Although Charles Dickens died over 100 years ago, many of the links between him and Gravesham are still in evidence. Some of his country walks are now main roads and some of the villages he knew have grown considerably, but many buildings remain as they were in Dickens' time and many areas, such as the Higham Marshes, have barely changed at all.
Along the canal bank at Gravesend was a very old cottage with an inverted boat as a roof. This may well have given Dickens the idea of Mr. Peggoty's home on Yarmouth Sands. Mr. Peggoty and Ham sailed from Gravesend for Australia when they emigrated with Mr. Micawber and his family in 'David Copperfield'.
The 'Ship and Lobster' is along the shore at Denton. It is known as the first and last pub on the Thames, being out along the river wall just as you reach the marshes from Gravesend. It has changed its name several times, originally being The Ship, then The Chalk Wharf followed by The Lobster before finally becoming The Ship & Lobster in 1832. This reflected the rise of the shrimping and shellfish trade which developed on the river as Gravesend became a popular resort for day trippers on paddle steamers from London. It is thought to be the place that appears in 'Great Expectations' as 'The Ship'.
As one enters Chalk from Gravesend, the recently renovated forge along Lower Higham Road that can be seen was probably the model for Joe Gargery's Forge in 'Great Expectations'.
The building is a late 16th century weatherboarded structure, with a pantile roof and a forge that leads straight into the kitchen. It was rebuilt in the 18th and 19th centuries and is now privately owned.
Further along the same road lies Craddock's Cottage, thought by some to be Dickens' honeymoon cottage. It is of a weatherboarded construction, dating probably from the early 19th century, featuring a bust of the great man by Fitzgerald and a plaque informing onlookers that this was where, in 1836, Dickens spent his honeymoon. Although some would claim that he stayed at the Manor House on the other side of the road, the debate has never been resolved, but one piece of 'evidence' which is always produced is that the landlady of the cottage in the controversy was a Mrs. Craddock.
Mr. Pickwick stayed with a Mrs. Craddock on his way to Bath and it was while he was on his honeymoon that Dickens wrote some of the chapters of 'Pickwick Papers'.
The parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin mentioned in Domesday, dates from the 11th and 13th centuries. The 14th and 15th centuries also saw many additions to the structure, including the tower with one bell dated 1348. During the 19th century, the church was heavily restored, with the dormer windows in the north aisle and the lancet windows in the chancel dating from this period. The 15th century porch with its quaint tippling figures, now almost unrecognisable through weathering, were features that particularly intrigued Dickens. The church is in a now isolated spot, remote from Chalk itself, just off the A226 nearly a mile from the centre of the village.
"Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea...the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes...the low leaden line beyond, was the river ...the distant savagery ...from which the wind was rushing, was the sea..." Great Expectations
This long narrow parish, stretching from the A2 in the south to the Thames in the north, contains the hamlets of Upshire, Gads Hill, Chequers Street, Gore Green, Church Street and Lillechurch.
Perhaps the most famous building there Gads Hill Place, lies in Higham Upshire on the A226 Rochester Road. Once the house of Charles Dickens himself, he bought the house in 1856 for ?1,700. It was built by Thomas Stevens, former Mayor of Rochester, in 1780. It is an imposing red brick Georgian house, set amongst trees, with a delicate white painted cupola on the roof. It is now a private school.
Dickens is said to have greatly admired the house when he was a boy and his father is supposed to have told him that if he persevered and worked hard he 'might some day come and live in it' - a story which Charles Dickens related in 'The Uncommercial Traveller'.
Whilst waiting for the completion of the purchase of Gads Hill Place, Charles Dickens stayed in Gravesend at Wates Hotel, which was situated at the western end of Gravesend Promenade. Dickens also supervised some alterations to the house whilst staying at this hotel. Charles Dickens was fond of cricket and matches were played in the field at the back of Gads Hill Place and sometimes Dickens acted as scorer. He subscribed to Higham Cricket Club, whose meetings were held at the 'Falstaff Inn'.
While at Gads Hill Place, Charles Dickens wrote 'The Uncommercial Traveller', 'Great Expectations', 'Our Mutual Friend' and 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'. Dickens did a lot of writing in the Swiss Chalet given to him by his friend Fechter, an actor. The chalet was erected in the shrubbery across the road from Gads Hill Place, and there was a tunnel under the road to connect the gardens of Gads Hill with the shrubbery. After Dickens' death, the Chalet was exhibited at the Crystal Palace before being given to the Darnley Family and erected in Cobham Park. The Chalet is now on display in Rochester. Dickens also wrote in his study in Gads Hill Place, which was where he died on 9th June 1870.
On the other side of the main A226 stands the public house, the Sir John Falstaff. The name commemorates the incident in Shakespeare's Henry IV when Falstaff, the young Prince Hal and their roguish companions planned to hold up a group of travellers on Gads Hill. That stretch of road at Gads Hill had for many centuries an appalling record as one of the most dangerous stretches of road in England.
Dick Turpin, the fictional character from Harrison Ainsworth's novel Rookwood, was based on Swift Nick Nevinson. It is said that at 4am one summer day in 1676, Swift Nick robbed a man on Gads Hill, crossed the ferry to Essex and, by 'riding hell for leather,' reached York in time to show himself on the bowling green at 8pm the same day and establish an alibi which secured his acquittal. On the north side of the 'Falstaff' rises Telegraph Hill, on which a monument is erected to the memory of one Charles Larkin, a champion of the Reform Bill of 1832.
Further down School Lane, towards Lower Higham, is The Knowle. Now a high class restaurant, 'The Knowle' was built for Joseph Hindle who was the Vicar of Higham from 1829-74. Hindle was living at Gads Hill Place when Dickens bought it in 1856 and was allowed to stay there until moving to his newly completed house in 1857.
St. Mary's Church is in the lowest and oldest of the Higham 'villages' Church Street. It is built on the site of a former Saxon church, known to have existed in 774. This was extended by the nuns of the adjacent Convent of Lillechurch (Higham Priory) in 1357 to add the present south aisle. Due to its age and connections with the abbey, St. Mary's Church has many features of interest and antiquity, including a 15th century door - the finest example of contemporary woodcarving in England, - a large Norman font, a fine pulpit and rood screen dating from the 14th century, and a remarkable timber belfry tower. Adjacent to the church is the Clerks Cottage, a late 14th or early 15th century timber framed and thatched cottage, probably the oldest building in the parish.
Also adjacent is Abbey Farm, which incorporates the ruins of Higham Priory. This was the most wealthy and important religious foundation in the area, having been founded by King Stephen for his daughter in 1151. The nuns from Lillechurch were responsible for the causeway to the ferry that used to run between Higham and Essex in the early Middle Ages at a time when the village was quite a thriving port. The links between Higham and Essex can be seen in the Domesday survey of 1085/6, which showed Higham owning land on the Essex side of the Thames.
Parts of Higham are of some antiquity - Roman remains and large quantities of pottery have been found there and it is probable that its use as a port dates back to Roman times. The parish continued in importance throughout the Tudor period as a key part of the river defences - witnessed by the fact that in Henry VIII's reign a blockhouse or fort was built there.
The Thames and Medway Canal, built between Gravesend and Strood, saving a long river voyage of 47 miles, was only fully operational between 1825 and 1845. For another 87 years the Higham to Gravesend section remained open and frequently used and it is this section, which now lies in a somewhat overgrown state, that still remains.
The Saxon Shoreway, a long distance footpath that traces the ancient coastline of Kent the 140 miles from Gravesend to Rye, runs along the Thames riverbank in the north of Higham parish before cutting inland along Cliffe Creek.
"Where wild flowers mingle with the grass, and the soft landscape around forms the fairest spot in the Garden of England" Pickwick Papers
This parish, stretching from Watling Street to the Thames, is set in pleasant country and from high ground near the village has a fine view across to Essex and London.
The Church of St. Peter and Paul at Shorne combines examples of Saxon and later styles. The church itself is 13th and 14th century with a 15th century tower and font, the latter beautifully carved in Bethersden marble. Some of the church walls date back to Saxon times. Dickens expressed a wish to be buried in Shorne churchyard - one of the many places where he was supposed to have wished to be buried.
St. Katherine's Chapel probably dates from the 13th century and, after the suppression, became a malthouse for some 300 years until bought and restored by George M. Arnold.It is still used as a chapel for Roman Catholic worship, whilst St. Katherine's house is privately occupied.Pipe's Place opposite is owned by the Son of Divine Providence and has been used as an old people's home. Parts of it date from the 15th century. Shornemead Fort, just inside the Western boundary of the parish of Shorne, was built in the 1860's on the site of a late 18th century battery. All that now remains is a line of gun emplacements.
"If this," said Mr Pickwick, looking about him, "if this were the place to which all who are troubled with our friend's complaint came, I fancy their old attachment to this world would soon return." Pickwick Papers
Cobham is one of the most attractive and possibly historically the most important village in Gravesham, lying on the North Downs, amongst orchards, woods and hop gardens.
Amongst the more interesting buildings in Cobham is the 13th century Church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. The chancel, which is the oldest part of the church built in 1220, is in the Early English style of architecture and houses one of the finest collections of medieval brasses in England. In all there are 19 brasses, of which 11 are complete and fullsized examples, dating between 1298 and 1529. Amongst its other features of interest are the 14th century nave and aisle, together with the tower and porch which were added by John de Cobham, who also founded Cobham College, and the alabaster and black marble table tomb, dated 1558 with recumbent effigies of George Brooke, Lord Cobham and his wife, Anne Bray.
The Old College at Cobham was founded and endowed in 1362 as a college for priests. It had a chequered history, which has included its dissolution in 1539/40 under King Henry VIII and subsequently lying derelict for over 50 years, until converted into almshouses under the terms of the will of Sir William Brooke, Lord Cobham. The almshouses are still occupied by elderly local people. It is an unique quadrangular building, the outside of which the public can normally view. Dickens also knew the almshouses at Cobham College very well, and these were probably 'Titbull's Almshouses' in 'The Uncommercial Traveller'.
Dickens often walked to Cobham, a place which he described in 'Pickwick Papers', referring to the 'Leather Bottle' as a 'clean and commodious village ale house'. Dickens visited the 'Leather Bottle' on innumerable occasions before he bought Gads Hill, sometimes staying overnight in this inn which still preserves its original medieval timbered frontage and now houses a good collection of Dicken's pictures and prints.
Of the two other historic inns, the Darnley Arms is reputed to be over 800 years old and the onetime meeting place for monks, a tunnel they are thought to have used between the inn and the parish church being still in existence.
The Ship Inn too at the East end of the village, is very old and may have been built from the timbers of a ship which foundered off Sheerness.
As well as being the location for a large number of historically interesting buildings, the site of the village dates back a very long way. The Sarsen Stones now used as road edgings throughout the village could have stood round a communal grave in Battle Street and a British settlement once stood in the northern part of Cobham Park.The Earl of Darnley allowed his friends to have keys to Cobham Park: Charles Dickens was given a key and he loved to ramble through the park.
Near the avenue of lime trees at the south-west of Cobham Park is a place called 'Dadds Hole' where a brutal murder took place in 1843. There the body of Robert Dadd was found riddled with stab wounds, having been murdered by his own son. Richard Dadd was an artist who, in manic phase, thought his father was the devil and that he, himself, had been sent by God to exorcise him. The father's ghost is still reputed to linger in the vicinity.
Cobham Hall, on the east side of the village, is one of the finest houses in Kent. There has been a manor house on the site since the 13th century but the present building is late Elizabethan, with 17th and 18th century additions. The interior features work by James Wyatt, Inigo Jones and the Adams brothers.
Set in 50 acres of ground laid out by the famous landscape artist Humphry Repton, the house has since 1962 been a girls' boarding school, although it is open to the public during the summer months.
Two National Trust properties lie in the parish of Cobham. Owletts, at the west end of the village street, was built in 1683 for Bonham Hayes and is a fine example of building of the period. The Yeoman's House, Sole Street, a 15th century timber-framed hall house, was restored by the famous architect Sir Herbert Baker, who actually lived at Owlett's in the early years of this century.
Cobham was the original home of Kent cricket. The Bligh family from Cobham Hall were first class at the game and encouraged the playing of it in the village. In fact, the first recorded game of cricket in England was at Cobham in 1776, when they played against the village of Addington.
In 1833, the Hon. Ivo Bligh, later the 8th Earl of Darnley, led the victorious English cricket team against Austrailia bringing home the 'Ashes' to Cobham Hall. In 1927 they were forwarded to the Marylebone Cricket Club for safe keeping where they remain today in the Memorial Gallery at Lord's.