Travel Postcard: 48 Hours in Dickensian London
Fans of Dickens can still walk the same streets of the city – whose population helped to inspire such characters as Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge and Bella Wilfer – visit the writer’s house and have a drink at some of his old watering holes.
Local correspondents help you to spend 48 hours enjoying some of the London haunts of one of the English language’s greatest writers.
7 p.m. – Check into a London Hotel near Russell Square, a stone’s throw from the Doughty Street home where Dickens penned some of his greatest works.
8 p.m. – Ride on London’s Underground railway (known to locals as the “tube”) to a late-evening theatre showing in atmospheric Covent Garden, a bustling square even in Dickens’s day which he used to frequent after a day’s work at his office.
Dickens was a dramatist and became involved in amateur theatre from his days at Tavistock house, directing, acting and raising money for London’s needy.
10:30 p.m. – Covent Garden is a hive of activity at night, with numerous bars and clubs lining the cobbled squares and streets. Duck into The Marquis on Chandos Place, explore the upstairs dining area, discuss the writer’s works or watch passers-by in the now modernised Dickensian haunt.
10 a.m. – Start the day off at Borough Market (www.boroughmarket.org.uk) just up from the banks of the River Thames and across from London Bridge tube station. Searching through the food and other fare on offer to get a sense of the kind of neighbourhood and type of market under the railway arches that the writer would have known well. Borough Market traces its roots back to the 11th century.
12 p.m. Go for lunch at the George Inn, a 17th century pub which earns a mention in Little Dorrit and is London’s last remaining galleried coaching inn. Dickens used to come here for coffee.
The George’s aged two-tiered balconies overlook a courtyard set aside for patrons to enjoy beer, ale, porter, stout and all other manner of drink as well as a hearty menu of pub food. This London treasure was rebuilt in 1676, after a fire destroyed the original. Shakespeare was another well-known regular. His rebuilt Globe Theatre is not far away.
1 p.m. – Go on a Dickens walk. There are any number of walking tour firms in London, which offer themed walks, including those for Charles Dickens. During the Christmas season London Walks (www.walks.com) offers a Christmas Carol tour, which explores the darker side of London and is led by a Victorian-dressed guide.
In February, the author of Walking Dickensian London Richard Jones will be giving guided walking tours. For details see: www.dickenslondontours.co.uk . Don’t forget to drop by Westminster Abbey, where Dickens is buried in Poet’s Corner alongside Tennyson, Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling and others.
4:30 p.m. – By this stage the weary traveller might appreciate a drink at one of the many public houses associated with the writer, where Dickens would take respite from his lengthy walks about the city, spurred by insomnia.
One of the places where the sometimes entertainer, gentleman and theatrical personality drank and ate was at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The pub, which was alluded to in a Tale of Two Cities is on Fleet Street, and is still a dark, cramped series of odd-shaped rooms, the walls thick with history and adorned with copies of Victorian-era paintings.
Other famous literary figures associated with the pub include Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Samuel Johnson.
5:30 p.m. – On the way to dinner, take in the sights and sounds of London, passing the Shard, the soon-to-be-completed tallest building in Europe, making the most of the photographic opportunities along London Bridge.
6:30 p.m. – Spend the evening at your leisure. Dickens was a man who worked and played hard. Take a trip to the theatre in the West End or its modern-day equivalent the cinema for a distraction from the quiet hum left by the day’s exploration.
9 a.m. – Head straight for the Dickens museum at 48 Doughty Street, where the writer lived with his wife and where he wrote Oliver Twist. Get the abridged version of his life and upbringing from a short film.
Visitors can run their hands along the wooden crevices of the writer’s desk, used by Dickens when he was a reporter at the Daily News, explore the house, which he complained was crowded, and have a bite to eat in the museum cafe.
11 a.m. – Take a trip to the Old Curiosity Shop, which inspired the story of the same title, still exists and bills itself as “the oldest shop in London”. The 16th century building with a sloping tiled roof and its name writ large across the front is now home to an expensive shoe boutique.
1 p.m. – Visit the wharfs in Wapping and Limehouse, where ships in Victorian times used to unload spices, herbs, plants, wood and other goods from all over the world. The old wharf houses have since been converted from storage houses into offices and apartments, but retain the patina of their heritage The area contains a number of good places to stop off for lunch.
The Grapes pub, which was built in 1720 and described by Dickens in Our Mutual Friend is now owned by English actor Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy. Charles Dickens knew this pub well, according to its description on www.pubs.com.
“As a child, he was made to stand on a table and sing to the customers. As an adult, he immortalised it as the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub in Our Mutual Friend. There are unsavoury stories of watermen taking drunks from the pub, drowning them in the river, then selling their corpses for medical dissection.”
3 p.m. – After lunch take a boat across the churning waters of the River Thames, which still offers up the occasional dead body, from the Canary Wharf pier to Greenwich. This was one of Dickens’s favourite destinations for weekend excursions.
4 p.m. – Visit the Royal Observatory (www.rmg.co.uk), climb the hill for a breathtaking view of London, with a view of the Canary Wharf business estate, the domed O2 centre and the financial district known as the “City” of London.
6 p.m. – Dine in Greenwich, where pubs on offer close to the water include the Gipsy Moth, near the newly restored Cutty Sark, the world’s last tea clipper (ship) or The Trafalgar Tavern, which lies just beyond the picturesque National Maritime Museum and has a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson outside, gazing out onto the Thames.