It wouldn’t be Christmas without Dickens. No really, it wouldn’t – just ask Dickens expert Richard Jones.
Throughout the festive season, he dresses up as a Victorian gentlemen and conducts A Christmas Carol-themed walk in which he explains how Charles Dickens influenced the way we celebrate Christmas. Like many of us, his love of the great novelist also began at this time of year: watching Great Expectations on TV every Christmas.
“It was the David Lean version and I actually grew up thinking Great Expectations was a ghost story!” he recalls.
“When I moved to London years later, I started seeing places like Little Britain and Smithfield and thinking: I know those from somewhere. And then it suddenly dawned on me that I knew them from Dickens.
“I quickly made the discovery that you can take his books around London, read the descriptions he gives and marvel at how little some of those places have changed since his day.”
Richard believes that exploring Dickens’ London is a must for devotees. Below, he takes us on a guided tour of his favourite spots…
Middle Temple Hall and Gardens
Stepping into Middle Temple is like stepping back into Dickensian London. Dickens wrote of it: “You can read on its gates: ‘Who enters here leaves noise behind’.”
One of the loveliest spots is Garden Court, which is alongside the river and appears in Great Expectations. It’s where Magwitch turns up reveal himself as the source of Pip’s great expectations. Pip comes home on that storm-lashed night and gets a message at the gate of the Temple: Don’t go home. But of course he does.
At weekends, the only entrance open is the one on Tudor Street but you can still go in and explore.
No.1 South Square, Gray’s Inn
There’s no blue plaque affixed to No. 1 South Square but it was the firm of Ellis and Blackmore Solicitors, which is where Charles Dickens found employment as a clerk at the age of 15. The building is opposite Gray’s Inn Hall and is still much as he would have seen it on that first day of work.
To me, that’s where he began his rise to becoming the second most famous Victorian. While he was there, he started to learn shorthand reporting and that led him into his career first as a journalist and from there he became a novelist.
Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall
Lincoln’s Inn, Holborn, 1830; view of Lincoln’s Inn Chapel and Old Hall
Behind the Royal Courts of Justice is the third of the four Inns of Court: Lincoln’s Inn. The Old Hall is where Dickens started Bleak House, comparing the legal system to London fog. For pure poetry, it can’t be beaten:
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.
You can’t go inside Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall but you can see it from the outside. It’s gas-lit by night round there so it’s really atmospheric at this time of year, although you can’t get in after seven o’clock at night.
The George and Vulture
My next stop would be The George and Vulture, which is near the Bank of England – just off Cornhill, hidden in a maze of alleys. It was one of Dickens’ favourite hostelries and he mentioned it in The Pickwick Papers.
If you go inside, there is a white marble bust of Charles Dickens on the windowsill, commemorating his association, and all the walls are adorned with Dickensian illustrations from his novels. Nowadays, it’s a favourite with his descendants who often go there for Christmas lunch. Apparently one of the youngest is a boy called Oliver Dickens and I always make the joke when I’m passing that he’s forever asking for more. I don’t know if it’s a good joke or a bad joke but it always gets a laugh!
The Old Curiosity Shop
Old Curiosity Shop, Holborn
Go to Portsmouth Street and look at The Old Curiosity Shop, which dates from 1567. It’s now a bespoke shoemakers shop. It has a big fib on the front: ‘Immortalised by Charles Dickens’. It’s almost certainly not The Old Curiosity Shop he wrote about but it’s so associated with Dickens now that people make pilgrimages just to see it.
Richard Jones leads walking tours that explore the life, times and works of Charles Dickens. See dickenslondontours.co.uk for more details. Dickensian begins on Boxing Day on BBC1 at 7pm