[All images my own].
With all of this Charles Dickens hype at the moment (February 7th will be the bicentenary of his birth), I’ve been thinking about the great man and felt the need to blog about my visit to his very own mini theme park in Chatham, Kent. The area is well suited to Dickens worship as he lived there for part of his childhood, though he probably would be amused to find his attraction placed in the sleepy dockyard, which is badly in need of regeneration and could do with a lick of paint. Like everything else in his life, it’s a mixture of highs and lows.
When I visited in 2009 it was a sort of fun way of revising for my second year of uni – we were studying Great Expectations and Hard Times, so I went with two of my friends to try and engage with Dickens in a slightly unorthodox way; we certainly weren’t going to feature our experience in essays, but it was going to be a laugh. Undeterred by decidedly mixed reviews on the internet, we set off for the afternoon and looked forward to wrestling with gangs of small children (in a playful, non-threatening way, obviously) to get to the rides.
What we didn’t expect – or you could say what didn’t figure in our own Great Expectations of Dickens World – was for the place to be utterly deserted and lovingly crap. Aside from a few other tourists, we had the entire place to ourselves and were free to roam across the different zones. We all became scared witless in the supposedly gentle Great Expectations ride, which involved Magwitch’s frightening voice, then were completely unphased by the supposedly terrifying Haunted House, which hadn’t been adjusted to its full horror-inducing capacity (the staff had forgotten to switch on the holograms or projections or whatever it was that they used). We visited the theatre and watched a painfully rickety electronic narrator tell us about Dickens’ life, then went to the schoolhouse and racked up Dickens Points on interactive desks that worked sporadically. The staff also offered to let us go on the rides again as they had nothing to do, then began competing for our attention. It was a very endearingly British day out, with topsy-turvy happenings as all the things we’d dreaded turned out okay but all of the impressive-sounding attributes were actually quite poor, despite the multi-million pound investment that had gone into building this microcosm of what it means to be slightly disappointing and from the UK.
So, would I recommend Dickens World? Yes. The ticket prices for adults were obscene, even three years ago, which is why we opted for cut-price entry in the afternoon, but we did all have a very entertaining day out. I did feel like I learned more about this great writer, but perhaps the biggest lesson was about how much I love the amateurish tourist feel of one of Britain’s weirdest and most niche attractions. Oh, and the shop’s great, too.