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Charles Dickens: No Armchair Traveller

In addition to his writing, Charles Dickens was a prodigious traveller. And... of interest, when considering his travelling, is the historical context of those journeys. This would have been in the first third of the 19th century, during his childhood and early manhood. In that period of history, horse or horse-drawn vehicle was the only overland means of getting around the country, - apart, of course, from "Shanks's pony" i.e. on one's own legs; no railways yet.

Now, there are people today, who journey the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, sometimes for the satisfaction of visiting different places, sometimes to tell others, their friends, work colleagues, about the interesting destinations they have visited, sometimes because a publisher will pay them to write of their experiences. Would these intrepid travellers still have drawn the same thrill from their peregrinations, if transport was at the same stage of development as it was when Dickens used it? It's one thing to be travelling here, there and everywhere, in the luxury provided by modern transportation, but would today's travellers have been eager to spend many hours in discomfort and... with no guarantee of being safe from mortal danger?

Or, turning the argument round, if Dickens had had modern streamlining, efficiency and comfort at his disposal, would his travelling have eclipsed his writing? Interesting to speculate upon these different sets of circumstances.

Dickens, as a parliamentary correspondent, in his early 20s, was required, by his profession, to visit many of the far flung corners of Great Britain, covering by-elections and political events and reporting on them. He describes travelling by stage coach to towns and then having to write up the events he had had to cover, during his return journey, - tight deadlines even 180 years ago! - "in the coach, sheet of paper on my knee, candle in my left hand, to give me light to write by; nausea, occasionally having to lean out of the coach window to vomit... ".

Coaches were prone to accidents, often very serious ones. Being rather great in height and made even higher by passengers' luggage being strapped onto the roof, they tended to become somewhat top heavy and unstable and on occasion could, quite truthfully, be described as "an accident waiting to happen". Dickens describes, in Nicholas Nickleby, the coach journey, when Mr. Squeers, the schoolmaster, travels up to North Yorkshire, from London, with his new pupils. It is midwinter and the snow lies deep. The coach hits a snowdrift and topples over, causing, not only inconvenience, to its passengers, but injury as well. This tale is, admittedly, fictitious, but the details were, undoubtedly, based upon fact.

Further risk was caused by the state of the roads themselves; which were, apparently, during the late 18th and early 19th century, in the worst condition they had been in since before the Romans arrived in Britain! Journeys were particularly hazardous in very wet weather, when these pot-holes sometimes filled with water and there are stories of at least one coach being lost in one of these holes; they were, on occasion allegedly,the size of small lakes!

And, our great author braved all of this without, so far as we know, even flinching. Yes, Boz was a worthy traveller and... all that has been considered, here, have been his British adventures; his travels over the ocean have not even been touched upon!