Tuesday 17 April 2012


The thought of taking a Ryanair Flight always creates mixed feelings. They have a reputation after all.  Marilyn researched our trip, found the flight, bought our tickets online and printed off our boarding passes all whilst sitting at home at our home desktop. 

So we flew in across the Alps, rugged, wrinkled and snow covered towards Trevisso Airport, Venice’s second airport these days. Trevisso is a Ryanair created second airport for Venice, about twenty-five miles from the wondrous city. A reasonably quick, forty-minute bus trip took us to the bus station on Venice Island itself. We travelled through the brutalist world of industry, edge of town superstores, railway lines and concrete motorways. The bus suddenly left behind the concrete reality of the mainland and  took us out into a watery world across a long causeway with fishing nets staked out in the shallow waters and in the distance a glimpse of the swollen domes of Renaissance churches. 
The Rialto Bridge across The Grand Canal.

We arrived at the bus station and as soon as we stepped out, there in front of us was the beginning of the Grand Canal.There were motor launches and our first sight of a blue and white striped jumper clad gondolier standing squarely in the stern of his burnished black lacquered gondola. I was expecting him to burst into a resounding operatic chorus of “One cornetto. Give eet to me…” but he didn’t. The whole of the three days we were in Venice I didn’t once hear a gondolier exercise his operatic lungs. Maybe singing gondoliers are just a myth.

Gondolas, cafes and restaurants on The Grand Canal.

With only hand luggage, walking through the alleyways and along the canal side pathways of Venice was not a problem. The map that came with our Rough Guide guidebook about Venice was a problem though. The names of the canals, bridges and alleyways on the map didn’t correspond with the actual names of these places. I nearly threw the map away. We found  the best thing was to follow the compass on my i-phone. We could say with some confidence that  we wanted to head, north or east or west and so we kept turning down alleyways, hitting dead ends often, retracing our footsteps taking another turn and eventually, mostly, mainly, we got to where we wanted to go. Sometimes it was pure luck we got to our intended destination, I must admit,but we saw sights and had unexpected adventures along the way. We would never have come across the gondola boatyard intentionally, with gondolas being built, repaired and fitted out on a ramp set amongst a huddle of dilapidated orange brick buildings with twisted roofs of undulating tiles and creosoted wood panelled walls.
A gondola boatyard.

Our hotel was in the Dorsoduro district of Venice on the south bank of the grand Canal. We were a mere 100 metres from the Pont del Academia and about three hundred metres from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Peggy Guggenheim  collected European and American art and this collection is one of the most important of this genre in Italy. It is situated in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, the home Peggy Guggenheim lived in.  It fronts the Grand Canal but at the back there is a small intimate canal with local housing and small shops along it.
The Grand Canal from Pont del Academia with the Peggy Guggenheim museum on the right.

Venice lives up to its photograph. It is absolutely beautiful. There is a Venetian style. The windows of so many flaking crumbling buildings have a mixture of Moorish and Christian Gothic features. Venice is most decidedly Christian with so many beautiful Roman Catholic churches with gilded and elaborate interiors. You could drown body and soul in all that Catholic symbolism. Your every sense is assaulted with pure medieval beauty. But taking into account how Venice developed and became such a trading powerhouse you can easily understand how it absorbed influences from the places it’s far reaching and powerful tentacles stretched. In the architecture and most obviously in its window designs you can see it.
 A Venice alleway.

Now, about all this apparent material wealth tied up in so many Catholic churches the world over, not just in Venice. It used to be a siren call. “ The Catholic Church has all this wealth. Why can’t it sell all this stuff and use the money to save Ethiopian drought victims or feed the poor of the world?"
Who would want to buy a gold jewelled encrusted chalice or one of the fine Tintorettos sprinkled around the many churches of Venice and how would a ceiling by Veronese be got rid of? Works like this you find in many of the fine churches in Venice. How do you turn this stuff into money? They are not there for art experts to contemplate as art or for us to treat them like museum pieces or the churches as  museums and galleries or as a source of wealth. They are a form of prayer and worship. The best artists, the finest craftsmen, the best materials, designers and architects produced this work to the best of their ability to praise god. Their work was their prayer. The Catholic Church did not and does not benefit from these things in a financial way. They do not make the church rich. These things are prayers and have spiritual meanings. But of course you might have a different viewpoint to me!!!!!!
 One of the many many churches in Venice.

We strolled around Venice looking at all the fashion shops. All the great fashion houses have their shops here, Gucci, Christian Dior, Channel, Givenchy, Gaultier, Versace, Armani and many others too. These shops are like art galleries and the fashion on show in them are like works of art. They are spectacular to walk past, window shop in or timidly and warily walk into. However the prices Wow!!!! A handbag for over 1000 euros? You must be joking! Shoes at nearly 2000 euros a pair!! Phew!!!!!! And those are the less expensive side of haute couture.

Then there were the shops that sell artisan created goods often made in small workshops on the shop premises such as papier-mâché art,  paper makers and craftsmen making hand made books, hand sewen  with tooled leather covers. There were many galleries selling exquisite Venetian glass, chandeliers, mirrors, vases and bowls exhibiting translucent colours. So many shops are stocked with masks ready for the ten day carnival they have in Venice every Easter. Many of the masks are made in the shops and elaborate 18th century costumes are on display for hire too. The idea of wearing a mask for ten days over Easter has it’s social and  moral side. A mask wearer takes on a new identity. A persons everyday identity disappears. Somebody can create a new persona, do things they would not do. Masks create danger and intrigue. But then of course there was shop after shop selling tourist tat, expensive rubbish. There are so many restaurants, coffee bars and wine bars throughout Venice, all with welcoming and friendly bar staff. Every Venetian I met had a sense of humour and great big smile.
 A small gallery in a back alleyway.

We found the building where the Venice Art biennial is held every two years. It was once a palace facing the waterway between Venice and the Lido. It has an expansive water view. Venice also holds film and architecture biennials and it is these that I think are Venice’s important contributions to the world today. Venice of course, is now a place for tourists .
Marilyn and me eating out in Venice. The wine was good by the way.

The  history of Venice is incredible. The Venetians gave the world many things, which have developed into important aspects of our society and forms of government. The Republic of Venice lasted for over a thousand years from about 740 until 1797, when Napoleon defeated the Venetians and France took control. Venice is a prime example of the all-powerful city-state. It was not a country. It was an independent city that controlled trade all over the Mediterranean and Europe. It was almost continually at war with the Ottomans. The Venetian Empire grew and shrank with success and defeat. As a republic it had no king or royal family. The Doge, the ruler of Venice, was an elected official from amongst the most powerful families of Venice. He was usually chosen because of his astute abilities at trade and negotiating skills.  In this way the government of Venice was a  meritocracy. The election for a Doge was similar to that of a pope and like a pope he stayed in that position for life.

Marilyn and I visited the Doges Palace next to St Marks Basilica, beside St Marks Square. It was a fascinating place not least because of its  architecture. John Ruskin in the 19th century described the Doges Palace as the most perfect building architecturally in the entire world. He described it as being a perfect combination of Moorish and medieval gothic designs. The palace is designed for a purpose and this purpose was the purpose of government. There are rooms for the great council, for law making, law courts, even a small room that held officials to make sure the law was being followed correctly. There was a department for spying on foreign governments. There was a council for foreign affairs and a council for governing industry within Venice itself. There was a separate room where trade and everyday life in Venice  was controlled. There was a room where sailors were recruited for the all-important Venetian Navy. It is easy to see how this form of government structure has developed, with all it’s departments and concerns, into the sort of governments we have.
 The Doges Palace.

Next door to the Doges Palace is Venice’s prison. It was here Casanova was imprisoned for a while. The entrance to the prison is across the enclosed Bridge of Sighs. The prisoner would have been taken from the courtroom in the palace straight to their prison cell. Marilyn and I followed the rout a prisoner would take and saw the last glimpse a prisoner would get of Venice from the small windows in the Bridge of Sighs. The cells consist of rough stonewalls. Any light getting in to them is from apertures high up in the walls so the prisoners could not see out to the outside world. Each cell was virtually a stone cave.
The Bridge of Sighs leading to the prison on the right.

 Once you were inside one of those you were  dead to the world. Imagine being incarcerated in a Venetian cell. The only place you were alive was inside your own head. There you would be, inside a stone cell, doing absolutely nothing, day in, night out. You would be fed once a day and then nothing. Imagine it, nothingness. Your whole humanity confined to an empty space. You or I would probably go mad.
 St Marks basilica in St Marks Square.

St Marks Basilica was awe-inspiring. It was a symbol of the Venetian superiority in the Mediterranean and it’s power over the Ottomans. St Marks body was stolen from the Egyptians in a Venetian raid. The basilica was built as a great celebration to house St Marks body but also to celebrate Venetian strength and power over the Ottomans. Much of it was constructed from marble columns and slabs, statues and precious metals pillaged during raiding parties against cities,nations and people the Venetians conquered. Marilyn and I both wondered where St Marks body was situated within the basilica. A church guide told us it was inside the silver covered high altar. All Catholic altars have to have a piece of a Saints reliquary within it to make it an altar. This expalnation does sound plausible. Marilyn and I walked around the high altar, which is fronted by a solid silver embossed relief of the life of St Mark. We saw medieval pilgrims badges hanging from a wall and at the back of the altar was a solid gold frieze , jewelled and encapsulating pictures of saints.
 The Lion of St Mark on the left, the great camponile that rang out it's bells on the hour, and The Doges Palace on the right.

Venice is an incredible place. You cannot resist taking photographs. Every inch of the place is photogenic. Windows, walls, rooftops, flower baskets, narrow, dark, damp canals all cry out to be photographed. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. There are fantastic churches everywhere. Art galleries are in abundance. The Academia, Venice’s main gallery, full of Renaissance art was open but undergoing refurbishment, so limited numbers were allowed in. There was a Picasso exhibition and a Salvadore Dali exhibition going on in different places. Venice is full of tourists from every nation. Venice attracts us all to marvel and wonder.

Monday 9 April 2012


Charles Dickens has  always gripped my consciousness from that first moment I saw the heart stopping appearance of Magwich confronting Pip, in David Leans 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations. Magwich emerged monstrous like a nightmare from behind the tombstone in the desolate graveyard set in St Jame's Church,Cooling, a viilage on the marshes near Rochester,in the Thames Estuary. If you ever visit the graveyard in Cooling to see Pip's  graves, '....five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row ... and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine....'  you cannot fail to be moved.

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 and first arrived in London with his family in 1814 at the age of two for a short interval before his family moved to Chatham, in Kent, to live. In 1821 they moved back to London. His father John had lost his job with the admiralty in which he was a clerk in the pay office. The Royal Navy was going through a period of restructuring at the time. He obtained a job at Somerset House in The Strand. The streets  close to The Strand were to become  an imaginative influence on Charles Dickens for the rest of his life. A walk through this area, north and south of the Strand, takes us through the different stages of Dickens life from poverty to fame, from anguish to success, illustrating the hard grinding work he continued throughout his life.

We begin our walk at the Embankment tube station, very close to the steep steps, littered with Starbucks cups and Macdonald paper bags, that lead up to the walkway beside Hungerford Railway Bridge.  Beside Hungerford Bridge, on The Victoria Embankment, is a good place to begin a Dickens walk in London because it was here  that Warrens Blacking Factory was situated in 1820 next to Hungerford Steps. Victoria Embankment,that great Victorian engineering achievement, was designed and created by Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860’s,  obliterated the site of the steps. Hungerford Bridge takes its name from that once dilapidated, ramshackle piece of Victorian London where small factories, poverty and dillapidation rubbed shoulders. Near the site of Warrens Blacking Factory, was the location Dickens used for the lodging house  where Mr Macawber and his family stayed before emigrating to Australia.

 Warren’s Blacking Factory, owned by one of his mother’s cousins,was where Dickens started his working life.Charles Dickens suffered terribly in the blacking factory at Hungerford Steps, which produced bottles of blacking to polish boots with. His job was sticking labels on the bottles and it must have been numbingly boring for him. What horrified him also was the sound of the water rats scratching and scrabbling beneath the floorboards on which he had to stand.  The humiliation it must have caused somebody who was not only sensitive but very intelligent is hard to imagine. For the rest of his life Dicken’s was a driven individual almost manic in his desperation to keep working. A result of his childhood experiences. No matter how hard he worked and how much money he earned he always felt that it could all be taken away from him. 

From Hungerford Bridge walk up Buckingham Street by way of the ancient river gateway to Buckingham House that is the only remaining part of Buckingham House that once stood here and was the London home of the Dukes of Buckingham.  Dickens knew the gateway because it stood beside the blacking factory. Buckingham Street leads to John Adam Street, a rather dull brick canyon like street. The entrances to the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) and the art deco Adelphi Hotel. Dickens had lodgings  on the site of The Adelphi Hotel which, in his  day, was the Adelphi Terrace, designed and built by John Adam. Here Arthur Clennem, a leading character in Little Dorrit stayed and David Copperfield too. It had become somewhat rundown and dilapidated by the 1820s.

From John Adam Street  turn left into Adam Street and then a short few steps to the busy populous Strand.  Dickens would not recognise The Strand today but he would know the two churches placed one after the other along The Strand as you walk towards Wellington Street; St Mary le Strand , followed by St Clement Danes. As you come out on to The Strand, to the left, a few hundred yards away, is the modern glass fronted branch of Coutts bank. Angela Burdett Coutts was the daughter of the founder of Coutts and her father’s heiress. She was the wealthiest woman in England during  the Victorian period and became a close friend of Dickens. She was a devout Christian and wanted to do good charitable works. She discussed with Dickens charitable projects that she could finance. Dickens, with her money, set up Urania Cottage near Shepherds Bush. It was a home for the salvation and education of women who wanted to escape the perils of prostitution. In many ways it was a successful enterprise and they sent many, “saved,” women to become good wives in Australia. In front of you as you reach The Strand is the Adelphi Theatre. It has a modern, probably 1950’s front to it nowadays but it was in this theatre that many of Dicken’s novels were dramatized and performed.

The Strand has many connections with Dickens. Further, towards Fleet Street,next to Waterloo Bridge is Somerset House where John Dickens, his father, was first employed when he came to London. In the Strand too is the main campus for Kings College London. It was next to this that  Kings College School was set up before being moved to Wimbledon in the suburbs. Dickens eldest son ( he had ten children) , Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, attended Kings College school whilst it was in The Strand.

Walk along The Strand towards the traffic lights at the junction with The Aldwych and Wellington Street.Cross over to Wellington Street. You are entering an area that was the centre of Dickens working life as a novelist.  The Lyric Theatre on the corner is another theatre where some of Dickens novels and stories were dramatized. Opposite The Lyric is the site of Household Words, the magazine in which Dickens serialised some of his novels. He was the editor and part owner of the magazine. He argued with the publishers, Bradbury and Evans. Dickens wanted more editorial say. The other partners would not allow him this.Dickens then decided to start another publication called, All The Year Round, in offices a mere few yards away from the offices of Household Words. This was very successful and Dickens had far more control of this new publication.  

Charles Dickens Coffee House, in Wellington Street. This building was the premises of Dickens magazine, All The Year Round.

The actual building where All The Year Round was published is still there and is known as, Dickens Coffee House. The rooms above the ground floor were all rented by Dickens and he had them turned into bachelor appartments. There were bedrooms for himself and his friends to stay, such as John Forster, Daniel Maclise, William Makepeace Thackeray, Hablet Brown, Wilkie Collins and George Meredith.  All The Year Round, published articles by Dickens and other writers, Elizabeth Gaskell and William Makepeace Thackery amongst others. It was a tradition then to publish novels  in monthly instalments before being published as a whole.

Just a short walk north, across Wellington Street from Dickens Coffee House  you will find yourself in Covent Garden. It was here on the north side of the square that the Piazza Coffee House was located. Dickens sometimes stayed here but it was here that after long trips away, either to Italy or France and when he returned from his American trips in 1842 and 1867, Dickens best friend, John Forster organised  parties consisting of his male friends,to welcome him home. It has to be remembered that Covent Garden, certainly in the 18th and 19th centuries, was the centre of the prostitution trade in London. It is something to consider that Dickens, staying in Wellington Street and carousing at The Piazza Coffee House, was rubbing shoulders  with prostitutes and madams.  He set up Urania Cottage to save women from the streets but it is not at all clear whether he frequented prostitutes himself. He certainly knew where they were. He mentions to his friend Maclise in a letter inviting him to stay with his family in Broadstairs in Kent that he knew where to find young ladies in Broadstairs.  Maclise was a bachelor and womaniser.

From Covent Garden it is a short walk to The Theatre Royal and Drury Lane. Dickens loved the theatre and would have attended performances at these theatres. From Drury Lane it is a few steps to The Aldwych and then a sharp turn left into Kingsway, past Bush House one of the BBC’s iconic buildings in London and where many BBC radio stations are broadcast from including The World Service, and then a quick first right into Portugal Street.You find yourself at the heart of the LSE, the London School of Economics.  This is a maze of buildings and narrow streets and alleyways with college buildings all around, each building a different department of the LSE. 
There is a pub amongst this complex called Ye Olde White Horse.  To be found at the back of the pub is ,"The Old Curiosity Shop." It is a rickety, timber frame building, with sagging roof and low eaves. It is set amongst modern university buildings. It could never have survived there without its title emblazoned across the whitewashed plaster front.” THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP.MADE FAMOUS BY CHARLES DICKENS.” There is a letter Dickens wrote in reply to his friend Forster. Forster had asked him whether The Old Curiosity Shop was a real place. Dickens had replied that it was but he thought it had since been demolished. Whether this building in Portrugal Street is the actual building Dickens had in mind when he wrote the novel is therefore doubtful. Of course, as the Old Curiosity Shop was so popular he could well have been saying that to protect its anonymity. Somebody decided he would make his shop popular by emblazoning that title across the front of it.

Just behind ,"The Old Curiosity Shop," is Lincolns Inn Fields. Lincolns Inn Fields are London’s largest open square named after Lincolns Inn which is situated on the east  side of the square. It was designed in the 1630’s by Inigo Jones. It has Sir John Soanes three houses on the north side.In this square Dickens set major scenes of his novel Bleak House. Mr Tulkinghorns offices were located in Lincolns Inn Fields.  

Walking east across the square from the south west corner of Lincolns Inn Fields having just emerged from Portugal Street and The Old Curiosity Shop  make your way to the elaborate, ornate brick gateway to Lincolns Inn. Once through the gateway it is like entering another world. New Square is on the right, the beautiful brick Tudor chapel on the left and Old Square straight ahead. This is one of the four remaining inns of court. Kenge and Carboys lawyers offices were situated in Old Square. Chancery Lane, running along the east side of Lincolns Inn was the location for Mr and Mrs Snagsbys establishment and many other scenes in the novel. Jo swept the streets near here.  These are the opening lines of  Bleak House.

“London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather……Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city……And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery;”

The entrance to Lincolns Inn.

 When Dickens refused to go back to the blacking factory at Hungerford steps. His mother  used her connections to get Charles a job as a clerk with another relation of hers. Charles learned shorthand quickly and was employed recording parliamentary speeches. He later took jobs with various lawyers in Lincolns Inn and Greys Inn as a clerk. 

During his time as a lawyers clerk time he walked all over London observing life and events closely. He felt inspired to start writing reports and stories about his observations and sending them to various publications.  Later they were published  together as ,"Sketches by Boz," Boz, being a pseudonym that Dickens affected.One publisher thought Dickens  a good choice to write a book for him. Popular at the time were stories about groups of friends who travelled the countryside having sporting adventures. Dickens was asked to write a book in this genre. He wrote ,"Pickwick Papers," and in the process invented situation comedy. 

Dickens includes lawyers and scenes set in the inns of court in many of his novels. In Pickwick Papers, Dickens describes in detail the various levels of lawyers clerk.  Mr  Perkin, Mr Pickwick’s lawyer is situated in Grays Inn. Serjeant Snubbin, a serjeant being one of the highest levels of lawyer in Dickens time,  has his office in Old Court, Lincolns Inn. Dodgson and Fogg, Mrs Bardells lawyers, are situated in Temple. Dickens reveals the tricks and subterfuge and downright dishonesty of the law profession. He describes  long and arduous legal proceedings expertly, with great humour and pathos. 

From Lincolns Inn you come out on to Chancery Lane where many lawyers have their offices too. The London Silver Vaults are situated in Chancery Lane.This is the area of  Bleak House fame. Turn left down Chancery Lane and you will soon reach High Holburn, a busy road running at right angles to Chancery Lane. Turn right along High Holburn and at the cross roads with Grays Inn Road you can see the Tudor, black and white timber front of Staples Inn which used to be another inns of court but is no longer. It is reputed to be one of the few remaining buildings from The Fire of London in 1666. Across the road is the large pink edifice of the Prudential Insurance Company which is on the site of Furnivals Inn where Dickens had lodgings soon after marrying Catherine Hogarth.

Walking along Grays inn road you pass Grays Inn on the left and catch a glimpse of the park surrounded by lawyers offices that make up Grays Inn. No. 1 South Square  was the firm of Ellis and Blackmore Solicitors, which is where Charles Dickens found employment as a clerk at the age of 15. It was here he learned shorthand which lead to him becoming a writer. At the cross road with Theobolds Road turn left bordering the northern extremity of Grays Inn  and then  turn right along John Street. The houses here are all 18th century with their beautiful elaborate porticoes  and solid oak doors with highly polished lion and Greek goddess door knockers. John  Street leads you  straight into Doughty Street and not far along on the right hand side you will reach number 48 which was Dickens residence.

 He moved into 48 Doughty Street on March 25th 1837. He had a three year lease on the house at £80 a year. Dickens described it himself,
“It was a pleasant twelve-room dwelling of pink brick, with three stories and an attic, a white arched entrance door on the street level, and a small private garden in the rear. It was located just north of Gray's Inn ... a genteel private street with a lodge at each end and gates that were closed at night by a porter in a gold-laced hat and a mulberry-coloured coat with the Doughty arms on its buttons."
He moved in with his wife Catherine but also her 17 year old sister Mary and his younger brother Frederick. Mary died in the house in 1837 not long after moving in. It was said the experience affected Dickens for the rest of his life. Little Nell may have been modelled on her. 48 Doughty Street is the Dickens Museum and well worth a visit. 

At the end of Doughty Street you can catch a glimpse of the corner of Coram Fields the site of The Foundling Hospital founded by Thomas Coram. Dickens has a character called Tatty Coram in Little Dorrit.She is named after Coram Fields by her adoptive parents obliterating her real name and so being reminded of her past. She is adopted  as a playmate for the families biological daughter, Pet, and although treated well in a physical sense, she is not loved as an individual in herself. The other side of Coram Fields is Tavistock Square where Dickens rented a very large house and from where he separated from his wife Catherine. He was having an affair with Ellen Ternan at the time. 48 Doughty Street is the end of our walk.

48 Doughty Street

The walk takes about an hour and twenty minutes. If you want to spend time in the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street you will need an extra hour.

For a pub lunch you could choose no better an establishment than Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street.
You have to retrace your steps from Doughty  Street to Chancery Lane and walk the full length of Chancery Lane to Fleet Street. Turn left along Fleet Street  and you will reach Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the oldest pub in London, within sight of St Pauls Cathedral. Dickens himself dined here and Charles Darney and Sydney Carton met here in A Tale  of Two Cities. Many famous people have drunk and dined here including Theodore Roosevelt.

There are many other Dickens related sites throughout London but this walk will take you through many of the sites connected with Dickens working world as well as some of the scenes from his novels. Walk across London Bridge into Southwark and walk down Borough High Street, you will see the name's of old court yards and the entrances to inns Dickens includes in various novels. You will find the last remaining wall of the Marshalsea Prison. Dickens features this in Little Dorrit but in reality it was the prison his father was incarcerated in for debt.