Tuesday, 25 September 2012


My brother, and walking partner, Gerald, is off on another of his US tours at the moment. In between delivering a range of performances in a range of venues – including a hall that looks like an upturned wedding cake, so ornate were the embellishments on its ceilings and walls – he has been busy driving the fund raising.

Checking in on traffic to this blog, I note that readers in America have overtaken those in the UK for the first time and it is clear that Gerry is busy sharing the stories of our fund raising efforts. As an aside, I also note our first reader from Peru, which delivers a total of more than 30 countries following our efforts. I have no idea who you are, but Hola y gracias por leer nuestra recaudación de fondos a pie de la estatua de Dickens.

Over to Gerry to relate how the funds have been swelled to the tune of $2,000 during his travels last week.

“Much more so than in England, Charles Dickens has rock-star celebrity status here. Of course, that is in part thanks to A Christmas Carol, which is a central feature of the American Christmas. The work appears everywhere, from Christmas specials and professional theatre to amateur and school theatre alike. You will find a production in every city, and the advertising industry reverts to Scrooge figures and Christmas cheer sentiments across the board.

But another reason for the affection, is Dickens's character: he fought his way up from nothing to superstar, purely by dint of hard work and commitment. It is the perfect American dream story.

The very first time I performed in the USA, I was completely bowled over by the force of the passion for Dickens. People from all walks of life are so keen to talk, have things signed, watch the shows, discuss the shows and have yet more things signed! If Dickens wanted his memory to live on solely through his works, then his wish has truly been granted here.

For the past four years I have been working with a company called Byers’ Choice who make ‘Carollers’. These are hand-made clay figures, about 8" tall and the originals were very much inspired by Dickens's London and the idyll of a Victorian Christmas. Over the years various ranges have been introduced, including characters from A Christmas Carol and many others. The success of the company was huge, growing from Joyce Byers making the figures on her kitchen table, to a huge factory and visitor centre. But it is still a family business. Joyce is still to be found anonymously stocking shelves in the store and the company is now run by her sons, Bob and Jeff. Check out their web site here:

When I perform there, they clear the factory floor of all work benches (a la Fezziwig: 'Clear away? There is nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away or couldn’t have cleared away with Fezziwig looking on, and the warehouse was as dry and bright and snug a ballroom as you could wish to see upon a winters night!'). They then erect a large stage, decorate it with furniture and props, add a superb sound system and lights and seats for an audience of around 700. The most we did was 900, but parking became a major issue, so they had to scale back the numbers!


The Byers’ enthusiasm for both Christmas and Dickens is enormous and they very much wanted to mark the 200th anniversary by laying on a weekend of celebrations to honour the great man. As ever things were done with great style and panache. The workshop was cleared as before and a market street scene built, with various items for sale along with displays of antiques and Victoriana. Another stall sold English ales from Bass and Newcastle Brown, there was a Punch and Judy show and they commissioned the most extraordinary birthday cake. Then in another part of the factory (the shipping bay) a smaller theatre was created for various shows throughout the weekend. I performed Doctor Marigold, Mr. Dickens is Coming and Sikes and Nancy to very appreciative audiences. That audience was equally appreciative of a wonderful magic lantern show along with a live performance from a lady in Victorian costume who disrobed, in order to give a demonstration of Victorian corsets, petticoats, drawers and bloomers. 50 shades of Dickens indeed......

Before each of my shows, Bob and I gave a short talk about the statue planned for Portsmouth. The Byers’ HQ is based in Chalfont, PA, not far from Philadelphia, which of course has a Dickens statue already. Throughout the weekend we raffled the first print from a limited run of Dickens by illustrator James Fiorentino and raised $1000. And if that was not impressive enough, the kind folks at Byers promptly matched the sum, delivering a highly appreciated donation of $2000 to the fund. When I return in December, we will do the same with an original picture that he painted during the weekend.

Throughout the tour I will also jump onto the memorabilia bandwagon by offering, probably as a raffle rather than auction, my top hat, waistcoat and maybe frock coat as worn throughout the tour. My guess is that could add in the region of another $5,000 to the cause.”

If you hear on the news that a Dickens family member was arrested at Heathrow after flying home naked, you can guess that he got rather carried away with the raffle idea and that further items of apparel were spontaneously added to the cause. Gerry, while we all know that the Second Amendment to the American constitution is clear, it doesn’t mean you must take it literally and bare arms. But heck, if it raises funds, then why not!

The support from our American friends is hugely appreciated and to all who have attended one of my brother’s performances, donated to the cause and sent him home with an empty suitcase, we are hugely grateful. With a new wardrobe (and a stern ticking off from the Judge), he’ll be back across the pond on his Christmas tour in a few weeks time. Book early to avoid disappointment….

Tour dates run from November 11th to December 18th.
www.geralddickens.com for further details.


Saturday, 15 September 2012


A few years ago, the Dahl family launched a campaign to save a shed.

The shed was where author Roald Dahl penned such fine works as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny the Champion of the World. Dahl’s shed sat in the garden of his Buckinghamshire home and several years after he died, plans were hatched for the now rotten hut to be restored and transferred to a museum. So far, so fine.

Rather remarkably, the small wooden structure that would cost around £5,000 to replace at a local garden centre was estimated to need a whopping £500,000 to return it to its former glory. So far, so bizarre.

To raise the cash, the Dahl family launched a public appeal to find the funds and in doing so, they caused a bit of an outcry.

This was because sales of every piece of Dahl’s finely crafted, funny and engaging tales were still hard at work earning royalties for his estate. Not just book sales, but TV rights, movie rights and theatre rights from a global audience meant that the coffers were being annually swelled by a healthy margin. So far, so extraordinary.

The reason for raising this story is that the Dickens family occasionally gets tarred with the same brush.

Because Charles Dickens is such an extraordinary phenomenon, his work is never out of print. It is available in numerous languages - English, French, Spanish and Italian as well as Chinese Mandarin and Russian Cyrillic to name just a few. So whether you want to read A Christmas Carol or Barnaby Rudge in Moscow, Miányáng, Madrid, Monaco or Milan, it’s ready and waiting. Hollywood has been all over Dickens for years, as have the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Broadway and the West End.

‘Surely’, people say, ‘you must enjoy the benefits of all that success’ suggesting it should be the matter of a moment to plunder the family wealth and write a cheque for the remaining £60,000 to make the Charles Dickens Statue a reality.

 I wish!

The copyright laws for the UK are very clear. Ownership of the work remains with the author for the duration of his life and then stays with the family for a further 50 years. That takes us from 1870, when Dickens died, to 1920 benefitting Charles’s siblings as their own lives drew to a close.

After that, there is nothing and not a single royalty cheque has been written for 92 years. If Warner Brothers decided tomorrow that they wish to produce a star studded version of Great Expectations, they don’t have to pay a penny in royalties to anyone. If you decide to publish a new complete works set, then you are absolutely free to do so. If you would like to perform A Christmas Carol this winter, then you can go right ahead and Scrooge himself would be delighted that it comes free.

Not a guinea, a groat, a florin or a crown comes our way and instead it adds to the profits of those who are embarking on their individual projects. As I have said before, the great man would be delighted to learn that his work and the morals therein continue to resonate. In doing so, it keeps his popularity as high as the day he put pen to paper. A few of those who do profit in such a way have already made donations to the statue fund and we are very grateful for that.

But just imagine if the laws were different. This missive would be coming to you from a large Chateau in Provence where my helicopter sits on the lawns sweeping down to the shimmering sea. The meeting with Warner’s regarding the new movie has gone well and the family’s legal team agree that the $20,000,000 tag we are asking for should be a formality. My schedule would require a swift use of the private jet to get me to London in order to agree terms for the winter serialization on the BBC and then it would be on to meet the directors of the Dickens Foundation as they continue to grant bursaries to the poor and needy children of the world. Writing a cheque for a mere £60K would be small change and done without a moment’s thought.

But as that shimmering daydream fizzles out to be replaced by the reality of a grey day in overcast Portsmouth, the spot for the statue in Guildhall Square still sits empty, the fiberglass mould in the corner of a foundry in Gloucestershire sits waiting for a vat of molten bronze and my alarming looking bank statement reveals that once again, it’s an overdrawn month.

So unlike those who still benefit from a regular supply of royalty cheques, we have to resort to sending letters, making phone calls, spreading the word through the media, creating stunts like walking from London to Portsmouth and holding out begging bowls (or top hats) to bring the funds in.

Maybe we should write to the Dahl family for a donation. It’s clear that when it comes to cash, they have shed loads.




Saturday, 1 September 2012


Another week, another tranche of media coverage and another set of interviews. We always intended our fundraising walk to act as a catalyst and three weeks on, it’s good to see the interest continues.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph devoted an entire, full colour, magnificent broadsheet page to our efforts and it generated strong levels of interest – even if the photography highlighted the need for an urgent and drastic diet (and there was me thinking that walking 94 miles would deliver an overnight Olympian physique).

Their reporter and photographer joined us for several hours on day two of our walk. As always happens, an hour long interview and copious note taking on a series of highly entertaining stories that Gerry and I shared, ended up hugely edited. But nonetheless, having our goal presented to 600,000 right wing, true blue readers, most of whom will be affluent, influential and interested, was highly valued.

The article led to BBC Radio Ulster including the story in their daily arts programme and the on-air interview earlier this week was lively, well researched and engaging. The station is the most listened to in Northern Ireland and it exposed another 580,000 people to our fund raising goals.

I don’t know if there are ex-pats from Derry, Belfast, Ennniskillen or Limavady living in Tanzania, Israel, India and China listening to the station on-line, but on the following day these countries could be added to the long list of those reading this blog.

Who’d have thought it? Colombia and China the latest to be following a couple of blokes plodding through leafy Surrey three weeks ago, simply trying to raise some cash….

In all the interviews, the same questions generally get asked. In most, there is amazement at finding there isn’t a statue for Charles Dickens already in the UK and they want to know why that is. As I explained to the presenter on Radio Ulster a couple of days ago, it’s partly down to a long running debate on the terms of Charles Dickens’s Will and how it is interpreted.

If you were to read “On no account make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever” in his last Will and Testament, you would be forgiven in thinking the argument is pretty clear. This is the line that is constantly trotted out by those who are convinced that the plan for a statue is going firmly against the wishes of Dickens and why nothing exists to date – in the UK anyway.

Put that line in context and it makes for a very different read. “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity. I direct that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb, without the addition of 'Mr.' or 'Esquire.' I conjure my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial, or testimonial whatever”.

From that, it is clear that Dickens was leaving clear instructions on where he wanted to be buried, (which was ignored), who he wanted to be at his funeral, what they should wear, the manner in which it should be conducted and the type of grave they should erect for him. In this context, his reference to a memorial clearly relates to the style of grave and his abhorrence to the over the top melodramatic response to death so favoured by the Victorians – ‘revolting absurdities’ indeed.

Let’s be sensible here. No one commits their Will to immortality, spending time detailing the minutia of their funeral and then, in the same sentence, adds an apparent aside to the world by saying “Oh and by the way, no statues please”.

My great-great grandfather makes it clear that he addresses these requests to his friends. He does not issue a global dictat to descendants he will never meet and he doesn’t demand this from his fans. Why would he, when he is talking about his funeral?

But to flip the coin, suppose the alternative interpretation is true. To believe that, one has to accept that his ego was hugely inflated and he was massively arrogant. Was Dickens really trying to say in his Will to the world “And furthermore, I believe my work to be so brilliant, it will remain relevant and valued for ever more. Because of that, people might wish to celebrate my talents through a variety of tributes including a statue in one, two or three hundred years after my death. I expressly forbid them to do so”.

Nope. That doesn’t stack up for me either.

Of course, it’s all open to debate and personal opinion but the family view is very clear and that’s why we are so happy to support the statue initiative being driven by the Portsmouth branches of the Dickens Fellowship, so positively encouraged by Portsmouth City Council. And judging from the response of those we have spoken to across a broad range of media, they seem to agree.

But whether folk are against a statue or not, it’s all rather academic as two already exist and have done so for well over 100 years. One sits in a park in Philadelphia, USA while a second can be found in Sydney, Australia.

The one in America was created by Frank Elwell in his New York studio around 20 years after Dickens had died and placed at Clark Park in the Spruce Hill section of West Philadelphia. It sits high on a plinth with an adoring Little Nell gazing up to the figure that bears only a passing resemblance to the great man. In Australia, a cold and austere life sized white marble Dickens broods under the southern hemisphere sun. This too was erected at the end of the 19th century - again on a high plinth, but not high enough to stop someone rather ungraciously knocking his head off in the 1970’s. It was all reinstated earlier this year and now sits on the corner of Dickens Drive and Loch Avenue in Centennial Park. The re-crafted marble face bears the rather startled look of someone who has indeed been recently decapitated. But despite that, it’s good to see him back.

Looking at the statues already in existence brings the one planned for Portsmouth – the UK’s first - in to sharp focus. There is no saccharine American sweetness to what is planned and neither is there any element of a formal and stiff cold soul brooding down at us. Dickens was a man of the people and with the UK sculpture, we hope that children will want to clamber up his knee and sit in his lap. We want the piece to be a celebration of what Dickens achieved and to applaud his long lasting relevance through a thoughtful, engaging and respectfully considered tribute.

In amongst all the interest in the project from the nice folk Gerry and I have been talking to over the last few weeks, another common theme has emerged. It was repeated again this week when a journalist confided in me; “I love Dickens – this has made me want to read him again”.

Now that’s what I call a legacy and one I think CD would be the first to describe as anything other than a ‘revolting absurdity’.


Monday, 20 August 2012


Calm down. It’s not a headline from the Sunday red-tops, but an update on where we are with the statue.
With the final clay complete, the entire statue and platform was gingerly scooped up by a forklift and placed in the back of a cavernous juggernaut. With sculptor Martin Jennings driving at the head of the convoy, it made the slow and delicate journey from his studio near Oxford to the foundry in Gloucestershire.
Seeing sunlight bathe the familiar figure for the first time, it brought my illustrious forebear even more to life and the next time daylight hits him, it will be when the wraps are pulled off and he is unveiled to the world in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square. 
Martin was on hand to repair the inevitable small cracks and splits caused by the journey and then it was over to the foundry workers to paint the clay with a latex rubber solution. It will pick up every miniscule impression of his brilliant sculpting talent and once dried, a fibre glass layer was added. This becomes the mould, which now awaits the pouring of the bronze and subsequent welding of the statue elements in to the final, magnificently patinated finished piece.
But that’s where things stop until we have raised the remaining £60,000 to complete the process.
Donations continue to trickle in from our walk and many of those will be in Euros. Gerry performed Nicholas Nickleby at Kyteler’s Inn as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival last week and there was an audible gasp when the audience discovered that no statue exists in the UK.  Donations were as generous as the standing ovation, led - perhaps a tad too enthusiastically - by the establishments owner. The fact that she is our sister is beside the point and it was good to have Nicky Flynn (nee Dickens) rallying to the cause.
And showing that sibling love was dished out fairly, Nicky had ensured that my blogs were on display around the room for the good folk of Co. Kilkenny to enjoy. It is gratifying to see that we are heading towards 3,000 views from a truly international audience and the feedback has been generous in its praise. To our friends in America, thank you for following the story so far - you stand in the silver medal position behind the UK in terms of reader numbers. Russia takes the bronze (I don’t know anyone in Russia, but it’s great to know you are so interested in our project) closely followed by Ireland. After that, there is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of countries including Colombia, India, Thailand, Switzerland and Singapore. In total, 22 nations have logged on so far and to all who have taken a look, we are most grateful.

Although this blog was initially conceived to promote and report on our fund-raising walk, it will remain for a little longer thanks to popular demand. The intention is to write an update three or four times a month - either until the statue project is complete, or when I see that our readership has dwindled to one hit from the UK and one from Ireland. Or rather, when I know it’s just Gerry and Nicky dutifully following my words...

One thing that strikes me as we continue our fund-raising push is the credit card statements now coming in. They display a clear story of our expenditure and it raises a slightly uncomfortable issue.
To walk 94 miles, you need decent kit and buying boots, quick dry trousers, shirts and fleeces plus backpacks and walking poles probably set Gerry and I back to the tune of £500. Then there was the fund raising brochure that needed designing and printing, which adds another £150 to the outlay.  Oh, plus the envelopes and stamps to mail it to our data base. KERCHING! That’s another £50.

We needed to find overnight accommodation on route and while some establishments offered various levels of discount, none of it was free so there’s another £280 that’s gone on the credit card - and that was just for kipping and sticking aching feet in to a variety of sinks.

Suppers and a drink or two (we were not exactly Monk-like in our abstinence) means another £180 has flown from the account – walking is thirsty work, after all. The statement also reminds me that we stayed in London on the eve of the walk which meant a £160 hotel room in the West End. Supper in a restaurant during the London Olympics was always going to be costly and it delivered little change from £100. Fifty quid a head for a bowl of pasta and a glass or two of Vino Rosso? Really?  
We needed to do a couple of site visits for the venues where Gerry performed and a day’s driving sucked £70’s worth of petrol through the carburettors.  Gerry’s partner Liz had to deliver his costume and stage props to the venues in Godalming and Rowlands Castle (and collect them again after the applause had died away), so there’s another £50 of unleaded to be added to the total.

Chasing up our numerous media contacts probably added £25’s worth of calls on our iPhones and having internet access was vital to share these blogs and respond to e-mails, so I estimate another £15 has flown off in to the ether. Then there was the new video camera so I could upload footage to the BBC, and the accounts department at Panasonic are no doubt grateful for the £130 I gave them. Oh and the tripod too, so we could both be in shot, added £30 to the outlay and several more pounds to the weight of my backpack (I carried more media/communications kit than I did change of clothes, which might explain both the sore back and our ripe smelling odours by day five)
Not thinking about the monthly statement from VISA, I stupidly forgot to do what used to be the norm on budget ski holidays, where you raid the hotel buffet bar and put together your own packed lunch at the expense of the hotelier. So water, bananas, sandwiches, energy drinks, coffee stops  and the occasional cooling ice cream probably added another £50 as we kept fed and watered during our trip.

All of which begs the question ‘wouldn’t it have been easier to have just written a cheque for £1,690 to the charities?’
Well yes, in one sense that would have been the sensible thing to do. But the walk was a catalyst to generate greater awareness of our cause and with a combined media audience totalling over 1,000,000 people, we certainly spread the word. As mentioned earlier, we have 22 lovely countries following developments and with our personal fund-raising total coming in at around £4,000, the investment to speculate has been firmly outstripped by what has been accumulated so far.

And anyway, we don’t do sensible.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


Last week, it took three days to pass the 65 mile mark on our walk. This morning it took me 80 minutes to cover the same distance, but I have to thank Mercedes, a turbo-charged engine and a hefty right foot (which still feels a little sore) that hurtled me so effortlessly up the A3 to the office.

It was a drive of landmarks that previously had been mere patches of flashing green. The rainbow arch of the bridge connecting Havant to Portsmouth had a lone pedestrian on it and I knew he would be getting a little breathless on an incline I had not noticed before. Through the South Downs, I could glimpse the steep path climbing up the chalk escarpment that gives walkers their first view of the distant sea.

The signs to Petersfield, Liss and Milford delivered fond recollections of kindness, characters and generosity, while the sign to Guildford gave me a cold chill. It was good that my route to Windsor had me turning off before the receding city and the pain of trying to get there vanished in my fast moving rear view mirror. It felt like I was getting my own back.

I remembered the lovely group of Mums who we met near Hindhead asking where we were heading to in the evening. “Liss” we said and the response made us smile. “Not too far then” they said. Well no, in a 3 litre Range Rover, it’s just 20 minutes down the road. But by foot, it was another five hours of muscle burning slog.

Tonight as I drive home and just before I hurtle in to the darkness of the Hindhead tunnel, I’ll look up at the pine clad slopes which gave us such a short, sharp workout and look at the gap in the trees where we stared down at an incredible feat of engineering. At the time, we stood and waved our top hats at the passing traffic slicing down the valley of the new road but no one waved, flashed their light or hooted their horns. I doubt if anyone will be there, but I’ll be keeping a lookout, just in case.

Yesterday I went back to the Dickens Fellowship Conference and the lecture theatre we tried to enter on Thursday night was now properly open. I was there to chair a talk given by Martin Jennings on the making of his fine statue of Charles Dickens. You could have heard a pin drop as he shared his insight, motivation and approach to the commission and the thought and attention to detail that has gone in to four months of creativity was impressive. Some Dickens fans have been against the idea of a statue because they believe it goes against the wording of Dickens’s Will but afterwards, a steady queue of academics had clearly been won round and are now convinced that this is an important project to support.

We thought so too, which is why we got off our backsides and slogged our guts out for five days. My goal had always been to create a catalyst that would be picked up by others and the media coverage we generated can only have helped. But in terms of unlocking funds through our efforts, it’s been a bit if a disappointment. The current combined total for the Statue Fund and the National Literacy Trust stands at just under £4,000 – way short of our £10,000 personal target.

We are incredibly grateful to all those who made donations, either through the links here or out on the road. The first contribution as we walked was a £1 coin given to us on the first day in Chelsea and it will play its part in allowing the foundry to buy another bronze ingot as they prepare for the statue to be cast. 

If you have been following us but have yet to pledge your support, the lines are, unsurprisingly, still open and will remain so until all the funds are secured. If you click on the statue link at the top of this blog, don’t be surprised that it takes you to the Portsmouth City Council web site. They are enthusiastic supporters of the project and their finance department has created the ability to make a contribution that will be handed over to the statue fund. Click on ‘Miscellaneous’ on the first page and you will see Dickens Statue as an option. Simply follow directions from there.

Getting a rich benefactor to write a cheque for £60,000 is, I guess, a bit like driving to Liss in a Range Rover. If you have one, then it's dead easy and you do it without a moments thought. But if you don't, then the long slog with a firm eye on the goal is the only option open to us.

We are desperately eager to achieve - driven, infact.



Friday, 10 August 2012


94 miles after leaving London’s Golden Square, we arrived at Guildhall Square, Portsmouth.

The original expectation was to walk 75 miles but twisting footpaths, the odd diversion and the occasional wrong turn added the extra distance. Over the five days, we have walked for 44 hours, the longest day covering 25 miles.

And our constant companion throughout has been a set of now rather dog-eared Ordnance Survey maps that have faithfully lead us down footpaths, along bridleways, across hectic roads, through ancient woodlands, down shaded valleys and atop high chalk ridges as central London gave way to Surrey, West Sussex and finally Hampshire.

I love an Ordnance Survey map and can settle down to ‘read’one like a good book. The contour lines in brown swirls ripple out across the landscape revealing a flat river plane here or a steep ridge there. Bold motorways in blue, bulldoze their way through the landscape regardless. Bright red 'A' roads hurtle self importantly from town to town. Dull 'B' roads in brown join them in a series of tributaries while the back roads, the narrow lanes, the rural roads meander haphazardly in paths of serene yellow. Criss-crossing it all are the dotted green lines of footpaths, bridleways and byways that have been walked upon for centuries and it is these old and ancient ways that have been our best friend.

It is all deeply reassuring. The map shows a track should be just ahead to take us off a horrible 'A' road where there is no pavement and wing mirrors shave by our backpacks at 70 mph. And sure enough, unseen by the hurtling motorist, there indeed is a worn wooden signpost with FOOTPATH carved in to it, pointing the way across untroubled countryside. And it’s not just the maps that deserve praise. It is the parish councils meeting in the village halls and pubs, the local councils in the towns and the county bigwigs in their labyrinth of corridors in sprawling county halls, who ensure the networks are marked and maintained. Stiles, kissing gates and small bridges are all there to ease our path by the curious stares of cattle and the farmers too respect the ways, leaving narrow bands of soil uncultivated as lines across their fields.

The one thing the maps don’t do is to give any warning of vegetation or conditions underfoot. Yesterday dawned bright and clear with the promise of hot and sunny conditions, so for the first time in our walk, the lower section of trousers were unzipped and our milky white legs were on show. Which, of course, meant that the first wooden footpath sign, just outside Rowlands Castle, pointed the way down a narrow avenue lined with overgrown patches of stinging nettles.

The nettles, having spurred us on with plenty of poisoned barbs, gave way to rich banks of brambles and their thorns seemed to delight in ensuring that the damage continued. And from there, it was over a long meadow full of cows. In the heat, the horseflies were out in force and we could feel them taking great chunks out of our legs as we covered the 16 miles in to Portsmouth.

We were both feeling pretty weary. Gerry’s performance the night before had been a huge success as Rowlands Castle came out to support us in force. It was standing room only at the Robin Hood Inn and when the top hats went round at the end of the show, the donations were generous in the extreme. The generosity continued at the bar where several of the locals insisted we join them for a drink.

Followed by another.

And then one for the road.

And then a nightcap. And then ein for the strasse.

And then a very last one.

Breakfast was a quiet affair but once on the road, we were back to our easy pace and the combination of hot sun and top hats soon had the sweat pouring from our brows as the excess of fluids took their leave. Around the back of Havant, we were quickly on to the Portsdown Hill with Chichester Harbour, Langstone Harbour, Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent spread out beneath us. It’s one of the finest views in the UK and plenty of people were out enjoying it in a long line of family picnics. We needed to liaise with BBC South to film another piece, having spent the previous day doing the same with ITV Meridian.

As we spotted producer David Allard, a beaten up car braked sharply to a halt and a friendly young chap by the name of Toby donated £10 to the cause. Walking down in to Cosham, a lovely lady proffered a fiver and two further passers by emptied their pockets of change. As we walked through a park with immaculate bowling greens, the ladies interrupted their game and a gaggle of white matrons waved and applauded our passing.

A back street in Portsmouth lead to more kindnesses and the filling up water bottles and making a donation came easily to David and Amanda at number 13. We walked by the Dickens Birthplace Museum and got a lovely welcome from the staff there, then it was on down Commercial Road, and in to Guildhall Square, following the original path of the old A3 that has connected Portsmouth to London for centuries.

The global delegates in town for the Dickens Fellowship were out in force and we were welcomed with applause, flag waving and cheers from a crowd of around 150, which included my eight month old grandson Joe. The Lord Mayor was warm in his praise of our efforts, our fund raising initiatives and the publicity we have generated for our cause. The spot where we were standing will be where the Charles Dickens statue will be unveiled and I am certain it will be there for all to see by next spring.

Sculptor Martin Jennings has been a generous supporter of our walk and two days ago, we took a call from him telling us that after four months of work, the final piece of clay had been placed. Yesterday, the full size Charles DIckens was driven in a slow convoy to the foundry for the mould to be made and all we need now is the final sums of cash to start the casting process.

Gerry and I were due to address the Fellowship Conference with an illustrated talk in one of the University Lecture Theatres last night, but things went a tad awry. The bloke who was supposed to show up with the keys didn’t appear, leaving 150 delegates from all over the world amassed on the pavement with nothing to do. So we hoofed it, giving an impromptu talk on our walk and the six generations of Dickens’s who have lived in Portsmouth. We hoofed it from the steps outside the building and the audience responded in kind. It was the lark of all larks, full of laughter and fun and by the end of it, the top hats were overflowing once again with a richness of notes.

And then when the delegate’s coaches didn’t appear either, I blazed a trail through the streets of Portsmouth, leading them back to their accommodation in Rees Hall (the site of the old Southsea Pier Hotel where Charles Dickens once stayed).

 It was the least I could do and anyway, it was nice to have a walk.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012


We are in sniffing distance of the sea and our journey from London is almost over.

As a Portsmouth boy, (the sixth generation Dickens to live in the city), today felt like home territory as we walked through countryside I have strolled over several times before. As we crested one particular hill, there before us lay the first sight of the English Channel. Across fields of rolling ripe corn, small blue smudges of coppiced woodland and nestling ancient villages, I could see the hills of the Isle of Wight, the Solent forts, distant shipping making their ponderous way towards the ferry port and underneath a heavy cloud of rain, Portsmouth itself.

The day had started under misty and damp skies, but the air – even at seven o’clock when we left the sleeping pub, had a thickness and warmth to it. And while lightweight Gortex does the job in helping shirts, trousers and socks to breath, black felt top hats with their heavy inner rim of leather are not quite so advanced.

As such, a steady stream of sweat trickled down our faces and my topper now has a rather unpleasant salty white rim around its once smart band. But our trademarks continued to work their wonder as we walked from Liss into Petersfield in search of a hearty breakfast. Fate took us to the Folly Bar near the town centre and we immediately knew it was full of positive vibes and goodness. The ladies at the counter were genuine in their warmth, the other diners were equally quick to trade banter and we were swiftly ensconced at a window table with two plates crammed with eggs, bacon, sausages and all the other elements that make the full English quite so full.

Another hat wearer was quick to spot us. His purple beret suggested ‘character’ and his opening gambit confirmed it.

“Your great-great-grandfather was a randy old bugger” he roared, followed by a loud guffaw. This unconventional 72 year old was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word STIFF. The word amplified itself in to a full Technicolor boast thanks to his admirably proportioned belly and our response was quick and predictable.

His craggy features, full-on grey beard and twinkling eyes clearly betrayed an entertaining life. We learnt that he had mild cirrhosis which meant he could only drink occasionally “Bloody doctor said he had bad news, then told me my liver was damaged. Could have told the silly sod that decades ago. So I can’t drink now - but I do have some fantastic memories” he added, only slightly wistfully.

“If you can remember, then you weren’t trying hard enough” we said and he laughed at that.

He told us about an old friend who loved Smoked Salmon but was so tight, he was the only one allowed to carve it. “The slices were so thin, they were like tissue paper” he related, before continuing; “He was carving one day when someone was rude about the Queen. Quick as a flash, he raised the knife and sliced half the chap’s ear off. Case went to court and the Judge was not impressed until he found out about the rudeness to Her Majesty. After that, it was deemed perfectly fair and reasonable. Case dismissed!”
We asked for his name and the response was a reassuring nickname rather than a formal title. ‘Gibbo. Call me Gibbo’ he said, before adding “you can also call me Arsehole, but if you do, make sure it’s Mr. Arsehole as without manners, all sense of decorum in society is lost’. At that, he bid us good day and left.

And people wonder how Charles Dickens found the material for his extraordinary characters.

The owner of the Folly Bar was in equally gregarious form, desperate to donate a bottle to help us on our way. With heavy back packs and little space, we declined but he was ready to counter and came back with a solution. Two miniature bottles of Cava – one white and one pink - emerged from behind the bar and made rather curious bedfellow with the bottle of HP Sauce. If Gibbo had not left already, we would have given the bottle of Rose to him. It matched his hat and a small glass of bubbles would surely be OK - it was only mild cirrhosis after all.

Suitably refreshed, we attacked the South Downs and picked our way through delightful folds of rural countryside with only bird song and the occasional squirrel for company. Our path took us to the village of Chalton in which the 16th century pub ‘The Red Lion’ features heavily. Chalton is a tiny hamlet and it was at this wayside inn that we think Dickens set a key scene in Nicholas Nickleby. Our hero and his friend Smike find themselves 10 miles from Portsmouth and are persuaded by the Landlord to stop for the night. In the long room next to the old bar was one Vincent Crummles taking supper and the introduction – and what followed – delivered some of the funniest scenes in the book.

And we had a welcoming committee too. Hats appear to be a theme of today and purple beret had been replaced with straw boaters. Underneath them were three smiling faces, as the Pickwick Bicycle Club, beers in hand, gave us a warm welcome. They preside over the oldest Dickens club in the world and I greatly enjoy being an honorary member.
Hanging baskets rich with flowers, a gently thatched roof, an ancient church, distant views to the Downs and a bar rich with ghosts made it tempting to follow Nicholas and Smike’s lead and stay the night. But another performance beckons and as I write this in the convivial surrounds of The Robin Hood Inn, on the village green in Rowland’s Castle, an expectant buzz is building behind me.

The bar is packed, Meridian TV is here, the Portsmouth News are sending a photographer - it’s ‘curtain up’ in 20 minutes time. And with hats as today’s theme, our toppers will be upturned at the door, ready for some hefty donations.

As Gibbo might say “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”