Monday, October 15, 2012

Dickensian promenade

Dickens Walking Tour, Saturday 13th October, 10.30am

Words by Leona Bashow.

It seems like every Dickens fan has turned up for this event today, as we stand crammed by the front entrance of Manchester Visitor Centre. There are so many of us that those who didn’t book await in earnest to see whether or not they can get on the tour. And why blame them? It’s a beautifully sunny, but chilly, day in Manchester and the tour promises us a visit round Dickens’ haunts deep in the heart of this famously industrial city. Some people are disappointed, but I’m thinking that is just ‘Hard Times’!

We follow Ed Glinert, tour guide from New Manchester Walks, who luckily has a loud clear voice, down Portland Street on to New York Street, then towards Charlotte Street, where we are taken through a small side door and up stairs to the wonderfully discreet Portico Library. Having never been here before, I am in awe of the rows of old books accompanied by the sense of having escaped in to a Victorian time bubble. Ed reads my mind and explains the sign, Polite Literature, which is painted on the top of one of the large bookshelves. It’s literature that has no swearing in it. What?! No, Ed is joking. It’s literature that was thought suitable to be read in polite society. Ah, I see. 

Ed informs us about the history of the library including the fact that it’s been around since 1806 and its members included the Reverend William Gaskell. Unfortunately, there was no signing-in book so there is no actual record that Dickens has visited the library, but it is almost certain that he did venture here, given the library’s popularity during his time and its connection with literature. We are given a rich understanding of the library as well as a vivid description of 19th-century Manchester: a sulky, blotchy town steeped in a soot smoke blanket. 

We are off again, to Manchester Art Gallery, and there’s slight panic on the face on one gallery staff member, who is trying to count us all as we stream in behind Ed. He informs us that in 1857 there was a great art treasure exhibition, which Dickens visited, that pretty much led to the establishment of the art gallery. The event was visited by many well-known people including Prince Albert and Picasso! Eh? Haha, Ed jokes. Just checking. Dickens, Ed tells us, was bemused by the fact that the visitors to the exhibition were not satisfied with static art and wanted more things that moved: Please Sir, can I have more amusement! 

Right Dickensians, we are heading to King Street now to visit the plaque that commemorates Harrison Ainsworth, who was friends with Dickens and used to go out with him socially, but didn’t go down in history quite so well. Ed tells us about the life and times of Ainsworth, and about Ainsworth’s romantic historical novels, for which we have Scott to blame. My hands are becoming red with the chill in the air and my blog notes more illegible as we go on, but I am thoroughly enjoying the experience.
The next phase for us is the Cross Street Chapel, and Ed gives us some history about the building and its connections to the Gaskell family. Elizabeth Gaskell was taken under the wing of Dickens and she wrote for a period for Dickens’ magazine in London until she got fed up with his over-zealous editing. We walk towards St Ann's Square and gather at the back of St Ann’s Church, where Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton, is given some consideration. Yes, this really was a literary spot for all the famous writers of the day, including Salmon Rushdie. What?! Ed’s just joking again. After being treated to many anecdotes and interesting historical facts, we are off to visit one of the ‘hidden gems’ of the city. 

Trooping towards John Dalton Street, we enter the small walkway named Dalton Entry - for those of you who haven’t yet been, I urge you to do so immediately! We become dappled in yellowish green lights and look up to see three model umbrellas hanging overhead. These, Ed tells us, as we are out on the other side, are there because John Dalton invented the weather and discovered that Manchester was pretty much a city of rain. The crowd laugh. Round the corner, Ed points out in front of us St Mary’s Catholic Church (or colloquially known as, ‘The Hidden Gem’), which is the only Catholic church in the city centre. It’s of interest to us because of Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Rudge, which is set in the 1790s during the time of the Gordon Riots, when people protested against giving Catholics more rights.
My fingers are now about to fall off, but I hardly notice the pain as we make our way to the final destination of the tour, the Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Hotel). Of course, this is where Dickens came on many occasions to give speeches and host fundraising events. Ed’s given us so many interesting facts that my mind is awash with images of Dickens’ life and adventures. The tour ends with a quote from Anthony Burgess, who thought Dickens might have been suited to an acting career in melodrama! Thankfully, for us on the tour, Dickens decided to stick to novel writing.

Leona Bashow is a lawyer, but also having a degree in English literature and History, reads widely in her spare time, from science fiction to the classics.

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