Renowned as one of the greatest writers of the Victorian era, this year marks 150 years since the passing of Charles Dickens. Born in Portsmouth on the south coast of England, he spent his formative years in Chatham and London, before finding literary success with the serialisation of The Pickwick Papers. Some 15 novels followed, in addition to numerous novellas and hundreds of short stories, including A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations – all packed with humour, satire and unique observations about characters and aspects of Victorian society.
Reminders of Dickensian Britain can be found across the south of England and on the big screen, as many of his works have been adapted for film and TV. Sit back and delve into the mind of the esteemed author, who upon his death in 1870 was laid to rest in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, testament to his impact on the literary world.
Reimagined with a comedic twist, Armando Iannucci’s flamboyant take on Charles Dickens’ classic The Personal History of David Copperfield hit cinemas earlier this year. Starring Dev Patel in the title role, filming took place at locations across England, showcasing some of the country’s most scenic landscapes and impressive buildings. First published in 1850, this epic tale of grit and perseverance is arguably the author’s most autobiographical novel and chronicles the life of David Copperfield as he transforms from impoverished orphan to flourishing writer.
The film features an all-star British cast, including Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Morfydd Clark, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Gwendoline Christie. Those dreaming of following in the footsteps of the stars can discover more about an array of filming locations across the east and south east of England, or learn of the places that inspired Dickens, as we commemorate 150 years since his passing.
Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk provides the backdrop for numerous scenes in The Personal History of David Copperfield, including around Angel Hill and the Angel Hotel. A blue plaque adorns the front of the latter to commemorate Dickens’ visits to the town – he first stayed at the hotel in 1835 and the novelist’s quotes can be found on mirrors and artwork throughout the Georgian building.
The Athenaeum events space also features in the new movie, alongside Chequers Square. Dickens gave readings, including one from David Copperfield, at the striking Grade I listed building, which was purposely built for entertaining during the Victorian era. Scenes from the film were also shot in the Theatre Royal, the last operating Regency playhouse in England, which was designed by renowned architect William Wilkins.
Dickens was a regular visitor to the town, which has strong ties to the Magna Carta and its own legend of St Edmund and the wolf. It’s home to a number of historical monuments, including St Edmundsbury Cathedral, a site of worship and pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years, as well as the ruins of the Abbey of St Edmund in the stunning Abbey Gardens. Once one of the largest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England, the ruins are accessed through the impressive Abbey Gate en route to discovering the shrine to St Edmund - a pilgrimage site that has even been visited by royalty!
The Norfolk market town of King’s Lynn and its picturesque waterfront on the River Great Ouse came alive for filming. Both the 17th century Custom House, an architectural masterpiece from Henry Bell that was built as a merchant’s exchange, and Purfleet’s historic harbour feature in the film. The town was one of the country’s most prominent ports in the 12th century and is home to an array of historic buildings that hold more than 900 years of maritime history, from medieval churches and guildhalls, to fine houses, secret courtyards and hidden passageways.
Set in the heart of the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the vast expanse of beach near the coastal village of Weybourne provided another backdrop for filming. Literature lovers and fans of the film can dream of following in David Copperfield’s footsteps as they explore along the shingle shores, or of looking out from the imposing clifftops to spy pretty flint cottages, the village’s heritage railway, and an array of wildlife in the Blakeney National Nature Reserve, located a short distance westwards on the coast. The home of England’s largest grey seal colony, this remarkable stretch of coastline features sand dunes and shingle spits, salt marshes and an abundance of plant life.
Scenes from The Personal History of David Copperfield were also shot among the cobbled streets of Hull’s Old Town on the banks of the River Humber in East Yorkshire. It’s easy to imagine stepping back in time amid the historic buildings, narrow alleyways and the Victorian Hepworth Arcade. The city’s Museum Quarter delves into the region’s fascinating past and is crammed with period architecture too.
Dickens also has ties to a number of locations in London and Kent, having visited many on his travels. Across the regions, there are a dazzling array of period properties and other places with strong literary links…
Dickens penned David Copperfield in Fort House – now known as Bleak House – in Broadstairs, as he spent many of his holidays staying in the coastal town on the Isle of Thanet. Having first visited in 1837, it was here that he wrote parts of American Notes and The Haunted Man, before immortalising the town in his short story Our English Watering Hole in August 1852.
Although the Broadstairs Dickens Festival isn’t happening this year, fans of the author can still get a taste of his works and dream of following in his footsteps by learning more about the festival. The celebration originated in 1937, when Gladys Waterer, then a resident of Dickens House, organised a production of David Copperfield to mark the centenary of Dickens’ first visit to the town. People dressed up in Victorian clothing to promote the performance, and have done nearly every year since, with only the Second World War bringing a halt to proceedings previously.
Housed in the cottage that provided the inspiration for Dickens’ character Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield, the Dickens House Museum celebrates the novelist’s connections with Broadstairs via an eclectic collection of letters, prints, costumes and other personal items. The building on Victoria Parade overlooks Viking Bay and houses his writing box and a set of impressive prints from one of Dickens’ principal illustrators, H.K Browne. The building’s former owner, Mary Pearson Strong, even provided the inspiration for the famed line in David Copperfield: “Janet! Donkeys!” For lovers of Dickens who are interested in viewing more of Broadstairs, there’s also a digital discovery tour of the area linked to the author.
Dickens and his wife Catherine took residence at this Camden address just months before Queen Victoria took to the throne in 1837. He penned Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick Papers within its walls, and the property maintains its Victorian charm as the Charles Dickens Museum. The private bedchambers, the servant’s quarters and the author’s study in his family home serve as a reminder of life in Victorian England, and are packed with treasures including his writing desk, letters, manuscripts and even Catherine’s engagement ring – many of which can be discovered on the museum’s interactive tour.
Dickens’ birthplace in Portsmouth, on Old Commercial Road, is now a museum packed with furniture and other memorabilia which help to showcase life in Regency England. Having played a central role in celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth eight years ago, it’s home to his couch and his inkwell, among other items which serve as a poignant reminder of his talents. Dickens returned to the coastal city in later life, including numerous references to it when penning The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. He’s not the only famous figure from literature who called Portsmouth or nearby Southsea home either, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and acclaimed writer Rudyard Kipling both spent time living in region.
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