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Following the Footsteps of Charles Dickens

By London Expert: Gavin, United Kingdom, February 2012

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“I know I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond” - Charles Dickens

Luckily for him and us, he grew up to be one of our greatest writers - Charles John Huffam Dickens, born 200 years ago on 7th February 1812 in Portsmouth. But it is in London that we get to follow in his footsteps, see the places he lived and worked and which inspired his novels, especially if you travel with a private London Tour Guide!

A good place to start is on the Embankment near Charing Cross station, where the young Charles was sent to work in the rat infested Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. He was befriended by a lad by the name of Bob Fagin, a name he would make famous in Oliver Twist, although the character of the infamous Jewish fence was based on Ikey Solomon who employed young boys to thieve for him in the East End.

Dickens’ father had been imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea Prison off Borough High Street. You can still see one remaining wall of the old prison. The experience would inspire his novel Little Dorrit. Whilst in the area check out the only gallery coaching inn left in London, The George.

Dickens would return to the Embankment area when he took rooms whilst working as a parliamentary reporter. David Copperfield would live here too. Around the corner Dickens was “fond of wandering about the Adelphi, because it was a mysterious place with those dark arches”. You can still find those dark arches down a side road, even though the Adelphi building has long gone. As an insomniac, he would wander the streets at night absorbing the sights, smells and atmosphere which he would evoke so effectively in his books.

Almost everywhere you wander in London, there are connections with Dickens. The bank that was the model for Telson’s Bank in A Tale of Two Cities, the restaurant where Mr Pickwick entertains, the church clock where David Copperfield and Betsy Trotwood make a special journey to witness the giants striking the bells and time their visit “to catch them at it at 12 o’clock”.

In Covent Garden is the office where he edited Household Words. Today it is above the Charles Dickens Coffee Shop! By publishing his stories in weekly or monthly installments he took his friend and fellow novelist, Wilkie Collin’s advice to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”. Just around the corner is the graveyard where Lady Dedlock’s body in Bleak House is discovered.

His contempt for the process of the legal system started when he worked as a solicitor’s clerk. He wished the lawyers “necks could be wrung and their bodies exposed in the College of Surgeons so people could see how thick their skulls had become.” The legal area with its four inns of court are like walking back in time – one of the reasons their gas lit courtyards are loved by film and television adaptations of his works. This is where Pip had lodgings in Great Expectations and you can see the fountain where Ruth Pinch & John Westlock meet in Martin Chuzzlewit.

London in Dickens time was a place of huge contrasts. A city rich from the Empire but with terrible poverty – rich and poor living in close proximity. Dickens conjures them all up for us - the mudlarks and street-sweepers, the clerks bowed over their desks and the rich lawyers and bankers and their wives. A Dickens walking tour is a tour through the social history of the 19th century. He not only raised awareness of social issues but encouraged wealthy philanthropists like Angela Burdett-Coutts to do something about it.

 No tour would be complete without a visit to the Doughty Street house where he lived between 1837 and 1839 and which is now a museum. It was here that he wrote Oliver Twist (Mr Brownlow was the name of one of the governors of the Coram Foundling Hospital just around the corner) and Nicholas Nickleby. It was also where his beloved sister-in-law died in his arms aged just 17, the model of so many young girls in his books.

Dickens would spend the last years of his life in Kent, the scene of his happy childhood. On a day tour from London you can visit the churchyard which inspired the opening scene of Great Expectations with the lozenge shaped children’s’ graves; see the house he lived and died in at Gads Hill and have lunch in a pub mentioned in Pickwick Papers which has Dickens’ traveling bag on display as well as numerous prints lining the walls. In the afternoon enjoy a walking tour of Rochester to see the Swiss Chalet he used to write in, which once stood opposite Gads Hill, but is now hidden away. There is Restoration House the model for Miss Havisham’s Satis House and the Six Poor Traveller’s House that features in a short Christmas story. By the imposing ruined castle is the site where he wanted to be buried, but his wishes were ignored, and this much loved writer was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey – back in London. Book a private Charles Dickens London Tour to see it all!

Gavin Webb

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