Exploring Broadstairs, the Kent seaside town beloved by Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens once described Broadstairs as ‘one of the freshest and freest little places in the world’. He was particularly taken by the ‘good sea, fresh breezes, fine sands and pleasant walks, with all manner of fishing boats, lighthouses, piers and bathing machines’.

Leaving aside the Victorian bathing machines, lighthouses and quantity of fishing boats, these words from 1841 hold true today. There is, indeed, a good, usually calm sea. The sands are fine. Great walks are to be had along the plunging cliffs of the Viking Coastal Trail.

Yet there is one big difference from when the novelist was in the Kentish town between 1837 and 1859, having penned parts of David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby there.

Charles Dickens once described Broadstairs as 'one of the freshest and freest little places in the world'. The town's Viking Bay is 'home to a first-rate beach', as seen above

Charles Dickens once described Broadstairs as ‘one of the freshest and freest little places in the world’. The town’s Viking Bay is ‘home to a first-rate beach’, as seen above

Dickens, though already famous, could hardly have anticipated the fascination with his connection to the seaside spot (population about 25,000). 

Facing Viking Bay, home to a first-rate beach, you have the Charles Dickens pub.

Then there is the Dickens Walk to the cliffside promenade; The Old Curiosity Shop tea rooms; and Bill Sykes Cottage, which isn’t far from former prime minister Ted Heath’s old sailing club. Heath is the other local ‘name’ and regulars still speak fondly of him.

One of the places Dickens resided, on the cliff above the pier, has been renamed Bleak House and there’s a bust of him on the facade. 

The highlight, however, is the Dickens House Museum, formerly the home of Mary Pearson Strong, who inspired the character Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield.

Inside is a parlour that looks much as it was drawn by the illustrator Phiz for the book’s first edition. 

Literary marvel: The Dickens House Museum was formerly the home of Mary Pearson Strong, who inspired the character Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield

Literary marvel: The Dickens House Museum was formerly the home of Mary Pearson Strong, who inspired the character Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield

Mary would shoo away ‘donkey boys’ crossing her lawn — a fact which Dickens uses to comic effect in the novel.

He would sometimes hand over a shilling or two to the lads before visiting and tell them to pass by, just to watch Mary go after them. 

A writing desk belonging to Dickens sits in a corner, and a fine portrait of him hangs above a side cabinet with a lead-lined wine cooler that he had custom made. 

‘Oh yes, he liked his drink,’ says Peter Shaw, the museum’s manager.

But it’s not all literary Victoriana in Broadstairs. 

One of the places Dickens resided (above) has been renamed Bleak House and there's a bust of him on the facade

One of the places Dickens resided (above) has been renamed Bleak House and there’s a bust of him on the facade

A sketch of Dickens in his study at Gad's Hill Place in Kent

Ice cream from Morelli’s Gelato in Broadstairs

On the left is a sketch of Dickens in his study at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. Pictured right is ice cream from Morelli’s Gelato in Broadstairs

There are waves to ride, with surf schools. Then there are the fabulous Palace Cinema; an old-fashioned amusement arcade; ice cream from Morelli’s Gelato and a clutch of great restaurants.

Of these, Wyatt & Jones, serving seafood and meat small plates, is perhaps the pick of the lot, but a newcomer is making waves: The Table. 

It’s on a side street near the higgledy-piggledy Harrington hardware shop, which was the inspiration for the Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch. Ronnie Corbett once lived nearby.

The Table’s chef Joe Hill has worked with the likes of Gordon Ramsay, but moved here to set up his own business. His Asian-infused small plates of clams and noodles, accompanied by pickled delicacies, barbecued pork, beef tacos and spicy broths are superb.

Broadstairs has experienced an influx of ‘Down from Londoners’, many swapping the Big Smoke for the Kent coast — a century or so after Dickens cottoned on to the Isle of Thanet’s joys. It’s easy to see why.



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