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Charles Dickens was a tireless walker of London, the English city that served as the main setting of many of his novels. According to Claire Tomalin’s new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, he routinely traipsed the capital’s central neighbourhoods before dinner and after midnight.
In the 200th anniversary year of the author’s birth (7 February), a walking tour of central London brings a new appreciation to Dickens’s novels, as fans can still see many of the same details that the author observed during his (often nocturnal) travels around town.
Though London was heavily damaged by the bombings of World War II, vestiges of the city's 1800s architecture survive in quaint pubs, spooky alleyways and monkish courtyards ringed with Georgian features. Some of the most relevant and evocative Dickens-themed spots can be reached in a two-hour walk within a few miles northeast of Big Ben and not far from the River Thames.
Start at Charing Cross railway station in the centre of the city. Much of Dickens’s formative experience came from working at Jonathan Warren’s blacking, or boot polish, factory when he was 12 years old. (He pasted labels on ceramic pots while his father John was in jail for unpaid debts.) The factory was at the since-demolished Hungerford Stairs on the Thames, where the train station stands today.
From Charing Cross, dogleg a block to Buckingham Street, lined with pretty, well-preserved redbrick Georgian houses. An office complex at number 15 was once a lodging place for Dickens, as well as the first residence of the fictional David Copperfield, a character in Dickens’s eighth novel, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). Be sure to check out the adjacent, large stone watergate, dating from Dickens’s day, which was a passageway to river docks before city officials pushed the border of the Thames southward in a bid for more real estate.
Head along the shop-lined street called Strand, resisting the urge to stop into the fine art galleries and new restaurants at Somerset House, a mansion complex that once housed the Navy Pay Office and where Dickens’s father worked as a clerk.
Where Strand merges into Fleet Street is the epicentre of Temple, the centuries-old legal quarter. Dickens’s working days as a law clerk and court stenographer began here, as detailed in Walter Dexter’s book, The London of Dickens. Look for the signs on Fleet Street’s south side for Middle Temple Lane, leading to Middle Temple, which is one of four Inns of Court ( or squares lined by legal buildings), along with Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn and Inner Temple.
At Middle Temple Hall, where law students often dine, duck into Fountain Court with its monkish atmosphere. This leafy plaza, within view of the Thames, is where Pip, the main character in Great Expectations, was living when the convict Abel Magwitch turned up one night to reveal a life-altering secret. In the book, Pip says, “We lived at the top of the last house and the wind rushing up the river shook the house that night, like discharges of cannon or breakings of a sea.”
This same Fountain Court turns up in the novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty, in a description that remains apt today: "There is yet a drowsiness in its courts and a dreamy dullness in its trees and gardens; those who pace its lanes and squares may yet hear the echoes of their footsteps on the sounding stones."
In real life, Dickens wasn’t charmed by the legal world. He is credited, for instance, with coining the term “red tape” as a metaphor for rigid rules and procedures; and he was familiar with the red tape that bureaucrats used to wrap many documents. Dickens also satirised the law in his novels, such as Bleak House, the tale of a decades-long court case that destroys most of its participants.