Portsmouth, England: A Literary Tour

Antonie Bremner, The Daily Telegraph, March 26, 2012

The mention of Charles Dickens conjures images of a fog-choked capital, cramped social conditions and eerie marshes on the Thames Estuary. How salutary it is in Dickens’s bicentenary year to visit his birthplace in Portsmouth – 1 Mile End Terrace, his parents’ first marital home – and discover that he was born into a small, comfortable Regency house.

The Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum lets you step back into the authentically furnished world of a 19th- century family and find seeds of the themes that coloured his works.

On the first floor, you can imagine the future literary giant in the spring of 1812 being picked up by his mother from his cot and held at bedroom windows that would have overlooked cherry orchards to the north and seaside meadows to the south.

You can almost hear the scurrying of a housemaid as she laboured from scullery to kitchen, parlour to dining room. This was the backdrop of a life rarely attained by Dickens’s colourful cast of eccentrics, ruffians and heroines.

Dickens wrote about Portsmouth in Nicholas Nickleby and sent his fifth son to school here. His birthplace meant so much to him that, years later, he tried desperately to locate the house – to no avail.

Items from his subsequent life have been brought here for preservation: a snuff box, bookcases and the rosewood couch on which he reputedly died in 1870.

Portsmouth has also touched the lives of writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who practised as a doctor), HG Wells (who worked in a draper’s shop) and Rudyard Kipling (the city was a childhood home).

At the Portsmouth City Museum you can continue to explore Dickensian social history in a fascinating exhibition, A Tale of One City, which is full of household accounts, rent collectors’ books, clerical ledgers, schoolgirls’ needlework, records of cholera epidemics, and even a pawnbroker’s door.

The star exhibit is the original manuscript of Nicholas Nickleby, loaned by the British Library, which comes complete with corrections and ink blots. Walk across the foyer of the City Museum and you time- travel through two generations to enter another exhibition, A Study in Sherlock: Uncovering the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. First, though, take a refuelling stop at the City Museum Café for toasted panini and possibly the world’s best marshmallow-decorated hot chocolate.

A Study in Sherlock is a fun display of extraordinary material bequeathed by Conan Doyle scholar Richard Lancelyn Green. With audio commentary by Stephen Fry and a museum mystery of its own, this celebration will particularly appeal to children who have been hooked on the recent BBC adaptation. Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh and studied medicine at the university. He arrived in Portsmouth in June 1882 with little more than £10 and set up a medical practice in Southsea.

It’s hard to say what’s more terrifying: the vibrant, vintage posters advertising the blood- dripping horrors of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Scarlet Claw or the sight of the examination couch and a case of rudimentary surgical instruments.

While waiting for his patients, Conan Doyle wrote stories. In 1887 A Study in Scarlet – featuring the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes – appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual.

Also showcased is the largest collection of Conan Doyle material in book, film, TV or stage form – ample cultural evidence for the way in which Sherlock has captured the popular imagination down the years: code message writing sets, detective games, handcuffs, magnifying glasses, deer-stalker hats, even a packet of “non-run” stretch nylon stockings illustrated by Holmes with magnifier examining a lithe leg close up.

In honour of the diversity of Portsmouth – cultural, historical and geographical – nothing comes more highly recommended than a trip up Spinnaker Tower.

Designed to symbolise the city’s maritime heritage, this stunning landmark has viewing decks that give visitors 350-degree panoramas over the bustling British Naval port below, home to the 250-year- old HMS Victory; HMS Warrior 1860, Britain’s first iron-hulled, armoured warship; and the Mary Rose Museum. Sweep your eyes across 50 square miles of natural harbour; spy islands, forts, piers, cathedrals and a medieval castle; pick out the spot where the Mary Rose sank – then descend 100 yards into the shopping heaven that is Gunwharf Quays Outlet Malls.

The perfect place to stay on your short break in the maritime city is Fortitude Cottage, a charming family-run guesthouse overlooking the quayside in the heart of Old Portsmouth. Named after an 18th-century warship, it offers immaculately maintained contemporary bedrooms and a beamed breakfast room with views over the water.

All the attractions are within walking distance of the hotel, including Dickens’s birthplace.


Visit Portsmouth: visitportsmouth.co.uk ; 023 9282 6722

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: historicdockyard.co.uk ; 023 9283 9766

Spinnaker Tower: spinnakertower.co.uk ; 023 9285 7520

Gunwharf Quays: gunwharf-quays.com ; 023 9283 6700

Fortitude Cottage: fortitudecottage.co.uk ; 023 9282 3748

For great ideas on short breaks and days out for couples: visitsoutheastengland.com/timeforus