A literary tour of Kent
Secret gardens and smugglers’ hideaways, mischievous scrapes and lashings of laughter: who can resist the
excitement and warmth of children’s classics? Rekindle their spell – or introduce the next generation – on a tour of
Kent, where so many best-loved characters and scenes first came to life.
Discover the creators of Rupert Bear and Bagpuss, chortle along the coast with Billy Bunter, and sleuth with
Sherlock Holmes in an enchanted garden. This autumn Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies again, while Dickens-lovers
will find plenty to celebrate in Kent.
DAY ONE: CANTERBURY TO MARGATE, BROADSTAIRS & RAMSGATE
We begin our tour in Canterbury, whose cobbled streets have drawn writers for centuries. Daniel Defoe for one,
author of Robinson Crusoe, knew a thing or two about a good setting and praised the city’s “antiquities” and
“majestick” cathedral in his famous Tour Thro the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–7). In modern times Anthony
Browne, Children’s Laureate 2009–11, has chosen to live here and the city is making sure its bookshelves are well
stocked with The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge.
Choose from a bulging bag of goodies to fill your morning! Revel in childhood nostalgia at the Canterbury Heritage
Museum where Rupert Bear has his very own museum – entirely fitting for a furry friend who has delighted
millions since he first appeared in a Daily Express comic strip, Little Lost Bear, in November 1920. Artist Mary
Tourtel (née Caldwell) who created Rupert was born in 1874 in the heart of the city at 52 Palace Street – a plaque
celebrates the fact – and she honed her skills at The Sidney Cooper School of Art in St Peter’s Street. She is buried
in St Martin’s Churchyard. As well as lovable Rupert, Mary brought to life memorable pals like Bill Badger, Algy
Pug and jolly Podgy Pig. In the museum you can discover how Rupert changed over the years and join in his
Also find there the real Bagpuss in Emily’s shop window, original Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog.
Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, joint creators of the hit TV characters, did their handiwork just outside Canterbury
on Peter’s farm in Blean (the studio closed in the 1980s). In 1987 the University of Kent awarded the creators an
honorary degree, on condition Bagpuss shared it with them – he appeared in full academic pomp in Canterbury
Cathedral – while in 1999 Bagpuss was voted most popular children’s programme ever in a BBC nationwide poll:
not bad for a saggy old pink-and-cream cloth cat. Maybe nip along to Palace Street Studio where Peter Firmin’s
daughters specialise in hand-painted English bone china, including a range of Noggin the Nog, Bagpuss, Ivor and
If you prefer human adventure to animal magic, spend your morning on the trail of Charles Dickens’ inimitable
characters. Canterbury is on the proposed escape route from London organised for Sam Tappertit by benevolent
Mr Varden in Barnaby Rudge – it remains a great getaway from the capital to this day! Dickens often visited from
his seaside bolthole at Broadstairs, or drove over from his Gad’s Hill home in a carriage with red-jacketed
David Copperfield, above all, conjures up sights you can still see. Mingle “with the shadows of the venerable
gateways and churches”, and in the cathedral experience “the sensation of the world being shut out”. Compare
King’s School with Dr Strong’s establishment, “a grave building in a courtyard with a learned air about it”, and look
up the House of Agnes, 71 St Dunstans Street: “a very old house bulging out over the road” that was home to
David’s second wife and is now a hotel.
This afternoon we’ve another pick ’n’ mix of treats. Grab your “licence to thrill” and head south with super-smooth
hero James Bond in time for lunch at The Duck Inn, Pett Bottom. The pub was author Ian Fleming’s “local” when
he lived at Bekesbourne (1960–62) and it is mentioned in You Only Live Twice as being next to the cottage where
the young Bond lived (cottage and pub are now one).
Strange but true, Fleming also dreamed up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, inspired by the real-life exploits of
flamboyant motor-racing driver Count Louis Zborowski who lived at Higham Park (not open to visitors) on the edge
of nearby Bridge. The Count designed cars fitted with aero engines, naming three of them Chitty Bang Bang.
If you don’t dip south from Canterbury, make straight for the coast where Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate
provide bucket loads of traditional seaside fun. Whiz around them all or indulge your fondest memories in just one.
The whole golden coast is the perfect backdrop for spiffing adventures with that chubby comic anti-hero Billy
Bunter, whose creator Frank Richards (Charles Hamilton) lived at Rose Lawn in Percy Avenue, Kingsgate. “I say
you fellows”, Hamilton (1876-1971) wrote around 70,000 words a week under various pseudonyms and goes down
in history as the most prolific author of juvenile writing ever. Bunter, the squinting, bespectacled “Fat Owl of the
Remove” nevertheless remains his most famous character. The guzzling schoolboy attended Greyfriars, “pleasantly
situated near the south coast of Kent” – some say modelled on a school at Birchington – and lots of local places
crop up in his tales.
One moment Bunter is left for dead by a spy on a beach at Margate and nearly drowns. “Yarooh!” But he is hauled
to cliff-top safety. “He, he, he!” (Richards was inspired by a real rescue he witnessed at Botany Bay, Kingsgate.)
Margate is also the climactic scene of Bunter’s Holiday Cruise, when the shipwrecked holidaymaker the boys have
picked up turns out to be the fugitive of a bank heist in Folkestone. Fear not, for all ends well and “Schoolboys, sir,
enjoy themselves thoroughly at Merry Margate.” Bunter, of course, knows where to get “a jolly good feed” – you’ll
also find plenty of tasty options – and the chums put Dreamland amusements high on their list of attractions: no
doubt they would be pleased that ongoing renaissance there means a unique heritage theme park is promised for
On, then, to Broadstairs, where Horace Coker stood his Fifth Former pals yet another “magnificent feed” (Bunter’s
Holiday Cruise). Wouldn’t they love Morelli’s ice cream parlour, where soda fountain and pink leatherette booths
whisk you back in time. Oliver Postgate lived at Broadstairs and of course it was Dickens’ favourite “English
watering place”, where he wrote much of David Copperfield in the mansion now called Bleak House overlooking
the sea. Discover more about the Victorian author’s local connections in the Dickens House Museum, former
home of Miss Mary Pearson Strong, the model for Miss Betsey Trotwood.
Hans Christian Andersen joined Dickens in Broadstairs and Ramsgate in the late 1840s while on his way home to
Denmark, maybe capping a business trip – the English versions of his fairy tales were first published in 1846 – with
some seaside pleasure.
Ramsgate, too, is a resort for splendid excursions. Even Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome made
regular visits to Ramsgate Harbour (and he came to Broadstairs twice in 1913). On one trip he saw a picture of a
child in a red cap, which sparked his idea for the famous headgear of pirate girls Nancy and Peggy Blackett.
Ransome also used a voyage in his yacht from Ramsgate to Suffolk as reference for his book, Peter Duck. And the
town appears again in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, when Jim Brading complains about a gang of wreckers, The
But let’s finish the day firmly on land with one of the most engaging characters of children’s literature, Jennings,
and his loyal but dim ally, Darbyshire. Author Anthony Buckeridge (1912–2004) taught drama and English at St
Lawrence College, Ramsgate, and soon appreciated how comic and creative little boys could be. At the end of the
day he would tell stories to pupils, often in the dormitory before lights out. “Crystallised cheesestraws!” Irrepressible
Jennings, causing chaos through his well-intentioned efforts to help, became a radio hit on the BBC’s Children’s
Hour from 1948.
DAY TWO: ALONG THE COAST TO ROMNEY MARSH & TENTERDEN
After breakfast, we swoop down to the coast– the fresh zing of sea air has tousled the hair of many a young
adventurer along the way. Soon we’re breezing through James Bond landscapes: past Sandwich where
Goldfinger and 007 play golf at Royal St Mark’s (real-life Royal St George’s) and Kingsdown near where Drax ran
his sinister Moonraker plant. Author Ian Fleming lived at St Margaret’s and knew very well the dramatic potential of
local beaches and cliffs.
We continue on past Dover, “full of historical interest. Reeking with it, in fact” according to Billy Bunter, though his
grasp of specific details – “Spokeshave’s Cliff” (Shakespeare’s Cliff) and “Sunk Ports” (Cinque Ports) – is a little
muddled (Bunter’s Holiday Cruise). Charles Dickens was more clued up when he stayed in Folkestone in 1853
while writing A Child’s History of England – maybe Bunter should have studied it for homework. Dickens, unlike
Bunter, was also restlessly drawn to the great outdoors during intense periods of writing, noting during another stay
in Folkestone in 1855 “how I roll down hills and climb up cliffs; how the new story is everywhere, heaving on the
sea, flying with the clouds, blowing in the wind; how I settle to nothing.”
H G Wells, who came to live at Sandgate below Folkestone at the turn of the 19th–20th century, was rather more
laid back: he spent much of his time visiting friends around Romney Marsh. (His former residence, Spade House, is
now a retirement home and only viewable from Radnor Cliff Crescent.)
As we approach Dymchurch, thoughts turn to E (Edith) Nesbit, author of The Railway Children (1906). The novel
draws directly on the happiest period of her childhood, at Halstead high in the North Downs near Sevenoaks where
a railway line ran close to the family’s garden. Later she lived near London, but from the 1890s she liked to come to
Dymchurch for “working holidays”.
Coincidentally, the children in Nesbit’s classic 1902 Five Children and It move from London to the Kent countryside
– where they discover a rather grumpy sand fairy, or Psammead, with eyes “on long horns like a snail’s eyes.” The
Psammead (pronounced “Sammyadd”) will grant a wish a day (it stretches out its eyes, holds its breath and swells
alarmingly), but of course the children’s wishes go comically wrong and so their escapades begin… The title has
never been out of print, was made into a hit TV series in the 1990s and a film in 2004 with Eddie Izzard providing
the voice of the Psammead.
Nesbit was intrigued by the wide skies and open spaces of Romney Marsh and loved to explore by bike or dogcart.
Like her, you can view the area’s historic churches: she set her ghost story Man-Size in Marble at Brenzett
church and you’ll find her grave in the churchyard at St Mary in the Marsh.
Many other writers have been captivated by mysteries of the marsh, too. “Harry and Ginger thought the smuggling
days of Romney Marsh were over long ago. But a cup of coffee on a midnight fishing expedition made them think
again,” A Harcourt Burrage writes in the intriguingly titled Coffee and Fish for Two. Words guaranteed to put
readers on the edge of their seats! Largely forgotten now (dig out your Empire Youth Annual 1948), Athol Harcourt
Burrage (1899–1951) came from a family of popular writers from Redhill and was a prolific scribbler of boys’
Canterbury-born Richard Barham, author of 19th-century The Ingoldsby Legends, knew the marsh was a place
apart when he claimed the world was divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America and Romney Marsh. And Russell
Thorndyke based his murderous adventures for children here when he was living in Dymchurch. Dr Syn (1915)
recreates life on the marsh in the 18th century, when “owling” (smuggling) was big business, and fighting militia and
hiding booty in local churches – Brenzett, Appledore, Snargate – were all in a night’s work. The sensation, of
course, is that Dr Syn leads a double life: vicar of Dymchurch by day, leader of smugglers by night.
Spend your afternoon exploring marsh and churches at leisure. Or follow a gentle journey further inland. During her
Dymchurch sojourns E Nesbit had been writing The Wonderful Garden, but the year it was published, 1911, saw an
even more famous book come to light: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Frances wrote the story
while living at Great Maytham Hall, Rolvenden, from 1898, firing her imagination in its 18th-century garden: “a
lovesome, mystic place, shut in partly by old red brick walls… it was my habit to sit and write there under an aged
writhen tree, grey with licken and festooned with roses.”
Great Maytham Hall is now private luxury apartments, but the old walled rose garden beloved of Burnett remains a
prominent feature of the grounds. See a memorial to the author at Rolvenden church.
Nearby, at Tenterden, the sounds of Kent & East Sussex Railway beckon and thoughts turn to Thomas the Tank
Engine and co. The Reverend Awdry made up his original railway stories in the early 1940s, to tell his two-year-old
son, Christopher, who was suffering from measles. Now Christopher writes them too; he is also patron of the Kent
& East Sussex Railway. Check if Thomas is visiting, or simply hop aboard a vintage steam or historic diesel train for
a magical ride through 10.5 miles of beautiful countryside. For special occasions there’s luxury dining on the
Wealden Pullman and selected dates feature “Sherlock Holmes Murder & Mystery”.
DAY THREE: GROOMBRIDGE PLACE & CHATHAM
“Come Watson, come, the game is afoot.” Today we get hot on the trail of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle’s pipe-smoking, “most perfect reasoning and observing machine.” Dust off your deerstalkers and head for
Groombridge Place Gardens and Enchanted Forest, near Tunbridge Wells – or perhaps you know it as Birlstone
Manor from The Valley of Fear (1915). Identifying the “Jacobean brick house” is an open and shut case once you
see it, across a “beautiful broad moat, as still and luminous as quicksilver in the cold winter sunshine.”
When Doyle wrote the book he was living nearby at Crowborough and was a frequent visitor to the 17th-century
moated manor, sometimes to take part in séances, which were all the rage at the time. Holmes and Watson are
called to Birlstone following a brutal murder, but is the victim John Douglas or “the bicyclist from Tunbridge Wells”?
Take a stroll while you ponder the conundrum – the Drunken Garden with its crazy, lurching topiary was a favourite
of Doyle, and maybe you’ll also recognise the lake and gardens of the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride
and Prejudice. But keep your eyes peeled: it’s claimed Groombridge is haunted, not by Douglas or a cyclist, but by
an ostler who allegedly drowned in 1808. Doyle describes an encounter with the restless ghost in his (non-fiction)
At the Edge of the Unknown.
Next we set course for an afternoon at Chatham. You could take a route past Penshurst Place, renowned for its
medieval Baron’s Hall and intimate Tudor walled gardens. Less well known is that sound recordists from the Harry
Potter film series recorded floor creaks in the Long Gallery to use as sound effects. Further north, Maidstone will
be familiar to Dickens fans as the “illustrious town” of Muggleton in The Pickwick Papers – nothing to do with the
muggles of Harry Potter, of course.
At The Historic Dockyard Chatham salty tales of naval adventure race across 80 acres and through 400 years of
maritime heritage. The dockyard’s historic warships, cobbled streets, and Georgian and Victorian architecture are
irresistible to filmmakers – certainly, Guy Ritchie and the stars who came here to shoot scenes for Sherlock
Holmes (2009) found the right backdrop for the battle of wits and brawn against evil Lord Blackwood. Can you spot
where the boxing scene was shot in the tarred Yarn Store, the prison scenes, the hanging, mysterious alleyways,
the coach chase – all filmed around the dockyard.
Chatham was the childhood home of Charles Dickens, who moved here aged five with his family in 1817. So
began a lifelong love affair with the Medway area. Charles’ father John was a clerk in the Royal Navy pay office and
the family lived at No. 2 (now No. 11) Ordnance Terrace, then briefly at a house in The Brook (now demolished)
before returning to London in 1822. These early years were the happiest of little Charles’ childhood and long walks
with his father fuelled his imagination with people and places that would reappear later in his novels. The BBC
adaptation of Little Dorrit was partly filmed at the dockyard, as was the 2007 adaptation of Oliver Twist. A museum
offers fascinating information and talks on Dickens, as well as general marine artefacts.
If you’ve time, pick up the plot at Dickens World, Chatham Maritime, the fun indoor attraction themed around the
life, books and times of the great novelist. Experience the Great Expectations dark boat ride with Magwitch,
Dotheboy’s Hall Victorian School Room (with touch-screen technology) and meet some of Charles Dickens’
DAY FOUR: ROCHESTER & AROUND WITH DICKENS
Revisit further colourful scenes that caught Dickens’ eye, beginning in Rochester. From his childhood strolls with
his father, to the end of his life when he came to live at Gad’s Hill, the city captivated him: almost his last written
words, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, joyously record “Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful”. Little
wonder Rochester features in his books more than any other town outside London, variously disguised as Pip’s
hometown in Great Expectations and Cloisterham in Edwin Drood. Time your visit for the first weekend in
December and you will bump into various characters at the annual Dickensian Christmas Festival.
Amble along the historic High Street “full of gables with old beams” and you’ll spy plaques on many buildings
highlighting how they featured in Dickens’ novels. Pre-book a costumed guided tour with Footsteps in Time, or
follow a self-guided walking trail (leaflet from Medway Visitor Information Centre). Then view Elizabethan Eastgate
House, which transformed into Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers and the Nuns’ House in Edwin Drood, and
admire the author’s beloved Swiss Chalet in the garden (brought here from Gad’s Hill). There are the “eminently
convenient and commodious premises” that served as Mr Pumblechook’s House in Great Expectations,
Rochester Cathedral (“it’s like looking down the throat of Old Time”), and Rochester Castle (“What a study for an
The Guildhall, the establishment where Pip is bound as an apprentice in Great Expectations, is now a museum
where you can pore over Dickens-related objects, watch a film on his local connections, and discover further sites
of interest to tour. Before you set off, have a burrow in the bookworms’ paradise Baggins Book Bazaar on the
High Street, England’s largest secondhand and rare bookshop: you might find a long-lost childhood treasure.
Dickensian destinations are all around, and high on the list of must-sees is Gad’s Hill Place, three miles out of
town at Higham. “My poor father used to bring me to look at it, and used to say that if ever I grew up to be a clever
man perhaps I might own that house, or another such house,” Dickens recalled in 1857. Spurred by his childhood
dream – and the success of his novels – he did buy Gad’s Hill Place and lived there from 1856 until his death in
1870. These days his home is a school, but you can see it clearly from the road and tours can be arranged. While
here, view Dickens’ “local” the Sir John Falstaff, whose landlord would send beer over to him at the house when
Charles was too busy to prop up the bar.
Continue to Shorne and St Peter and St Paul Church, described in The Pickwick Papers as “One of the most
peaceful and secluded churchyards in Kent, where wild flowers mingle with the grass, and the soft landscape
around forms the fairest spot in the garden of England.” Find the half-timbered Leather Bottle inn at Cobham
where Dickens sent the Pickwickians to look for love-struck Mr Tupman. Then tour the spooky Medway
marshlands evoked in Great Expectations (though Dickens says they are around the Thames rather than the
Medway). Who can forget the poignant opening scene of the book, when Pip visits the graves of his family: the little
lozenge-shaped children’s tombstones in the churchyard of St James, Cooling, may well have given Dickens
Maybe round off your day with refreshment at The Ship and Lobster, Gravesend, thought to have been the model
for The Ship public house where Pip and Herbert rest during their attempt to spirit Magwitch out of the country.
Many a toast will be raised to the great Victorian novelist this year.