From Britain's greatest novelist and a Victorian engineering genius to smashing seafood and an Italian ice cream heaven, the south coast resort of Broadstairs has got the lot
"Our English watering hole"
That’s what novelist Charles Dickens called the English seaside town of Broadstairs. It was obviously a Dickens family favourite since between 1837 and 1859 they spent nearly every summer holiday in the south coast resort. I can understand the appeal as my grandparents moved there in the 1970s and coming back for a visit after so many years brought back some fantastic memories.
Every year the town celebrates its illustrious literary visitor with the Broadstairs Dickens Festival (www.broadstairsdickensfestival.co.uk). This nine day extravaganza commences on the third Saturday in June with a costume parade down the High Street, featuring hoards of Dickensian characters from the Artful Dodger and Mrs Haversham to Scrooge and the Ghost of Jacob Marley. Throughout the festival people throw themselves into the Dickensian world, putting on Victorian costumes and taking part in events ranging from theatrical performances to Victorian bathing parties and cricket matches.
From the end of the jetty in Viking Bay’s harbour - with its Customs House and 17th-century weather-boarded RNLI boathouse - you can see Bleak House (Fort Road, Broadstairs; 01843 862 224; www.bleakhouse.info) dominating the town from its position on the cliff top. Originally known as Fort House this was the author’s favourite Broadstairs holiday home. Built in 1801 as a coastal observation station for keeping an eye on the local smugglers and Napoleon's Navy, it is currently undergoing restoration and will hopefully soon be open to the public again.
One of the festival’s focal points is The Dickens House Museum (2 Victoria Parade, Broadstairs; 01843 861232 or 01843 863453 when closed). The house used to belong to a Miss Mary Pearson Strong who was the model for Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. There is a fine collection of Dickensian memorabilia to see here, including some of the author’s letters and furniture, along with a display of Victorian costume.
But Dickens wasn’t the only eminent Victorian who enjoyed Broadstairs. Close to the railway station we discovered The Crampton Tower Museum (The Broadway, Broadstairs; 01843 871133; www.cramptontower.co.uk; admission £3.00). Thomas Crampton was Kent's answer to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He laid the first telephone cable across the English Channel and designed railways and public gas and water works.
The flint water tower and cistern that are now home to the exhibits about his life and the history of transport in Broadstairs used to supply the town with fresh drinking water. Like lots of small museums up and down the UK, it is run by enthusiastic local people so please do make an effort to drop in and help them keep it going.
Eating and drinking
Close to the Dickens House Museum is the Charles Dickens pub (Victoria Parade, Broadstairs; 01843 869865; www.charlesdickenspubbroadstairs.co.uk). With a fabulous view out over Viking Bay this is just the place to stop for a midday livener or a pub lunch. The menu offers a range of pub grub, from sandwiches to steak. I’d recommend the Ploughman’s platter with blue Stilton, pickles and salad. At £6.25 you will have ample change from £10 to wash it down with a pint of real ale.
While it isn’t known whether Dickens drank at the pub that today bears his name he was known to be a customer at The Tartar Frigate (Harbour Street, Broadstairs; 01843 862013; www.tartarfrigate.co.uk) a pub described as “the cosiest little sailor's inn, selling the strongest of tobacco and the strongest smelling rum that is to be met with around the coast” by his biographer.
Named after HMS Tartar, a locally built warship, this 18th-century inn was also popular with the smugglers who used to hide their contraband down the wishing well to be found at the Old Curiosity Shop (9 Harbour Street, Broadstairs). While the downstairs bar is a popular local music venue, the restaurant upstairs presents some of the best seafood in Kent. The Parma ham wrapped roast monkfish stuffed with scallops in a lemon and sage butter is exquisite. It's not outrageously expensive either, a main, dessert and wine set us back just £80 for three.
However perhaps the best rediscovery for me was Morellis Gelato (14 Victoria Parade, Broadstairs; 01843 862500; www.morellisgelato.com/Broadstairs). This place with its soda fountain, Formica topped tables, jukebox and pink leatherette booths hadn’t changed at all since my childhood. In fact the décor dates back to 1959 but then the original Mr Morelli did know a thing or two about delicious ice cream, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it as they say.
Where to stay
When Dickens first visited Broadstairs he stayed at the The Royal Albion Hotel (6-12 Albion Street Broadstairs). Built in 1760 the hotel is right in the middle of the town and its back garden has direct access to Viking Bay’s sandy beach. Doubles start from £85 a night.