diamond geezer

 Friday, February 10, 2012

Gads Hill Place, Higham, Kent

Charles Dickens was nine years old when he first noticed the big house at the top of the hill on the Gravesend Road. "A mansion of dull red brick," as he would later describe it, "with a weathercock surmounted cupola on the roof, and a bell hanging in it." It's in a very literary location - the precise setting of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 Act 2 scene 2 - which must also have appealed to the young wordsmith. Charles loved the house, and would often walk the five miles from his home in Chatham to the top of Gads Hill to stare at it. "If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard," said his father, "you might some day come to live in it." And lo, beyond Dickens' greatest expectations, this came to pass.

The house went on the market when Charles was 44. By now he was a successful author so could easily afford the asking price of £1790, and the entire family moved in the following summer. One of the first visitors was Hans Christian Andersen, who was supposed to come for two weeks but stayed for five (which didn't go down well). Charles opened up his gardens for village cricket, as you do when you're a gregarious communal fellow, and never regretted his switch to rural life.
"I am on my little Kentish freehold looking on as pretty a view out of my study window as you will find in a long day's English ride. My little place is a grave red-brick house, which I have added to and stuck bits on in all manner of ways, so that it is as pleasantly irregular, and as violently opposed to all architectural ideas, as the most hopeful man could possibly desire."
Gads Hill Place is no longer in the Dickens family. Charles' eldest son suffered ill-health and had to sell up, and the mansion is now in the possession of a boarding school. It's "the top-performing public school in England", according to the sign outside facing the main road, and one wonders whether English Literature is their speciality. Peer through the hedge, preferably out of term time, and a fairly non-descript frontage appears. The front garden has a broad gravel drive, some semi-smart grass and a small sundial/birdtable near the front door. The ground floor windows hint at education beyond - that's either a store cupboard of equipment or a rather messy classroom. But the fact that this might once have been home to one of Britain's greatest novelists, that's a hidden secret, unless you can read the words on the small plaque on the front wall, which only pupils (and their parents, dropping off) ever pass. [photo]

They're building a new school now, with an incongruous crane looming over the surrounding fields and a metal skeleton appearing out the back. The plan is then to turn Gads Hill Place into a Dickens Visitor Centre, although they've already missed the bicentenary. The location's a bit out of the way to attract tourists, I'd have thought, which is probably one of the reasons Charles loved Gads Hill in the first place. Fields roll down from the back garden towards the North Downs and the Medway - all fine walking country through which Dickens loved to stride. The M2 wasn't there at the time however, scything through the ridge in the distance, so it's not quite such fine walking country any more.

At Christmas 1864, Charles received a most unusual gift - a full-size two-storey Swiss chalet. He had it assembled on the opposite side of the Rochester High Road, and then built a brick tunnel beneath the road to link his house to his new writing studio. A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations were both written in the chalet, as was most of The Mystery of Edwin Drood - the book that Dickens never completed. Alas his end came swiftly and unexpectedly, cut down by a stroke at the age of 58 and dying on the green couch in his Gads Hill study the following day. He was buried not in Higham churchyard, as he'd requested, but in Westminster Abbey because the nation thought it knew best.

His home village of Higham is a bit non-nondescript today - more a commuter outpost, infilled late-20C-style. Some residents have a view of the Thames estuary, some of the church on the hill, but most stare at the bungalow opposite, or a neighbour's leylandii. The station's still there, from which Charles's coffin departed on that summer's day in 1870, but these days most people leave by car. A pub on the old coaching road remembers Sir John Falstaff (see Henry IV. Part I. Act ii. Sc ii), while further down the hill are a couple of Dickensian-named cul-de-sacs. And the dualled foot-tunnel opposite Gads Hill Place is still there, dipping deeply and darkly beneath the road - a most unusual domestic feature unless you know the reason why it's there.

And Dickens' chalet has been relocated to the centre of Rochester, a few miles across the valley. It hides just off the main street, round the back of Eastgate House, where it'll stand either until it crumbles or until someone raises enough cash to restore it [photo]. Meantime the High Street relishes its Dickensian connections, with such retail delights as "Sweet Expectations", the candy shop, and the "A Taste of Two Cities" Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant. Rochester's a lovely town to visit, as the small boy and elder gent who once walked its streets would concur.

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