Tuesday 26 August 2008

A step back in time in Broadstairs

The Dickens Museum in Broadstairs

Sheila Fordham acquired some background for the books on our 19th century reading group list by sampling a historical town tour with a difference in the Kentish seaside resort of Broadstairs so loved by Dickens. The tour brings to life the Napoleonic and Victorian periods in particular.

(Books on our list for 2008-09 include David Copperfield, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights)

While on holiday in Kent at the quaint resort of Broadstairs this summer my stepmother, daughter and I were lucky enough to get a place on the popular St Peter´s Village Tour. I have tried several times before and never been successful. It was well worth the wait. I can recommend the walks to all those who enjoy history. The tour starts and ends at the village church, as is only fitting as the church was such an important part of life, and of course includes a break for tea and biscuits half-way round in true English village fashion.

The tour, which has won several tourist awards in Kent, consists of a guide who takes you round the village (St Peter´s is the next village to Broadstairs, only a few minutes' walk away but with its own unique personality) telling you interesting stories about the history of St Peter´s, while meanwhile various characters dressed in period costume appear from behind a wall or walk up to you along the road and tell you their own particular story. It is such a simple idea but really brings history to life. Some of the characters looked as if they had stepped out of one of Dickens´ novels themselves. One of them was a soldier from around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, who was checking on us to make sure there were no French spies in the party. He asked whether anyone spoke French - and as nobody else said anything, before I could stop myself I had shouted out "Oui, un peu". From that moment on I was a marked woman - he was keeping an eye on me in case I was a spy. It was strange to think that at that time the threat of an invasion by Napoleon and his army was taken very seriously.

You caught the flavour also of how much smuggling of tobacco and alcohol was going on along the coast in those days. It was a long way from London and the revenue men were not always there to check what was going on. There were many tunnels and cellars used to transport and keep smuggled goods which are probably still in existence today. Shipwrecks were good opportunities for ordinary people to get something of value and it was hinted that some wrecks were planned.

Society did try to help its less fortunate members, for example in the Workhouse, but conditions were very harsh, as they did not want to encourage people to go there unless absolutely necessary. One poor character had stolen some wine and was the worse for wear and when taken to task by the benefactors of the Workhouse, pointed at me and said that I had given her the bottle. It was very funny - I was really in the swing of things by then and would have liked to join the party of players myself.

It was a lovely warm Kentish summer afternoon, flowers were in bloom around the village, and the red sloping tiled roofs of the old houses and the old flint walls around the gardens all added to the sights and smells of the afternoon. Our guide unlocked an arched door in one of the walls into the garden beyond. It was like stepping into another world. It was so quiet and peaceful there. In the garden we were shown a row of cottages, one of which had been a school set up for poor children.

All the people who gave their time to the village tour are volunteers and are not professional actors. It is amazing because many of them had the most wonderful speaking voices and acting ability.

I can thoroughly recommend the Village Tour and would love to go on the Churchyard Tour and the War Graves Tour. I am sure there are further stories and characters to be brought to life.


Sheila Fordham