Sarah Gardner: Great Expectations
It was raining steadily as I made my way to Higham, to join the Metropolitan Walkers “What the Dickens” ramble to Rochester, in celebration of Charles Dickens’ bicentenary. My waterproofs had barely dried out from the day before, a recurring theme in the current South England ‘monsoon’ – a phenomenon which seems to occur every time a hosepipe ban is announced. Under the green archway of horse-chestnuts along my street, I noted the proliferation of white and pink floral pyramids shooting up from the leaves, one of my favourite Spring sights. After recent downpours you can almost see the trees stretching out their leaves in glee.
Kent was no less wet than London. 15 people donned their macs and gaiters as Walk Leader Des Garrahan, aka Walking Class Hero, introduced himself and told us about the planned walk – approximately 6 miles from Higham village to Rochester, in the footsteps of Charles Dickens. The writer lived in Chatham for a period as a child, returning as an adult, and loved walking in the area. A true rambler, he often walked 20 miles a day, thinking out plots and characters. In Des’ words, when Dickens wasn’t writing about London he was writing about Rochester, and it took starring roles in both ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’; was mentioned in ‘The Pickwick Papers’; and underwent a name change twice (Dullborough in the essay ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ and Cloisterham in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’).
The first point of interest is the fine tunnel at Higham Station. Built as part of the Thames and Medway Canal, at 3.5km (2.2m miles) it was the second longest canal tunnel built in the UK and the largest at over 10 metres (35 ft) high from arch to canal bed and 6.6 metres (21.5 ft) wide at the water line. Incredibly, the tunnel was dug through the chalk using only hand tools and according to the Tallis Directory of 1839, the tunnel was “so perfectly straight, that a person placed at one end, may discern a small light entering at the other extremity”. When the railway was built between Gravesend and Strood in 1845, it used the same tunnel, the single track resting partially on the towpath and partially on wooden stakes in the water. William Orr described the journey in 1847: “the ride through the dreary tunnel with the dark waters of the canal beneath us, and an insecure chalk roof above our heads, enlivened as it is by occasional shrieks from the engine’s vaporous lungs, and the unceasing rattle of the train, is apt to make one feel somewhat nervous”. Later the canal was filled by South Eastern Railway who built a double railway track over it.
The Kent fields are slick with mud, which we kick up in clumps as we pass pretty oast-houses. Skirting around Higham village, we wind down a country lane, glimpses of the shocking yellow rapeseed dazzling us from between the trees and hedgerows. Rapeseed is now the third largest source of vegetable oil in the world, yet in Dickens’ day it was used as lubricant for steam engines. The sky is heavy and grey, the clouds lying so low as to almost touch the tops of the trees in the distance. The path narrows to a green cut-through behind houses, extremely well-pruned to allow easy access (credit to the path maintenance team) and we emerge to find our first Dickens reference – a block of maisonettes called Dickens’ Court. Soon after we come to another on the main road, the signpost for Higham depicting Dickens in profile, his long beard and slightly unmanageable hair not detracting from his elder statesman air.
We shortly arrive at Gad’s Hill Place, where Dickens’ lived and died. He was apparently happiest as a child in Chatham and when he saw Gad’s Hill Place with his father, he expressed his desire to one day live there. In 1856 he achieved his dream, buying the home for £1790. At a roundabout our Walk Leader Des points out another village sign referencing Dickens, this time the mascot is Mrs Gamp, a character from ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. An interesting choice – Sarah Gamp is an alcoholic nurse, who gives away her drinking problem by the alcoholic fumes she expels. Robbie Collin in the Telegraph selects Mrs Gamp as his favourite Dickens’ character and describes the author’s genius at matching characters to names, “on the page, the word Gamp suggests a gammy, damp hump; a lump of gammon; a gabby blimp. Read aloud, it forms chokingly at the back of your throat before lurching forwards and bursting from between your lips like a fat glob of spit.” Mrs Gamp carries with her a battered black umbrella and it was such a popular image for the Victorian readership that ‘gamp’ became a slang word for an umbrella.
Crossing the bridge into Rochester, the castle appears on the horizon and umbrellas (or gamps) bob above head height. From the bridge we spot a submarine tilting to one side in the grey water. Despite the dreary weather, the High Street is alive with festivities; Morris Dancers clack their sticks and throw their legs up, a man with a strange wicker bird mask leads girls in green dresses through elaborate dance steps. Circling up towards the castle, we pass the magnificent Rochester Cathedral, its architecture betraying its Norman origins. Dickens wished to be buried in the churchyard here, but no such obscurity; he was laid to rest in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. In the grounds of the ruined 10th-century castle, a funfair with its spinning teacups, carousels and merry-go-rounds creates a jarring juxtaposition of old and new. A band is playing the Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’, holding up signs to encourage the crowd to replace lyrics and beats with the name ‘Bob”.
Excited squeals and smatterings of “bob”s left behind, we come to the ‘real’ Satis House, the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s home in ‘Great Expectations’. Dickens took the name but imposed it on a different building in Rochester, that of Restoration House, which we reach through a pretty Grade II listed park called The Vines. London Plane line the avenue and a beautiful Maple adds a burst of red-orange. Dickens was apparently seen walking through The Vines just three days before his death in 1870. Restoration House is an impressive if severe building, in which Charles II apparently stayed on his way back to the English throne. We finished our walk in the Riverside pub at Strood, and raised our glasses to Des and the Met Walkers. We may not have matched Dicken’s daily 20-miler but we all agreed the walk was a great way to celebrate the author’s bicentenary year and a wonderful introduction to Higham and Rochester.