Happy birthday, Charles!
It’s Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday today. Doubtless, the dour Victorian author would have wanted us to celebrate the day exploring the city he loved and hated, London.
Dickens’ London was a magnificent and horrendous place. At the height of the British Empire, London was the envy of the world, by far the most majestic city anywhere. Unimaginable wealth passed through its gates every day.
But London was also a stench-filled, sewagey dump of a city. Crowded, squalid conditions meant that everyone lived cheek-by-jowl. The streets stank. The food was moldy. And the beer was warm.
Dickens reveled in conveying the “real” London – not the rarefied royal city whose image shone around the world, but the grittier reality of a metropolis bursting at the seams.
Fortunately, exploring Dickensian London today is a significantly more hygenic experience. Here are three of our favorite spots to start your journey.
This one’s obvious, but it’s the best place to start. The museum is in Bloomsbury, right in central London, and is housed in an actual Dickens residence. Visiting it gives you a sense of exactly what it was like to live in Dickens’ house – if that house were stuffed with hundreds of thousands of artifacts, manuscripts, and other historical objects.
The Cheshire Cheese probably didn’t have the “Ye Olde” appendage in Dickens’ day – but it could have. With roots going back to the Middle Ages, this pub is tucked away from Fleet Street up a narrow alley. Fans of the pub tout its mention in A Tale of Two Cities, although Dickens never mentions the pub by name. Apparently, though, it’s a great place to grab a pint or two after you’ve been acquitted of treason.
You won’t find this cathedral mentioned anywhere in Dickens’ works. That’s because in his time, it was just a plain ol’ church (named “St Saviour’s”).
The cathedral – one of the oldest churches in London – appears in a classically Dickensian sentence from Oliver Twist: “The tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom.” Uplifting!
Whatever your fancy, we hope that your London experience is more like the best of times than…well, you get the idea.