|Start: South Kensington Underground Station.
|Duration: 2 Hours
|Best of Times: Daytime.
|Worst of Times: Evenings.
At the start of the 19th century Kensington was little more than a rural parish with a resident population of around 8,000. By 1881, the effects of the Great Exhibition (1851), The Exhibition (1862) and the subsequent establishment of museums and colleges in the district had sparked a westward migration of London’s upper middle classes, and Kensington’s population had mushroomed to around 163,000.
The pastoral landscape was replaced by terrace after terrace of large houses, their columned porches and large rooms reflecting the supreme confidence and aspirations of their occupants.
Although the area featured little in Dickens’s works, it was home to several of his friends and acquaintances.
The walk itself is one of contrasts, taking in quiet, almost rural, back streets, busy main roads and picturesque residential squares.
A visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, passed en route, is highly recommended.
The second part of this walk explores some utterly charming residential streets before plunging into the wilder reaches of Holland Park. You will pass the home of G K Chesterton, considered by many Dickensians to be the best of all Dickens’s critics. The few remnants of Holland House, where the formidable Lady Holland held her famous dinners attended by leading political, diplomatic and literary figures of the day, are passed on a pleasing stroll through Holland Park. The latter section of the walk passes through the streets of what was a veritable colony of artists in the 19th century. Finally, the chance to visit the homes of Lord Leighton and Linley Sambourne, both of which are open to the public as museums, should not be passed up.
Go up the steps from South Kensington Station. Turn right through the shopping arcade. Go right onto Thurloe Street and keep going ahead to go left into Thurloe Square. Turn right along Thurloe Place. Proceed past the line of phone boxes and to the right pause outside:-
No 33, now the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, but once the home of Sir Henry Cole (1808–82) campaigner and educator and first Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The man who Queen Victoria described as ‘Good Mr Cole with his, rough, offhand manner’ was the driving force behind the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was personally chosen by Prince Albert, who punned that: ‘If we want the exhibition to steam ahead, we must have Cole.’ Cole rejected the original idea to house the exhibition in a dome, and settled instead on Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of iron and glass. The exhibition was a huge success, and with the surplus raised from ticket sales, he was able to realize his dream to build a complex of museums and colleges in Kensington, all of which still stand. He was also active in other areas of Victorian Reform, notably the introduction of the Penny Post. He came up with the ingenious ruse of having a pamphlet detailing its merits bound into one of the weekly instalments of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, thus getting the message across to 40,000 additional readers at a stroke. In 1843, he approached an artist friend asking that he design a special card that he could send out for Christmas. Three years later, he printed a thousand cards, sold each one for a shilling, and began the tradition and industry of the Christmas card.
With your back to the house, bear left and cross the busy main road at the traffic lights to the left of the:-
Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum’s National Art Library is home to the Forster Collection, the largest collection of Dickens’s manuscripts and proofs given by Dickens to his friend John Forster.
Walk along Exhibition Road, keeping to its left side. You pass by the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and sundry buildings of Imperial College, all founded by Henry Cole.
At the top, turn left into Kensington Gore.
The Crystal Palace, in which the Great Exhibition opened on 1st May 1851, was situated in Hyde Park opposite. In February of that year, Dickens had been shown around the huge glass and iron structure, which was only partially roofed. He expressed his doubts that it could ever be ready in time, to which its designer Joseph Paxton replied, ‘I think it will, but mind I don’t say it will.’ Despite homage being paid to Dickens’s genius with prominently displayed statues of Oliver Twist and Little Nell, Dickens was unimpressed with the finished article and complained that his ‘eyes refused to focus’ on the 14,000 exhibits.
Continue along Kensington Gore, pausing on the left by the Royal Albert Hall, opened in 1870 and funded from the profits of the Great Exhibition.
It stands on the site of Gore House, home of Marguerite, Countess of Blessingdon (1789–1849), whose literary soirÈes attracted the cream of literary society, Dickens included. However, her extravagant lifestyle led to her bankruptcy and she abandoned England for Paris where she died in poverty.
On the opposite side of the road to the hall is the ostentatious Albert Memorial. Prince Albert (1819–61), the consort of Queen Victoria, was until his death from typhoid, a driving force behind the Victorian age. His statue holds a copy of the catalogue from the Great Exhibition. Although Victoria was inconsolable at the loss of her husband, and polite society was shocked by his death, Dickens did not share in the general mourning for the prince. Indeed, he wrote that Albert ‘was neither a phenomenon, nor the saviour of England; and England will do exactly the same without him as it did with him… ’.
Continue along Kensington Gore, go over Queen’s Gate, keep ahead into Kensington Road, and turn first left into Hyde Park Gate.
Several blue plaques adorn the premises here, including that on No 9 to Robert Baden-Powell (1857–19141), founder of the Boy Scout movement; No 28, where statesman Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965) lived and died, and No 22, home of Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), father of Virginia Woolf.
Return to Kensington Road. Go left, then first left into the next part of Hyde Park Gate and turn second right into Reston Place.
Before you do, you may like to walk clockwise around Hyde Park Gate to admire the delightful buildings and gardens ahead.
Keep straight ahead, and go through the gates of 8 Reston Place, which, despite its appearance to the contrary, is a pedestrian right of way. Keep left and go out onto Palace Gate, where on the wall of the stately No 2 on the right, is a plaque to the artist:-
Sir John Everett Millais (1829–96). Millais, who was aged just 11 when admitted to the Royal Academy, was literally the enfant terrible of British art. Prodigiously talented, he first exhibited at the Academy when he was just 16, and in 1848 was one of the seven artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1850 his Christ In The House of His Parents (now in Tate Britain) was universally vilified for daring to portray the Holy Family as ordinary. In Household Words, Dickens vehemently attacked Millais’s infant Christ as a ‘hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red headed boy in a bed-gown’; whilst dismissing his depiction of Mary as ‘so horrible in her ugliness’, that she would ‘stand out as a... Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England’. However, five years later, following their first meeting at the dinner table of Wilkie Collins, Dickens wrote to Millais, assuring him of his admiration for his genius.
One of Millais’s few supporters was author and critic, John Ruskin, until, that is, Millais fell in love with Ruskin’s wife, Ellie, and married her in 1855, following the annulment of her first marriage on grounds of non-consummation. Thereafter, Millais’s reputation evolved into that of principal statesman of British art, and he became one of the wealthiest painters of his age, famed for his historical narrative paintings and his portraits of the great and good. Following Dickens’s death, Millais went to Gad’s Hill and made a pencilled sketch of his bandaged head, which the author’s daughter, Katey, believed showed ‘a likeness to Tennyson’.
Turn right past Millais’s house, continue to the traffic lights and go left along Kensington Road, where Kensington Palace is visible through the gates on the right.
Go next left into De Vere Gardens.
At No 29, on the left, Robert Browning (1812–89) lived from 1887 to 1889. Following his death in Venice, his body was brought back here to await burial in Westminster Abbey.
Continue to the end and go right into Canning Place, passing a little pocket of delightful mock-Tudor properties dating from 1846.
Follow the road as it veers left. Go right into St Alban’s Grove and keep ahead, turning first right into Kensington Court Place, then left into Thackeray Street. Continue ahead into Kensington Square.
John Stuart Mill (1806–73), philosopher, lived at No 18. Dickens and Mill were never friends and had little personal contact, despite sharing many mutual acquaintances. Mill seems to have disliked Dickens, once describing his face as one of ‘dingy black guardism irradiated with genius’, and he was critical of Dickens’s treatment of the rights of women in Bleak House. Mill was on more intimate terms with Thomas Carlyle, and it was in this house that one of the famous calamities of Victorian literature occurred. Having completed volume one of his epic History of the French Revolution (1837), Carlyle entrusted the only manuscript of it to Mill for his opinion. Shortly afterwards, a sheepish Mill was forced to confess to the author that his maid had ‘taken it for waste paper’ and burnt it in the fireplace. Carlyle had no choice but to re-write the whole thing from memory, confessing at the end that he felt like a man who had ‘nearly killed himself accomplishing zero’.
Proceed clockwise round the square.
Number 40 was the home of Sir John Simon (1816–1904), the great Victorian health and sanitary reformer. Artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98), one of the second generation Pre-Raphaelites, lived at No 41 from 1865 to 1867.
Go next left into Young Street and pause on the left outside:-
No 16, which from 1847 to 1854 was the home of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63). ‘It has the air of a feudal castle,’ wrote Thackeray on first beholding it, and it still possesses a certain timelessness. It was here, in the middle of one night, after months of racking his brain trying to think of a suitable title for his new work, that a flash of inspiration sent him leaping from his bed and running round his room crying, ‘Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair’. It was with the publication of this, between 1847 and 1848, that Thackeray emerged as a major novelist, and Dickens was at last seen to have a serious rival. Nevertheless, Thackeray’s daughters were not impressed by their father’s success. On one occasion, as Alfred Tennyson sat reading his poetry aloud, he was interrupted by Minnie Thackeray who asked, ‘Papa, why do you not write books like Nicholas Nickleby.’ Years later, when passing the house with a friend, Thackeray suddenly bellowed: ‘Down on your knees, you rogue, for here Vanity Fair was penned, and I will go down with you, for I have a high opinion of that little production myself.’
Leave Young Street, and go left along Kensington High Street. Just before Derry Street, cross to the church opposite.
Bear left along Kensington Church Court and follow it as it becomes Kensington Church Walk, and twists its way to the west doorway of:-
St Mary Abbot’s church, which was rebuilt by Sir George Gilbert Scott between 1869 and 1873.
Turn left onto Holland Street, first right into Gordon Place, and struggle up the long hill to go second left into Campden Grove.
Take the next right into Hornton Street, the second right into Sheffield Terrace, and pause by:-
No 42, where G K Chesterton (1874–1936) was born on 29th May, 1874. Best known today for his ‘Father Brown’ books, the first of which was published in 1911, Chesterton’s literary output was prodigious, covering virtually every topic of contemporary political, philosophical and social concern. He was also notoriously absent-minded and once, whilst on a lecture tour, reputedly telegraphed his wife, ‘Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?’. His study, ‘Charles Dickens’, was published in 1906 and established him as one of Dickens’s finest critics. He followed this between 1907 and 1909 by writing prefaces for all Dickens’s books, as they were reprinted in J M Dents Everyman’s Library. In his ‘The Victorian Age in Literature’ (1931) Chesterton applauded Dickens as ‘that most exquisite of arts… the art of enjoying everybody’.
Retrace your footsteps, then continue to the end of Sheffield Terrace. Turn right into Campden Hill Road and first right into Campden Hill.
Queen Elizabeth College to the left stands on what was the site of Holly Lodge, the home of historian and Statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–59), whose monumental History of England, published in five volumes between 1849 and 1861, is still considered a classic. So representative was he of the supreme self-confidence that fired the Victorian era, that Lord Melbourne once commented, ‘I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.’
Continue ahead to pass Holland Park School and go through the gate into Holland Park. Bear right along the pathway. Take the first pathway left and pause on the right when you reach the seated statue of:-
Henry Richard Fox, 3rd Baron Holland (1773–1840), where an information board provides a brief biography. Henry was married to Elizabeth Vassall (1770–1845), and they complemented each other well: he was affable and cultured; she was beautiful, vivacious and domineering. During their tenure, nearby Holland House became a great centre of social, literary and political life, with many famous visitors including William IV, Lord Byron (who complained that the house was too cold), Lord Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli and Dickens. Towards the end of his life, Lord Holland was afflicted by gout, hence the walking stick in the statue’s hand.
With your back to the statue, go straight ahead along the pathway (keeping a keen eye peeled for the peacocks). Bear diagonally right across the lawn, and pass through the small wooden gates on the right. Swing immediately left to veer right down the ramp, and go left down the steps, keeping ahead on the path as it descends past the beautiful gardens.
Having gone through the archway, take the second pathway on your left (it has a sign for the ‘Theatre’), and go up the grand set of steps a little way along on the left, to gaze at what little remains of:-
Holland House. It was when Dickens received a summons – she rarely invited! – to one of Lady Holland’s evening receptions that he knew he had been accepted into the higher echelons of the literati of his day.
It was said of Lady Holland that she was ‘all assertion’, and before she called upon the 26-year-old Dickens to attend one of her famous soirees at Holland House, she made enquiries as to whether ‘Boz was presentable’. When they first met she had been reading the early instalments of Nicholas Nickleby, and Dickens, unable to resist her incisive questioning, found himself forced, against his will, to disclose the plot to her. She was impressed by the young author, and considered him ‘modest and well-behaved’, whilst her husband found him to be ‘very unobtrusive, yet not shy, intelligent in countenance and altogether prepossessing’. Despite her haughty and overbearing manner, Lady Holland and Dickens became good friends, and he would often seek her advice and opinions, even though those opinions could often be, to say the least, contrary. Her dislike for Americans was intense, and when he came to say goodbye before leaving on his first visit to the United States, she tried desperately to dissuade him from going. ‘Why cannot you go to Bristol,’ she pleaded, ‘and see some of the third and fourth class people there and they’ll do just as well?’
Following her husband’s death, however, the glory days of Holland House drew to a close. Lady Holland rarely used it, and when their son, the 4th Lord Holland, died in 1859, his widow ran into debt and the estate was greatly diminished. There was a brief resurgence of social grandeur in the Edwardian age, but after its almost total annihilation by the bombs of World War II, what little remained of the house was converted into the King George Memorial Youth Hostel. Fittingly, the vibrancy of youth now echoes through the remnants of the property where Dickens once wondered who would take the place of its rare personalities when they had ‘stepped into the shadow’.
Go left off the steps and follow the road sharp left towards the youth hostel, where on the other side of the railings you can glimpse all that remains of Holland House’s east wing.
Retrace your footsteps, and when you get to the ‘Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Notice Board’, take the earth track that bears diagonally left, and follow it as it veers left onto the asphalt pathway.
At the end keep to the right, then immediately left, and exit the park through the gates, walking straight ahead along Ilchester Place.
Having taken a sharp right onto Melbury Road, pause by the gate of well-concealed:-
No 31, immediately on the right, which was the home of the artist Sir Luke Fildes (1844–1927). It was John Everett Millais who, whilst staying with Dickens at Gad’s Hill Place in 1869, suggested Fildes as a possible illustrator for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. When Dickens gave him the commission, an elated Fildes wrote to a friend, ‘This is the tide! Am I to be on the flood? My heart fails me a little for it is the turning point in my career.’ By the time of Dickens’s death, however, Fildes had completed only six plates, although this didn’t stop him being pursued by diehard Dickensians, who were convinced Fildes knew more about the intended ending of the novel than he was letting on. But perhaps Fildes’s most lasting contribution to Dickens’s memory was his watercolour The Empty Chair, painted shortly after the author’s death, and which with its minimalist depiction of the chair in Dickens’s study, summed up with a simple poignancy the void that his passing had left.
Backtrack, crossing to the right side of Melbury Road and follow it downhill passing:-
No 18 where William Holman-Hunt (1807–1910) lived and died. A founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Hunt had become the grand old man of British Art by the time he moved here in the 1880s. Holman-Hunt was best man at the marriage of his friend Charles Collins to Dickens’s daughter Katey in 1860. His later comment on Dickens that ‘all the bones of his face showed… and every line of his brow and face was a record of past struggle… ’, provides a glimpse of the strain under which Dickens was labouring during the last decade of his life.
Go next right into Holland Park Road to arrive on the right at:-
Leighton House Museum, where the Victorian artist Lord Leighton (1830–96) lived for the last 30 years of his life. Designed for Leighton in 1866 by George Aitchison, the building’s plain brick exterior belies an interior that is nothing short of an Oriental extravaganza, and a lavish memorial to high Victorian taste. Its most striking room is the Arab Hall, added in 1879, with its mosaic floor, fountain, stained glass cupola and tiles from Greece and Egypt. Works of art by Leighton himself and also Sir Edward Burne-Jones are displayed.
Return to Melbury Road and go right, then left onto Kensington High Street. Cross over the traffic lights to bear right, then first left into Edwardes Square. Keep walking ahead passing No 1, home to G K Chesterton in 1901, and pause outside No 18 where Leigh Hunt (1784–1859) lived from 1840 to 1851.
Go back across Kensington High Street by the traffic lights. Bear right, then left into Phillimore Gardens.
Take the second right into Stafford Terrace, where a little way along on the right is:-
No 18. The Punch cartoonist Linley Sambourne (1844–1910) lived here from 1874 until his death. The interior of this charming 19th-century house has been perfectly preserved, and provides a unique insight into late Victorian tastes in internal decor.
Continue along Stafford Terrace. Turn right into Argyll Road, left onto Kensington High Street where, a little way along on the right, the walk concludes at High Street Kensington Station.