The weatherman had called for some rain yesterday. Not a lot, but just enough to make a long walk iffy. We didn’t want to be caught in a downpour, especially the one of us who’s battling a cold.
Normally the solution to such a quandary is to find a few pubs to take shelter in along our chosen route. Places where we can escape the rain, have a pint — or a glass of wine, and wait for the weather to change course. But yesterday we decided to do something different and spend some time absorbing culture.
To be fair, walking along the streets of London is in itself a lesson in culture. There’s so much to take in, so many places that have survived the centuries. We look around and spot plaques on the walls of buildings pointing out which important person lived there at some point.
One such house is in Doughty Street, very close to Great Ormond Street Hospital. It looks like any other house, the door painted a happy shade of teal. The only indications that this is not just any other residence are two signs telling passersby that one of the greatest authors lived there. Because 48 Doughty Street, in the Borough of Camden, is where Charles Dickens lived with his wife Catherine and their three eldest children for close to three years between March 1837 and December 1839, and where he wrote Oliver Twist. The place has been turned into a museum which underwent a multimillion pound renovation in 2012.
Once we entered The Charles Dickens Museum and paid the £8 fee, we started walking through the rooms, preserved how they would have been when Dickens lived in what he called “my house in town”.
The dining room to the front of the house is where Dickens would have entertained his friends. While we declined the audio guide, the museum lent us a booklet to help us through the tour. There are also informative notices all around the museum.
Next we walked down a flight of stairs to the basement, which housed the kitchen, scullery, and a wine cellar. For anyone who like us is used to apartment living, the kitchen is quite spacious, and aside from being the place where food was prepared, was also where deliveries were brought to. But in the Dickensian era the kitchen could also be a pretty filthy area, filled with soot and also a congregation ground for vermin, which is why hedgehogs were kept there. In a small room next to the cellar, there’s a copper basin which would have been used to wash clothes and also to make Christmas pudding.
We then walked up to the first floor, which would have been the heart of the house. There’s a family room and Dickens’ study, which houses the desk and chair that Dickens used when he wrote Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, and his last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, while living in Gad’s Hill, Kent. Incidentally, the museum has just been given a grant to purchase these pieces, which, although already at the museum, were privately owned. It is reassuring that now they can remain in the museum rather than risk being sold off to wealthy private collectors.
Dickens’ and Catherine’s bedroom is on the next floor, with Dickens’ dressing room next to the bedroom. There’s also the bedroom where Dickens’ sister-in-law, Mary Hograth, died at the age of 17. Her death is believed to have impacted Dickens greatly and he actually stopped writing for some time.
The top floor is reserved for the servants’ quarters and the nursery. But the nursery gives details about Dickens’ own childhood and the hardship he endured when his father was sent to jail for a debt of some £40 and the young Dickens was taken out of school and sent to work.
It was a good way to spend an hour, getting a glimpse of what a house would have looked like during that era and also getting an understanding of the lifestyle that Dickens and his contemporaries enjoyed.