Monday, 10 January 2011

Dickens' "English Watering Place"

Charles Dickens was very well travelled.  He lived in and visited an impressive array of places but for a number of years he took his summer holidays in Broadstairs, a small town on the south-east coast of England.  He even wrote a short story about it, called "Our English Watering Place".  It was here too that he wrote "David Copperfield" while staying in Fort House.

Broadstairs.  Broad stairs.  A small seaside town, very popular in Victorian times, which started as a very small fishing village known by the Anglo-Saxon name of Bradstow, a broad place, possibly referring to the wide bay.  The stairs came later when steps from the shore led up to the village, as it was then, at the top of the cliff.

The bay, one of seven in the Broadstairs area, was renamed Viking Bay in 1949 to commemorate the Viking invasion of 449 AD.  You can see how the sand has been banked up to protect against expected high tides and rough seas during the winter. 

The house overlooking the bay is the one in which Dickens spent most of his Broadstairs holidays.  In those days it was called Fort House, and was much smaller. It was only later that it was renamed Bleak House by someone who had thought the house was the basis for the book of the same name.  Then for a time it was a museum but in 2005 it was sold as a private house.

If you look carefully or click on the picture for a closer view, you can see wind turbines on the horizon.  These are part of the largest operational offshore wind farm in the world, completed last autumn.

There is an arch, York Arch, on the road from the town approaching the pier.  A plaque beside it states:

York Gate - about the time of Henry VIII a small wooden pier appears to have been built here, for the safety of the fishing craft, probably by the Culmer family who fortified the gate or way leading down to the seashore by an arched portal, defended by a portcullis and strong gates to prevent inhabitants from being plundered by the sudden incursions of privateers.  These gates have for many years been gone and as the stonework was fast decaying, it was repaired and beautifued by Lord Hennikerwhen Sir John Henniker.  Above the arch is the following inscription:
York Gate July 17 1811
Built by George Culmer AD 1540
Repaired by Sir John Henniker Bart 1795

In fact the inscription reads "York Gate July 1797".

Also on the same road is the Palace Cinema, the tiniest cinema I've ever seen.  Their website, though, insists that they aren't the smallest in Britain so it sounds as if it may be a sore point. All the same, I feel sure the House Full notice is often used.  To the left is the gateway into the Pavilion once the site of a shipyard owned by the George Culmer who built York Gate.  Shipbuilding was important in Broadstairs until the 19th century.

And because shipbuilding was important, so too was having a lifeboat, especially because of the notorious Goodwin Sands nearby.  The plaques on the wall of the lifeboat station list all the rescues made.  The two figureheads are from ships that presumably weren't rescued. 

A view of the bay from the farther end shows more beach huts and a sole family braving the winter chill.  You would need to enlarge the picture to see them, at the end nearest the lift from the beach to the road above the cliff.  That lift functions only in the summer time.

On that road above the bay you can find Dickens House.  It is the house where the inspiration for Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield lived.  It's now a museum preserving the character of the house and displaying Victoriana and Dickens memorabilia.

A little further along the same road is the Charles Dickens pub, while nearer the centre of town is the Barnaby Rudge.  Every other building or path has a name associated with Dickens.

Every year there is a Dickens Festival here in June, and another in Rochester.  Dickens is big business in the south east of England.  Now, I'm told, there is even a Dickens World, a theme park of sorts.  I visited Broadstairs in November because I found the crowd in July too much, and that was without any festival.  I do wonder how far they can go before attracting people in is counter-productive.

Out of season, though, it's a lovely place.

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  1. It IS a beautiful place. Reminds me of the seashore scenes in David Copperfield. The pictures are stunning, too!

  2. Hi A. --

    Love the photos! Have to say that when I saw the blog entry's title, I thought you were going to write about pubs -- this not least since, strangely enough, I used to frequent a Dickens Inn in Philadelphia (including after it was renamed the Black Sheep) and now go to a Dickens Bar here in Hong Kong! ;b

  3. Another excellent tour! However I don't hold out much hope for the beach huts, or houses, if there is a high tide. That sand barrier does not look strong!

  4. In doing my in-depth research for one of my recent scholarly posts, I discovered that Augustus Pugin, that wacky (though sadly mad) architect of Westminster, also had a thriving salvage business on the side, and lived quite well off the shipwreck bounty of Goodwin Sands, which he watched incessantly with a telescope, they say, from the upper regions of his home above the sea, much like Dickens could have seen from his own house, I imagine. Except Pugin was living at Ramsgate. Pugin moved to Ramsgate after he designed Big Ben and rested for a season at Bedlam.

    I guess Goodwin Sands is the only thing pertinent in this comment to your post. Sorry. At least I don't think he could see the turbines back then. The view for him was quite bleak, I imagine.

  5. @Shakespeare, thanks!

    @YTSL, hi! I do know what you mean, his pubs are all over the place. :) There's even one in Bordeaux which I find odd to say the least, but I hadn't realised he's reached Hong Kong.

    @Adullamite, I do know what you mean about the sand barrier. I looked at it a little doubtfully myself.

    @Max, the Goodwin Sands seem stretch and encompass a wide area. Probably the turbines will do the same before long.

  6. What an interesting place and post! Excellent. You really managed to draw me into the history of it. I must note this place down if I ever have the chance to go there or somewhere nearby! Even the nearby wind turbines caught my eyes. Many people don't like wind turbines, but I do. I mean: what alternatives do we have?


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