Dickens put castle on the literary map

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'Castle Guide David Shipton 'Thursday 2nd February 2012
Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'Castle Guide David Shipton 'Thursday 2nd February 2012
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During the Christmas period, millions of viewers plonked themselves down on sofas around the country to tune in to thrilling instalments of the BBC’s Great Expectations.

Yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth and it is perhaps testament to this author’s talent that his books, transformed into dramatic works, can still leave audiences breathless with anticipation.

And it was perhaps fitting that part of this latest version of Great Expectations was filmed at Holdenby House because Northamptonshire certainly played an important part in the writer’s life, as well as in some of his books.

The stories linking him to the county are numerous.

For fans of Dickens’ work, Northamptonshire’s own Rockingham Castle is a veritable treasure trove of delights linked to this famous author’s life.

Charles first met the Watsons of Rockingham Castle while he was on holiday, but they obviously made a deep impression as not only did he visit their home on numerous occasions to act out plays with his family, he also used the estate as the inspiration for Chesney Wold in Bleak House and dedicated the book David Copperfield to them.

Among Rockingham’s collection of valued items is a copy of David Copperfield signed “as a token of regard and friendship” by the author, as well as letters sent to the Watsons and various playbills for performances at Rockingham staged by Dickens.

Rockingham’s guide David Shipton said: “He first met Richard and Lavinia Watson on holiday in Switzerland and came to stay at Rockingham about five times.

“On two occasions he put on plays at the castle, with himself acting, and we have some play bills, one is on display in the Long Gallery.

“They met in 1846 and he visited on several occasions, he put one play on in 1849 and another in 1851. His wife was in it too.”

Due to the rarity and value of the signed edition of David Copperfield, it cannot be displayed to the public, but Rockingham still proves a draw for many Dickens fans.

David continued: “In the novel Bleak House, there is a big country house called Chesney Wold and many of the details of that are based on Rockingham and the Long Gallery is used as the basis of a big room in Chesney Wold.

“We have a letter he wrote to Lavinia Watson where he says he took bits from Rockingham for Chesney Wold.”

He added: “We have a huge thing called the elephant hedge and we think he based the story of the Ghost Walk in Bleak House on that hedge.”

He said: “Richard Watson was a Liberal MP and Dickens had Liberal views. Richard died very young, he was 52, but Dickens continued a friendship with his wife and visited once after that.”

To mark the bicentenary, David has written a booklet about Dickens’ associations with the author.

It will be available from Rockingham.