Between the lines

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Take a stroll through Charles Dickens's Rochester and find out where some of his most notable characters lived, worked, entertained and got up to no good. Chris Fautley offers some lesson ideas

Great Expectations. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The Pickwick Papers.

Charles Dickens found inspiration for them all in the city of Rochester.

For authors of less experience, meanwhile, it's a place bursting with resources to improve literacy skills.

Start in the car park at the city walls off Corporation Street and walk southeast along the High Street. Have a camera and take photographs of subjects that would make good postcards. As an exercise in concise writing, write brief narratives describing the pictures, similar to those found on commercial cards.

On the left is 16th-century Eastgate House - Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers and the Nun's House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood - a multitude of leaded windows, swaggering chimneys and time-worn bricks. What would you call it?

In the gardens at the rear is Dickens's Swiss chalet, where he wrote his last words. A gift that really did come from Switzerland, it was erected in the grounds of his home at Gad's Hill, a few miles away. Write estate agent's particulars describing the chalet.

Continue a few yards along the High Street to find, at Number 150, Uncle Pumblechook's shop from Great Expectations. The frontage leans out surveying everybody who passes. Pip described it as "of a peppercorny and farinaceous character, as the premises of a corn-chandler and seedsman should be". As you explore the city, choose a business - confectioner, greengrocer, or bookshop - and write a sentence or two describing how you would expect to find it.

Now backtrack northwest along the High Street until you reach, on the right, the almshouses of Watts' Charity, (see picture). Notice the number of businesses named after Dickensian characters: Tope's Restaurant, Pip's Pet Foods... make up your own name using a favourite literary character; try to make it alliterative.

Still in the High Street, pass the Guildhall where, in Great Expectations, Pip was apprenticed to Joe Gargery, until you reach The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel. This featured as itself in The Pickwick Papers, and the Blue Boar in Great Expectations.

Dickens was a dab hand at disguising real buildings and places: Rochester became Dullborough in The Uncommercial Traveller, Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Mudfog in The Mudfog Papers. As your knowledge of the city grows, find your own name for it; consider the architecture, the people - the weather, even.

At the end of the High Street, walk onto Rochester Bridge. Note the crest and its motto, publica privatis - "from the private for the public" - an excellent example of Latin's influence on the English language. Devise a class motto.

There has been a bridge here since Roman times, although it is thought that travellers then did not bask in the luxury of railings and balustrades.

Backtrack and turn right along the esplanade - departure point for boat excursions. Write the words for a poster advertising these trips. Follow the signs to the Norman castle, (allow one hour to explore), that made such an impression on all who saw it in The Pickwick Papers. "Magnificent ruin!"

opined Augustus Snodgrass. "Ah! fine place," said the stranger, "glorious pile - frowning walls - tottering arches - dark nooks - crumbling staircases". Think of your own two-word phrases to describe it. The keep walls are 4m thick, 34.5m high and 21m square, making it one of the mightiest in Britain. Climb to the top and write a postcard to a friend describing the view. Alternatively, write a poem describing how, as a soldier on the battlements, you defended the castle.

Reality, however, was different: it fell to King John when he tunnelled beneath the southwest tower and used pigs' fat to burn through the tunnel props, causing the tower to collapse. As a journalist, write an account of this.

As you leave the castle, look for the moat opposite the cathedral's main entrance, an atmospheric spot for storytelling. There is a small graveyard; it is said that Dickens "found" the names for many of his characters in a second graveyard, that of the cathedral, that lies opposite. Many are time-worn, but search until you find one bearing the name John Dunbar Dorrett, died 1837. (Little Dorrit was published in 1855.) Dickens had a way with names: he barely needed to describe his characters, their names instantly painting a picture of their characteristics in his readers' minds. Describe how you imagine the following to be: Mr Crisparkle; Jingle; Sergeant Buzfuz; Doctor Slammer; Miss Twinkleton.

The stranger in The Pickwick Papers described the cathedral thus: "Earthy smell - pilgrims' feet worn away the old steps - little Saxon doors - confessionals like money-takers' boxes at theatres..." Explore the cathedral and write your own description, in similar vein.

In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the cathedral formed the setting for Dickens's last written words. Write the final few paragraphs of your own book, set in the cathedral, leaving one great unsolved mystery. Be sure the reader is left wanting more. Unintentional it may have been, but it worked for him.; tel: 01634 402276. Allow three hours. Rochester Cathedral: Adult pound;4, child pound;3

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