Out There column

The Ship Hotel at Allonby.
The Ship Hotel at Allonby.
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Walking in the footsteps of the great novelist Charles Dickens is something that I’ve done a couple of times recently.

A few months ago I visited Dickens’ former home in the Kentish seaside town of Broadstairs.

Along with my husband Mark, I walked the beaches he’d once explored and looked out over views that inspired him to write Bleak House.

Dickens loved to travel and on a writing tour in 1857 he ended up in the tiny coastal village of Allonby in Cumbria.

Dickens’ travelling companion was the novelist and playwright, William ‘Wilkie’ Collins. The resulting novella – The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices – was a big hit. Through a humorous narrative, Collins assumes the identity of Thomas Idle (a born-and-bred idler) and Dickens that of Francis Goodchild (laboriously idle).

On their tour the pair stayed at a coaching inn called The Ship and at the weekend Mark and I had the pleasure of staying there too.

An atmospheric if somewhat dilapidated old building with a lichen-encrusted roof, and a wealth of quirky architectural features, The Ship retains much of its original character. Dickens described The Ship as: “A capital little homely inn looking out upon the sea ... a clean nice place in a rough wild country.”

When we had a look around the building we spotted a printed copy of the innkeeper’s book for September 9 to 11, 1857.

It recorded that: “Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins Esqrs’ partook of lunch with beer and wine; and dinner with tea and brandy”.

After their trip the pair headed to Carlisle and then on to Lancaster.

However, Dickens wasn’t completely taken with Allonby.

He called it “a primitive place” and said: “Large? No, it was not large. Shape? What a question to ask! No shape. What sort of street? Why, no street.”

Ironically, this is why Mark and I love Allonby. It’s small, its beaches are wild and windswept and it isn’t over-developed. I like to think Dickens would have approved that it hasn’t changed too much over the years.