|Start: Green Park Underground Station
|Duration: 2 Hours
|Best of Times: Anytime.
|Worst of Times: None.
It is a mark of Dickens's sheer determination and strength of character that he overcame his humble beginnings and, by his early twenties, had been accepted into polite society.
This walk explores the area where his transformation from lowly clerk to literary superstar took place. It includes the Houses of Parliament, in the predecessor of which Dickens worked as a reporter between 1832 and 1836. It goes past the houses of the great and good into which Dickens was welcomed as a guest when still only a young man.
And finally, it provides the opportunity to stand alongside Dickens’s grave and ponder the grief that gripped the world in the immediate aftermath of his death.
Leave Green Park Underground Station via the "Piccadilly North Side" exit and turn right along Piccadilly. Continue over Stratton Street, on the corner of which used to stand the home of:-
In 1837, at the age of 23, Angela Burdett inherited the vast fortune of her maternal grandfather, the banker Thomas Coutts and added his surname to hers.
Now the richest woman in England, with the exception of Queen Victoria, she was immediately inundated with proposals of marriage, but turned them all down.
She met Dickens in 1839, and the two soon became close friends, a fact he made public by dedicating Martin Chuzzlewit to her in 1844. She reciprocated by paying for his eldest son, Charley, to be educated at Eton, and by arranging a cadetship with the East India Company for his second son, Walter.
But, it is for her public philanthropy that Burdett-Coutts is best remembered today, and for which she was the first woman to be raised to the peerage in 1871. "What is the use of my means but to try to do good by them," she observed, and lived up to that ideal by giving away between £3 and £4 million during her lifetime.
Dickens both advised her on, and oversaw the distribution of, many of these charitable bequests.
He was particularly active in the founding and running of Urania Cottage, a home for fallen women in Shepherd's Bush.
However, their friendship practically ended when he separated from his wife. Miss Burdett-Coutts, did not approve of the way he treated Catherine and attempted to forge a reconciliation. Dickens though, remained steadfast. "Nothing on earth… no not even you," he wrote, "...can move me from the resolution I have taken."
Continue along Piccadilly. Keep ahead over Bolton Street, Clarges Street and Half Moon Street to arrive on the right at the former home of:-
Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784–1865), lived here from 1857 until his death.
Palmerston spent almost 60 years in Parliament, and 50 of those were spent in office. He was Foreign Secretary throughout the 1830s and again between 1846 and 1851.
Dickens, along with many idealists, despised Palmerston, and once referred to him as "the emptiest impostor...ever known".
But the ordinary people admired "Lord Pumicestone's" energy, and appreciated the way his foreign policy, in particular his gunboat diplomacy, had made Britain respected internationally.
In 1855, when Lord Aberdeen’s government was brought down due to the mismanagement of the Crimean War (1853–56), Palmerston became Prime Minister, his bluffness being seen as just what was needed.
Fortunate to have come into office as the war entered its final throes, he claimed full credit when a successful conclusion was negotiated in 1856.
His private life was just as colourful as his professional one and he was known for his womanizing even into his late seventies.
His opponent, Benjamin Disraeli, refused to make political capital out of the rumours about Palmerston's affairs for fear the old man would become even more popular if his astonishing libido became public knowledge.
Hale and hearty to the end, Palmerston died at the age of 81.
Backtrack and cross Piccadilly via the crossing. Bear left and keep ahead until, having passed Green Park Station, turn right after the telephone boxes and go along Queen's Walk, turning left through the passage that goes under the residential buildings.
On emerging onto St James's Place, turn left and pause outside No's 22 to 23, which stand on the site of the former home of:-
The the poet Samuel Rogers (1763–1855) was the first person of literary note to acknowledge Dickens's genius, and it was at his famous breakfasts that Dickens first met with the intellectual great and good of the age.
Dickens dedicated The Old Curiosity Shop to this early mentor, and later based Grandfather Smallweed in Bleak House on him.
Walk along St James’s Place, and as it veers sharp left, cross to number 28 on the right, where there is a blue plaque to:-
William Huskisson (1770–1830). An able politician and statesman, his reforms of the unwieldy tax system, which had been a result of the Napoleonic Wars, enabled the Industrial Revolution to forge ahead.
In 1824, Huskisson was Treasurer of the Navy, in which capacity he was petitioned from the Marshalsea Prison by John Dickens, who asked if he would recommend him for a pension on the grounds of ill health.
In 1830, Huskisson was attending the ceremonial opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway, when he was run over by Stephenson's Rocket.
He died from his injuries a few hours later, thus achieving a posthumous immortality as the first person in history to be killed by a train.
Walk to the end of St James's Place, turn left onto St James's Street, continue to the top and cross Piccadilly at the traffic lights.
Bear right and continue ahead, turning left into:-
Burlington Arcade was designed by Samuel Ware in 1819 for Lord George Cavendish, reputedly to prevent passers-by throwing oyster shells and other rubbish over the wall of his home, Burlington House.
The arcade and its neighbourhood appear in The Uncommercial Traveller.
It is still patrolled by top-hatted beadles who enforce its Regency laws forbidding you to whistle, sing or hurry.
Amble past the exclusive shops, and at the far end, cross over Burlington Gardens into Cork Street.
A little way down on the right, pause outside No 19, which in the mid-19th century was:-
One morning in 1854, Dickens was walking along Cork Street when he was suddenly overcome by "an icy coolness...accompanied by a general stagnation of the blood, a numbness of the extremities, great bewilderment of mind, and a vague sensation of wonder."
As he later recalled:- "on looking about me [I] found that I was in the frigid shadow of the Burlington Hotel. Then I recollected to have experienced the same sensations once before precisely in that spot..."
Dickens remained mystified as to what had occurred. It has been wondered if he may have suffered a mini seizure, a harbinger of the one that would kill him 16 years later.
Retrace your footsteps, turn left along Burlington Gardens, cross to the right side and pass the back of Burlington House, resplendent with several weathered statues.
Keep ahead along Vigo Street; turn right into Sackville Street, right again onto Piccadilly, and then first right into Albany Courtyard. The elegant building ahead is:-
Built between 1770 and 1774, and converted into exclusive chambers for bachelors in 1802, Albany has long been considered one of the most distinguished addresses in London.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–73), Dickens's friend and confidant had chambers here.
It was in Bulwer-Lytton's play Not So Bad As We Seem that Dickens performed before Queen Victoria in 1851.
Although a successful novelist in his own right, Bulwer-Lytton's lasting contribution to English literature was persuading Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations.
In the original version Pip and Estella go their separate ways, she enduring widowhood and remarriage to a poor Shropshire doctor, he becoming successful in his own right, but remaining a bachelor.
It was thanks to Bulwer-Lytton's intervention that, in the revised happy ending, the two met amidst the ruins of Satis House, beneath a moonlit sky, and Pip "saw no shadow of another parting from her".
Continue along Piccadilly, you may wish to break your walk with a visit to the Royal Academy of Arts, at Burlington House on the right.
Otherwise go over the crossing towards Fortnum and Mason, ahead into Duke Street St James's and take the third left onto King Street, keeping ahead to go left into St James's Square.
A little way along on the left is:-
Founded at the instigation of Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), following his frustration at having to wait two hours for a book in the British Museum Reading Room, one morning in 1841.
The library moved to this rather grand building in 1845, and it was from here in 1857 that Carlyle sent Dickens two cartloads of books, to assist with his research for A Tale of Two Cities.
Proceed clockwise round the square, passing Chatham House.
Here, a plaque commemorates the residency of three Prime Ministers: William Pitt (1708–78), Edward Stanley (1799–1869) and William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98).
Keep going straight ahead over Duke of York Street, and continue past the modern building at No 3, which stands on the site of the offices of John Macrone (1809–37), Dickens's first publisher and the man responsible for collecting Sketches by Boz into one volume.
Go next left into Charles II Street and, on arrival at Regent Street, pause by the crossing to look ahead at the graceful cream facade of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the distance.
Designed by John Nash between 1820 and 1821, this was where Samuel Phelps made his London debut as Shylock in 1837.
It was between 1853 and 1878, however, under the inspired management of the popular comedian and actor, John Baldwin Buckstone (1802–79), that the "Haymarket" enjoyed its most successful period.
Buckstone was both a friend of Dickens and an influence on his acting style. Indeed, Dickens claimed that, as a boy, Buckstone's acting had so moved him that he had gone home to "dream of his comicalities".
In April 1857, Dickens mistress, Ellen Ternan began her career as an adult actress here in Buckstone's burlesque, Atalanta.
This was the first of many roles, which Dickens appears to have been instrumental in obtaining for her since he later wrote to Buckstone saying, "I shall always regard your remembering her as an act of personal friendship to me. On the termination of the present engagement, I hope you will tell me, before you tell her, what you see for her, "coming in the future"".
Turn right along Waterloo Place, where at the end in the centre of the road, is a statue of:-
The statue depicts her in her legendary guise as the "Lady of the Lamp".
This image of her as a gentle angel of mercy, drifting through the wards of Scutari military hospital during the Crimean War, dispensing compassion to cholera-stricken soldiers, belies a ruthless and able administrator. Her sheer force of will and recognition of the need for hygiene, greatly helped reduce the death rate in the conflict.
Returning to England as a national heroine in 1856, her exertions had taken their toll and she remained a semi-invalid for the rest of her life.
However, this did not quell her zeal, and she campaigned tirelessly for nursing and health reforms, both at home and abroad. In 1907 she became the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit, allegedly accepting it with the words, "Too kind, too kind".
Cross Pall Mall via the pedestrian crossing, and keep ahead into Waterloo Place. Immediately on the right is:-
The Athenaeum Club, founded in 1824 as a meeting place for the intellectual elite of London. Its elegant frontage is best appreciated from the island in the centre of the road.
Lord Macaulay (1800–1869), Anthony Trollope (1815–1882), Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863) were all members, as was Dickens, who was elected at the relatively young age of 26.
Glancing through the front doors into the club's almost sepulchral interior, you can see the staircase where the famous reconciliation between Dickens and Thackeray occurred.
In 1858, one of Dickens young proteges, Edmund Yates (1831–1894), had included an unflattering profile of Thackeray in his gossip column Town Talk. Thackeray was furious and attempted to have Yates debarred from their club, The Garrick. Dickens, who was also a member, sided with Yates and, when the club expelled Yates, Dickens resigned in protest.
Dickens and Thackeray did not speak to each other for five years.
In 1863, Thackeray was talking in The Athenaeum with Sir Theodore Martin (1816–1909), when Dickens entered and walked past them. As Dickens ascended the stairs, Thackeray broke from their conversation and caught up with him. Martin later recalled how "Dickens turned to him...I saw Thackeray speak and presently hold out his hand...They shook hands, a few words were exchanged and immediately Thackeray returned to me saying, "I'm glad I have done this.""
Continue along Waterloo Place, pausing by the statue of:-
Sir John Franklin' (1786–1847), expedition to find the fabled North West Passage in 1847 ended in tragedy when he and his fellow explorers disappeared.
Thanks largely to the persistence of his widow, Jane, attempts were made to discover his fate and, eventually, one of the ships, together with a log of the expedition, was found.
It was ascertained that after enduring one winter, their vessels had become ice-locked and several of the men, Franklin included, had died.
Following another winter, the rest of the crew had abandoned ship, only to perish in the frozen wastes.
Dickens was outraged by a suggestion that the survivors had resorted to cannibalism, and attacked the notion in an article in his magazine Household Words.
The expedition inspired, on Dickens's suggestion, Wilkie Collins's 1857 play, The Frozen Deep, in which Dickens played the part of the heroic and self-sacrificing Richard Wardour.
For this role he grew the beard, which, for future generations, would become his most memorable feature.
Continue to the end of Waterloo Place, turn left into Carlton House Terrace and pause outside No 11, formerly the home of:-
Dickens encountered Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby (1799–1869), in 1833, when Dickens was working as a Parliamentary reporter for his uncle John Henry Barrow's newspaper The Mirror of Parliament.
Stanley, who was then Chief Secretary for Ireland, brought his Bill for the Suppression of Disturbances in Ireland before the House. He gave a speech that was so long, that the Mirror reporters had to work in shifts to transcribe it.
Dickens took down the first and last parts, and when it was published, all except these were found to be full of errors.
Stanley, therefore, contacted Barrow and asked him to send the reporter responsible for transcribing these portions to his house, in order that he might copy down the whole speech, as it was to be printed for circulation in Ireland.
When Dickens arrived, he was ushered inside and Stanley, surprised by his youth, eyed him suspiciously, saying, "I beg pardon but I had hoped to see the gentleman who had reported part of my speech." Reddening, Dickens replied, "I am that gentleman." "Oh indeed", said Stanley, half concealing a smile. He proceeded to pace up and down the room reciting his speech and, afterwards was fulsome in his praise of the young Dickens.
Years later, Dickens came to dine here with the then Prime Minister, William Gladstone whose house this was, and was most amused to find himself in the very room where this youthful episode had occurred.
Backtrack and turn left down the steps, passing the Duke of York's column. Go over The Mall via the crossing. Looking right you catch a view of:-
In March 1870, the only face-to-face meeting between Dickens and Queen Victoria took place.
She found him "...very agreeable, with a pleasant voice and manner", and there were rumours afterwards that he had declined her offer of a knighthood.
Bear left along The Mall, right onto Horse Guards Road, and veer left over the gravel ground of Horse Guards Parade, to pass under the arches and through the gates on the other side.
Turn left onto Whitehall, go over the crossing, bear right, and keep ahead over Horse Guards Avenue.
On the left, you will pass the Banqueting House, which is all that remains of Whitehall Palace.
Keep ahead along Whitehall, continue into Parliament Street, and pause at its junction with Derby Gate, to look up at the medallion bust of Charles Dickens above the second floor window of the:-
The pub was rebuilt in 1900, but Dickens, according to an uncompleted autobiographical fragment, came to the premises at the age of 12, and ordered a glass of the "VERY best ale...with a good head to it". He was rewarded with a kiss from the landlady that was "half admiring and half compassionate, but all womanly and good..."
Dickens introduced the episode into David Copperfield by having his autobiographical hero ask for a glass of the "Genuine Stunning" ale.
Continue to the end of Parliament Street, cross Bridge Street via the traffic lights and keep ahead with the Houses of Parliament (the New Palace of Westminster) on your left.
Shortly after his 20th birthday, Dickens began working in the Gallery of the House of Commons as a parliamentary reporter for his uncle John's Mirror of Parliament.
Although the conditions were cramped and uncomfortable, he soon established himself as a first-class scribe, and had established a formidable reputation for speed and accuracy by the time he resigned to pursue his writing career in 1836.
The Old Palace of Westminster had burnt down in 1834, and the current building designed by Sir Charles Barry (1795–1860), with help from Augustus Pugin (1812–52), was built and opened in 1852.
The Clock Tower was completed in 1858 and a year later its world-famous bell, "Big Ben", was installed.
Continue through Parliament Square, go over the crossing and keep straight ahead through the gates to enter:-
Once inside, follow the route round the Abbey to Poets Corner, where in the far right corner is the simple grave of Charles Dickens.
Although Dickens had wanted to be buried in Rochester, Kent, it was decided that Westminster Abbey was the only fitting resting-place.
However, his wishes for a private and unostentatious funeral were respected and, on Tuesday, 14th June, 1870, a small group of friends and family attended the unadvertised service here.
Nevertheless, afterwards thousands came to pay their respects, and the grave had to be left open for two days as, according to the Dean of Westminster, "many flowers were strewn upon it by unknown hands, [and] many tears shed from unknown eyes..."
Exit the Abbey, passing over the very simple grave of Baroness Burdett-Coutts by the doors.
Go right from the gates, right into Parliament Square, turn left at the lights and go clockwise around the square into Great George Street.
Continue walking ahead to its junction with Parliament Street, where you will find the entrance to Westminster Underground Station.