In Dickens’ Footsteps: Blackfriars Bridge to New Cross

I have decided to replicate a small portion of the walk undertaken by Charles Dickens from his home in Tavistock Square to his house in Gad’s Hill, Kent. If I were a fitter man, I may have been tempted to walk a larger portion of his route, but I am not, so, with time and bodily constraints in mind, I have decided to walk from Blackfriars Bridge (where Dickens crossed into south London) through Borough and down the Old Kent Road to New Cross. In a letter written on the 7th December 1857, Dickens mentions that he has recently completed the Tavistock Square to Gad’s Hill walk and that owing to his inability to sleep (rumoured to be in part, because of his marital problems) he set off at 2 o’clock in the morning. (Storey & Turner, 1995, p. 489)

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A portion of the Old Kent Road from an 1830s map of Southwark

In the interests of being as true as possible to my muse I also conducted my walk in the early hours. As I myself have no such problems when it comes to insomnia, I have had to consume copious amounts of coffee to make this nocturnal amble possible. Nor am I in a situation of marital distress, so my own personal brand of cantankerous cynicism will have to suffice as a poor substitute. To get into the spirit of my Dickensian walk and feel fully immersed in my surroundings, I have dispatched with the earphones that normally accompany me everywhere – partially for the music, but chiefly to avoid unsolicited social interaction (evidence of cantankerous cynicism – see above). Also worth noting at this point, I have not used the flash when taking any of the pictures, in the hope that you will see things as I saw them.

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Despite the hour, Blackfriars Bridge is still busy when I set off southbound. I am aware that the bridge I am crossing, though located in the same place, is different to the one that Dickens would have crossed, given that it was completed (in its current form) in 1869. The first main stretch of the walk takes me down Southwark Street towards Borough, whilst I mostly find myself passing various glass and concrete clad office buildings, every now and again I find a building Dickens may well have passed nestled in between the modern monoliths.

It is on Southwark Street that I first feel acutely aware of how my experience is being impacted by the lateness of the hour. Southwark Street and Southwark Bridge Road (which I turn into next) are largely commercial areas and so by being here after hours I am seeing them closed and dormant, as if the streets themselves are asleep for the night. I am reminded of Beaumont’s assertion that ‘the night time city is another city.’ (Beaumont, 2016, p. 3) Whilst my night walk feels notably different to any daylight equivalent, it is not an entirely solitary experience. The traffic never dies down entirely and many of the more prominent bus stops have at least one or two stragglers waiting.

My first real point of interest comes when I arrive at Borough via Marshalsea Road. The name of the road itself is indicative of why I am interested. Here, where Marshalsea Road intersects Borough High Street is the approximate location of the Marshalsea Prison, where Charles Dickens’ father, John, was detained for failure to repay his debts and around the corner from where Charles Dickens lodged in Lant Street.

By walking the route myself, I see how close Charles Dickens journey to Gad’s Hill brought him to the prison site in a way I could not have appreciated had I only read of his route. All that is left of the prison now is a small stretch of wall just off the High Street. Little Dorit Court and Charles Dickens Primary School, serve as further reminders of his connection to the area, both in a personal and literary sense.

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My route

I continue on my route down Great Dover Street (assuming this is a reference to the ultimate destination of southbound travellers on the old Watling Street) and onto the Old Kent Road. The Old Kent Road pops up in Dickens’ work, inspired at least in part by his own experience of the street, in David Copperfield, when a destitute David is forced to sell his waistcoat to shop proprietor Mr Dolloby. (Dickens, 2000, p. 157)

Dickens referred to the Old Kent Road as one of the few areas along his walk where he may have expected (or even hoped) to have had his solitude disturbed by the chaos of late night revellers being ejected from the various pubs and taverns. With this in mind, I am struck by how few pubs remain, the businesses that populate the street have changed and evolved, especially as different migrant communities have settled in the area. One former pub, The Duke of Kent is now home to the Old Kent Road Mosque, a prime example of how the area’s buildings have been transformed in order to best serve the current local population.

Across the road from the Mosque is the Thomas A Becket, another former pub that has served many functions over the last few decades in particular. Standing outside the Thomas A Becket now there is, at first glance, little evidence pointing to any of its previous incarnations (it’s currently a bar) but taking a closer look into one of the alcoves on the outside wall, I notice a blue plaque bearing the name of Henry Cooper. Cooper was a champion boxer (and childhood friend of my grandfather’s as it happens) who trained at the Thomas A Becket when the upstairs space was used a boxing gym. The plaque would have been easy to miss and serves as a quiet reminder of the working-class culture that once dominated the area.

Cooper’s plaque and a rather uninspiring picture of the Old Kent Road Mosque:

As I move toward my final leg, the Old Kent Road gives way into New Cross Road. This area is prime example of London’s hodgepodge of historical architecture and street landscaping. This ancient roman road is now home to a wide variety of buildings, from the Georgian and Victorian terraces that would have been familiar to Dickens as he wandered, to the sprawling post war housing estates that attempted to solve London’s chronic housing problems. Whilst it is true that the Tustin Estate has seen its fair share of violent crime over the years, I find as I take a brief detour round, just after 2am, the public spaces in between the buildings are calm and even tranquil.

There is a comfort in the silence.

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Bibliography:

Matthew Beaumont, Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (London: Verso, 2016)

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000)

Graham Storey and Kathleen Turner, eds, The Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume Eight 1856-1858 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)

 

 

 

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