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Journey Through Dickens Country

April 27, 1986|KATRINA LEES | Lees is a North Hollywood free-lance writer.

BROADSTAIRS, England — It was early June as I took the train from Victoria Station in London east direct to Broadstairs, a small fishing village along the coast in the county of Kent.

Broadstairs was the birthplace of Charles Dickens, and the setting for his books "David Copperfield" and "Bleak House."

Pulling away from the gray London suburbs, rows upon rows of plum and apple orchards came into view as the Kent countryside, known as "The Garden of England," soon unfolded. This is the land of oast houses, hops and cider, and the pungent aroma of malt wafts across the fields from the breweries.

Zipping by the seaside towns of Whitstable (famous for windsurfing and oysters) and Margate, the voice of a station master announced that we would soon be arriving at Broadstairs. Drawing nearer, it was obvious that some sort of festival was in progress.

A Welcoming Party

Banners were hung from all along the platform of the railway station, and women huddled at the exit gate, welcoming arrivals to their village, handing out flowers and pamphlets explaining exactly what all the excitement was about.

It was Dickens Week, and walking down High Street, townsfolk were dressed in the style of the Victorian Era. Just about every character from Dickens' novels was represented: Miss Haversham, the Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge, to name a few. It's a spectacular sight to see, full of color and detail.

There's Bill Sykes reenacting a cameo scene from "Oliver Twist" on the village green, and there's David Copperfield posing for a photograph. Some of the other characters are selling mementos to holiday-makers.

Every year Broadstairs, this haven of peace and tranquillity, overflows with ice cream stalls, Punch and Judy shows, donkey rides, fortunetellers, deck chairs and sailboats. Brass bands pound away in the pavilion by the green, as a chorus sings along to old familiar tunes. It's a time of great enjoyment, a great release for the 50-week-a-year city dwellers.

I decided to exchange my day trip ticket and stay overnight.

At the tourist information center in High Street, several brochures listed a variety of bed and breakfasts, hotels and restaurants at varying prices.

With Full Breakfast

A tourist guide recommended the Marchesi on Albion Street, a fine Georgian hotel overlooking the sea. But an elderly couple chimed in that they have been to Broadstairs every year of their married life, and suggested the Landsdowne, 31 Queens Road. For 50 ($80) for the week, or just $15 a night, you are provided with a four-poster bed and full English breakfast. It sounded good to me, so checking my baggage into the large immaculate hotel, I decided to stroll along the sea front.

Dominating the other end of the town, and looming high on a clifftop sits Bleak House, the setting for one of Dickens' famous novels. It is open to the public from May until September. A guide escorted us around the rambling manor house until we reached the upstairs bedroom in the west wing.

Overlooking the sea, still dressed in her faded white wedding gown, a model of Miss Haversham sat in an old velvet armchair waiting in vain for her lover. On the writing desk next to her, Charles Dickens' pen and quill lay beside a first edition of the novel, "Bleak House."

Deciding to visit the Marchesi Hotel at the tourist guide's recommendation, I ordered tea and scones in the hotel garden, which arrived with homemade jams and traditionally English thick double cream.

Out on the choppy waters a yacht race was in progress, and holiday makers flocked to the edge of the water to cheer on competitors. The sea was a mass of colored sails--red, white, green and blue--blown hither and thither by blustery winds that brought a nip to the air, and colored my usually pale complexion.

Watching the hubbub on the white sandy beaches below, my eyes were suddenly distracted. Moving along in the distance at considerable speed was the Hovercraft on its way to France. In the distance, about 25 miles away, I could see the faintest outline of the French coast.

The Hoverport is less than half a mile from Broadstairs in Ramsgate. It leaves every hour on the hour during summer, and for about $12 will take you to Calais and Boulogne in less than 40 minutes.

If only there had been time to make that journey . . . but already the light was fading, and dinner at the Landsdowne is served promptly at 6 p.m. The same couple I had met early that day joined my table. They answered my question about the origin of the name Broadstairs.

The 100 or so steps that led to the beach were literally that, steep and broad. In early Victorian days it required considerable stamina and agility for holiday makers to climb so far. Finally in the 1950s an elevator was installed, making life more bearable for families with picnic baskets, deck chairs, windshields excitable children.

Soft Sea Sounds

My hotel room overlooked the sea and that night as I lay in the old four-poster, the English Channel lulled me to sleep by its murmurs and sighs.

Morning brought the cries of gulls, and the clean salt air washed my face as I opened the window. Once again holiday makers were already on the white sands of Louisa and Viking bays.

A speck of rain hit my nose.

"The weather changes so much in one day in this country," remarked a tourist, "I never know whether to bring out my umbrella or wear a pair of shorts!"

"But," I wondered "without the rain, how would the county of Kent stay so lush and green?"

I had to hurry or I would miss my train, but it didn't really matter.

I have no doubt that very soon I shall return to continue my discoveries of one of the most beautiful parts of the British Isles.

For further information about hotels, bed and breakfasts, day trips and places of interest in Broadstairs and surrounding areas, contact The Tourist Information Center, Pierremont Hall, High Street, Broadstairs, England, or the British Tourist Authority, 612 S. Flower St., Los Angeles 90017.

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