagination. Rather than following in anyone’s footsteps, I had decided to follow my own and then look back later and see how many of them actually overlapped. I had no idea on the train that 170 years ago, Dickens, suffering a bout of work-related stress, left his home at Tavistock House in London for three months in Dover. According to Dickens’ friend and biographer, John Forster, Dickens had the “inability to “grind sparks out of his dull blade,” as he characterized his present labour at Bleak House”1.
While in Dover, Dickens sailed across the channel to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France which he discovered was “as quaint, picturesque, good a place as I know”1. So enchanted by Boulogne, Dickens would return the following summer, and there he would finish Bleak House.
It could be argued then that Dicken’s visit to Dover was indirectly related to the completion of Bleak House. What else but divine intervention could explain that my visit to Dover on this particular trip would culminate in the purchase of a 1911 copy of Bleak House at a small antique book stand outside the Cliffs of Dover Visitor Center for a paltry 2 pounds? Later that evening, back in London, I slipped the book into my backpack as I set out to explore Camden Town. A book, that went from being a gift to someone on Christmas Day 1911 to being valued barely more than junk in the “Free” box at a garage sale to now being my unwitting companion. If books lived fairy tales, this story of redemption has to be right up there.
Camden Town is a suburb north of London, which was a poor suburb back in Dickens day known for its tiny almshouses1 and being “familiar to all travellers who reach London from the North”2 as a travel hub in and out of the city. Dickens and his family moved here in 1823 into a “shabby home”3 on 16 Bayham Street at the beginning of what was a very rough time in Dickens’ life due to his father’s financial struggles.
At this time his father’s pecuniary resources became so circumscribed as to compel the observance of the strictest of domestic economy, and prevented him from continuing his son’s education.The Dickens Country by F. G. Kitton (1905)
The family lived on Bayham Street for only one year, but during this time, Charles “aged from eleven to twelve, first blacked boots, and minded the younger children, and ran messages, and effected the family purchases—which can have been no pleasant task in the then state of the family credit”4. Even worse, the future author had to “become familiar with the inside of a pawnbroker’s shop” and “sold the paternal “library” piecemeal”3 to earn a little extra money for the family. Additionally, there was the matter of his education.
The Bayham Street days had sad memories for Dickens, for he had left a kindly schoolmaster at Chatham; and so far no school had been found for him in LondonThe London of Dickens by Walter Dexter (1923)
“As I thought,” said Dickens on one occasion very bitterly, “in the little back-garret of Bayham Street, of all I had lost in losing Chatham, what would I have given – if I had had anything to give – to have been sent back to any other school, to have been taught something anywhere!”In Dickens Country by F. G. Kitton (1882)
It was into this dark period of Dicken’s life that I was headed. But at the time, I was actually heading there for another reason. Of the little research that I had done in advance, most of it centered around sites linked to A Christmas Carol. It was the Dicken’s work in which I was most familiar, namely from the various film versions. To my later regret, I relied heavily on this article in timeout.com. It was here that I first see a reference to Dicken’s former address 16 Bayham Street as the inspiration for the home of Ebenezer Scrooge’s loyal clerk, Bob Cratchit. As I wandered up and down Bayham Street looking for #16, I was fearing that my trust in fate over preparation had already shown signs of cracking. Staying the course, I figured a beer would provide the eureka moment so I headed in the direction of the first pub on my list which was at the other end of Bayham St. Several blocks later and only one block left until the pub, a plaque appeared out of the corner of my eye.
What the article failed to report was that it was “renumbered 141” and the original house was “demolished in 1910.”5 But one thing the article got right is that the house was already believed to have been the inspiration for Bob Cratchit’s house as far back as 1923.
Bob Cratchit lived in Camden Town, and it is thought probable that Dickens had in his mind his Bayham Street home when he wrote of the Cratchit’s home in the Carol.The London of Dickens by Walter Dexter (1923)
Thanks to my thirst for a beer, a crisis was averted. So as happy as Bob Cratchit getting Christmas Day off, I clicked my heels and walked the next block to a really cool pub.
The World’s End
Practically around the corner from Dickens’ childhood home on Bayham Street is The Worlds End pub. One website claims that there has been a pub existing on this site for 400 years6, but the most interesting account of the pub’s history is found on a pub wiki page for the Mother Red Cap which was the name of the pub prior to its being changed to The World’s End in 1980’s or 90’s (depending on which website you go to). On the webpage is a cartoon image purportedly from 1820 showing a sketch of the Mother Red Cap pub hanging on the wall in the background. This means it existed while Dickens lived on Bayham Street. The World’s End website suggests that Dickens was a patron. If he was, probably not as an 11-12 year old. It is mentioned in his biography that around 1848, Dickens re-visited the Bayham Street area with his biographer1. It is quite plausible that they stopped to have a drink while his biographer took notes. However, wishful thinking and good marketing is probably more accurate though.
It is not clear why the name was changed, but the interior lends itself to the appearance of being owned by someone who has gone to the ends of the world collecting rare insects. While I would have found it more interesting if the pub had retained its former name, it is hard to complain about the blue butterfly emblem. An additional worthy compensation is the World’s End house beer.
It was here that it occurred to me to pull out Bleak House to keep me company. The book was compact, its binding fragile. The pages looked and felt like an old bible. They were ultra-thin to condense an 832-page book into the width of my thumb (oh the craftmanship of antique books!), a thumb which I used liberally to flip the pages and breathe the scent of the paper. I took a sip of beer, scanned the bar to soak in the moment, returned my attention to the book, and turned to page One. The single-word opening sentence sent the hair on my arms into a frenzy.
I was hooked.
But the next few pages were a struggle as my brain tried to re-wire my English language comprehension skills to adapt to mid-19th century prose. Everything is explained in so much detail, and thoughts seemed to be introduced by the narrator in a manner like they were already in the middle of an internal conversation, giving the reader a sense of disorientation. I felt like my brain was trying to stand on wobbly legs while avoiding things thrown at it. The reading was slow, and like riding a bike, getting your balance takes some momentum. Yet it was thrilling at the same time. Even after a few pages, I was being drawn into its depths, like the lure of the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce court case which was introduced in the early pages. And I was getting thirsty again. Fortunately, the next pub was right down the alley in the back.
The Black Heart
Almost literally across from the backyard of Dickens’ childhood home is this blues, rock, metal bar. What’s not to like about a bar whose slogan is “Beer, Bands, and Booze galore”? It felt appropriate in the dimly lit club, whose main sources of light include AC/DC and Metallica pinball machines, to drink a London Black, an English porter.
Two evenings, three Dickens sites, and six pubs felt like a pretty good start, but the real fun was just on the horizon, and I am not talking about the stop I made at Taco Bell on the walk back to the hotel (note: there are no Taco Bells in Belgium where I live.). I had one item on the agenda for Day 3, a visit to Westminster Abbey. The rest was an empty page. A page I hoped would become replete with gems, both obvious and hidden, whose cracks and glitz alike still contain the fibers of the characters who live on immortal while somewhere in some musty tavern, I would find the ghost of Charles Dickens sitting in the corner sipping a beer contemplating how the world around us is collapsing with its modernity, while readers like me escape into a Dickens world containing social and economic problems which feel simplistic by today’s standards. The plight of orphans, inhumane working conditions, and stuffy (sexist) British social customs. But whatever the apocalyptic state the world is in compared to the 19th century, I was ready for a serious Dickensian tavern crawl.
Dickens not only knew how to describe an inn and its comforts (and its discomforts, too, sometimes), but he seemed to revel in doing so, and became filled with delight when he was one of the guests within its walls.Dickensian Inns & Taverns by B.W. Matz (1922)
Mentally, the page in my soul that would become Day 3 had one obvious opening word.
Map: Days 1 & 2
- Yellow = Site associated with Dickens or has a strong anecdotal link
- Purple = A pub not associated with Dickens but strongly recommended
- Black = A pub or brewery not associated with Dickens
- John Forster. “The Life of Charles Dickens, Vol. I-III”, 1875
- T. Edgar Pemberton. “Dickens’s London”, 1876
- Adolphus William Ward. “Dickens”, 1882
- Frank Thomas Marzials. “Life of Charles Dickens”, 1887
- Walter Dexter. “The London of Dickens”, 1923