Gad’s Hill – Great Britain And Ireland

“To go to Gad’s Hill,” said Dickens, in a note of invitation, “you leave Charing Cross at nine o’clock by North Kent Railway for Higham.” Guided by these directions and equipped with a letter from Dickens’s son, we find ourselves gliding eastward among the chimneys of London and, a little later, emerging into the fields of Kent, Jingle’s region of “apples, cherries, hops, and women.” The Thames is on our left; we pass many river-towns,—Dartford where Pat Tyler lived, Gravesend where Pocahontas died,—but most of our way is through the open country, where we have glimpses of “fields,” “parks,” and leafy lanes, with here and there picturesque camps of gipsies or of peripatetic rascals “goin’ a-hoppin.’ ” From wretched Higham a walk of half an hour among orchards and between hedges of wild-rose and honeysuckle brings us to the hill which Shakespeare and Dickens have made classic ground, and soon we see, above the tree tops, the glittering vane which surmounted the home of the world’s greatest novelist.

The name Gad’s (Vagabond’s) Hill is a survival of the time when the depredations of highwaymen upon “pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings and traders riding to London with fat purses” gave to this spot the ill repute it had in Shakespeare’s day; it was here he located Falstaff’s great exploit. The tuft of evergreens which crowns the hill about Dickens’ retreat is the remnant of thick woods once closely bordering the highway, in which the “men in buckram” lay concealed, and the robbery of the Franklin was committed in front of the spot where the Dickens house stands. By this road passed Chaucer, who had property near by, gathering from the pilgrims his “Canterbury Tales.” In all time to come the great master of romance who came here to live and die will be worthily associated with Shakespeare and Chaucer in the renown of Gad’s Hill.

In becoming possessor of this place Dickens realized a dream of his boyhood and ambition of his life. In one of his travelers’ sketches he introduces a “queer small boy” (himself) gazing at Gad’s Hill House and predicting his future ownership, which the author finds annoying “because it happens to be my house and I believe what he said was true.” When at last the place was for sale, Dickens did not wait to examine it; he never was inside the house until he went to direct its repair. Eighteen hundred pounds was the price; a thousand more were expended for enlargement of the grounds and alterations of the house, which, despite his declaration that he had “stuck bits upon it in all manner of ways,” did not greatly change it from what it was when it became the goal of his childish aspirations. At first it was his summer residence merely,—his wife came with him the first summer,—but three years later he sold Tavistock House, and Gad’s Hill was thenceforth his home. From the bustle and din of the city he re-turned to the haunts of his boyhood to find restful quiet and time for leisurely work among these “blessed woods and fields” which had ever held his heart. For nine ycars after the death of Dickens Gad’s Hill was occupied by his oldest son; its ownership has since twice or thrice changed.

Its elevated site and commanding view render it one of the most conspicuous, as it is one of the most lovely, spots in Kent. The mansion is an unpretentious, old-fashioned, two storied structure of fourteen rooms. Its brick walls are surmounted by Mansard roofs above which rises a bell-turret; a pillared portico, where Dickens sat with his family on summer evenings, shades the front entrance; wide bay windows project upon either side; flowers and vines clamber upon the walls, and a delightfully home-like air prevades the place. It seems withal a modest seat for one who left half a million dollars at his death. At the right of the entrance-hall we see Dickens’s library and study, a cosy room shown in the picture of “The Empty Chair;” here are shelves which held his books; the panels he decorated with counterfeit bookbacks; the nook where perched the mounted remains of his raven, the “Grip” of “Barnaby Budge.” By this bay-window, whence he could look across the lawn to the cedars beyond the highway, stood his chair and the desk where he wrote many of the works by which the world will know him alway. Be-hind the study was his billiard-room, and upon the opposite side of the hall the parlor, with the dining-room adjoining it at the back, both bedecked with the many mirrors which delighted the master.

Opening out of these rooms is a conservatory, paid for out of “the golden shower from America” and completed but a few days before Dickens’ death, holding yet the ferns he tended. The dining-room was the scene of much of that emphatic hospitality which it pleased the novelist to dispense, his exuberant spirits making him the leader in all the jollity and conviviality of the board. Here he compounded for bibulous guests his famous “cider-cup of Gad’s Hill,” and at the same table he was stricken with death; on a couch beneath yonder window, the one nearest the hall, he died on the anniversary of the railway accident which so frightfully imperiled his life. From this window we look out upon a lawn decked with shrubbery and see across undulating cornfields his beloved Cobham. From the parqueted hall, stairs lead to the modest chambers—that of Dickens being above the drawing-room. He lined the stairway with prints of Hogarth’s works, and declared he never came down the stairs without pausing to wonder at . the sagacity and skill which had produced these masterful pictures of human life.

The house is invested with roses, and parterres of the red geraniums which the master loved are ranged upon. every side. It was some fresh manifestation of his passion for these flowers that elicited from his daughter the averment, “Papa, I think when you are an angel your wings will be made of looking-glasses and your crown of scarlet geraniums.” Beneath a rose-tree not far from the window where Dickens died, a bed blooming with blue lobelia holds the tiny grave of “Dick” and the tender memorial of the novelist to that “Best of Birds.” The row of gleaming limes which shadow the porch was planted by Dickens’s own hands. The pedestal of the sundial upon the lawn is a massive balustrade of the old stone bridge at nearby Rochester, which little David Copperfield crossed “footsore and weary” on his way to his aunt, and from which Pickwick contemplated the castle-ruin, the cathedral, the peaceful Medway. At the left of the mansion are the carriage-house and the school-room of Dick-ens’ sons. In another portion of the grounds are his tennis-court and the bowling-green which he prepared, where he became a skilful and tireless player. The broad meadow beyond the lawn was a later purchase, and the many limes which beautify it were rooted by Dickens. Here numerous cricket-matches were played, and he would watch the players or keep the score “The whole day long.”

It was in this meadow that he rehearsed his readings, and his talking, laughing, weeping, and gesticulating here “all to himself” excited among his neighbors suspicion of his insanity. From the front lawn a tunnel constructed by Dickens passes beneath the highway to “The Wilderness,” a thickly-wooded shrubbery, where magnificent cedars up-rear their venerable forms and many somber firs, survivors of the forest which erst covered the countryside, cluster upon the hill top. Here Dickens’s favorite dog, the “Linda” of his letters, lies buried. Amid the leafy seclusion of this retreat, and upon the very spot where Falstaff was routed by Hal and Poins (“the eleven men in buckram”), Dickens erected the chalet sent to him in pieces by Fechter, the upper room of which—up among the quivering boughs, where “birds and butterflies fly in and out, and green branches shoot in at the windows “-Dickens lined with mirrors and used as his study in summer. Of the work produced at Gad’s Hill—”A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Uncommercial Traveler,” “Our Mutual Friend,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” and many tales and sketches of “All the Year Jound”—much was written in this leaf-environed nook; here the master wrought through the golden hours of his last day of conscious life, here he wrote his last paragraph and at the close of that June day let fall his pen, never to take it up again. From the place of the chalet we behold the view which de-lighted the heart of Dickens—his desk was so placed that his eyes would rest upon this view whenever he raised them from his work—the fields of waving corn, the green expanse of meadows, the sail-dotted river.