Friday, 6 July 2012



Like many good ideas, this one arrived out of the blue and without prompting.

Well almost. There was a vague and distant simmering of a thought to raise some cash for a special charity and to do more than plunder savings by just signing a cheque. The fact that the charity’s aim is to raise funds for a statue to my great great grandfather probably helped. There was also a vague and simmering thought that I urgently needed to take much more exercise than my sedentary life currently offers (walk to car, drive to work, walk from car park to desk, sit at desk all day, drive home again). My guess is that a week’s total of all that walking might just about stretch to a breathtaking half a mile (or around 20 minutes), while the seated section totals over 60 hours.

Not good.
And I need a new adventure. In a life dictated by a rather frustrating work place, my brain has become dulled. It’s been over a year since I sailed a racing yacht back to the UK from the Azores. Over a decade since I raced a yacht around the world. And almost two decades since descending the Cresta Run, learning to fly and racing my MG to the Arctic and back.
Thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of the birthplace branch of the Dickens Fellowship along with Portsmouth City Council, a statue for Charles Dickens – the first ever in the UK – is going to become a reality.
£66,000 has already been raised but a further £54,000 is needed – and urgently too if the statue is to be unveiled in the bicentenary year of Dickens’s birth. Which is why this subliminal simmering idea started to steam and come to the boil.
‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ was Charles Dickens’s third novel. In chapter 22, Dickens has the hero and his friend Smike walking from London to Portsmouth (they were too poor to take a stage coach), where they hoped to find work. Their walk is clearly documented and after leaving Golden Square, they headed to Godalming via Kingston, where they spent their first night, having ‘bargained for two humble beds and slept soundly’.
On day two, they were back on the road early, routing round the Devil’s Punchbowl at Hindhead before tackling the South Downs just south of Petersfield. They rested overnight in a wayside Inn ten miles from Portsmouth, before completing the journey in the company of the glorious Crummles Theatre Company, delivering some of the funniest scenes in the novel.
In Portsmouth, Nicholas and Smike found lodgings ‘in two small rooms up three pairs of stairs, or rather two pair and a ladder, at a tobacconist’s shop, on the Common Hard: a dirty street leading down to the dockyard’ and went to work with the Crummles touring show at the Portsmouth Theatre Royal.
I live in Old Portsmouth and drive by the site of the Theatre Royal every day (it’s now the highly acclaimed Portsmouth Grammar School). The Common Hard with its tobacconist shop is still there, facing out to the grand spars of HMS Warrior with a line of rather faded buildings housing pubs, fish and chip shops, convenience stores, a Chinese take away and a mini cab office.
Every day, I hurtle up and down the A3 on my way to and from work, giving little thought to the countryside that flashes by and busying my mind with the frustrations of yet another white van hogging the outside lane. But outside the window, the wayside Inn is still there, the Devil’s Punchbowl with its roadside stone marking a grizzly murder is still there and the paths, tracks and bridleways that link London to Portsmouth are still there, out of sight, out of mind and overgrown.
I doubt many of those crouched behind the wheel get home and in response to an enquiring ‘good day at the office dear?’ respond with ‘The ground seemed elastic under their feet; the sheep-bells were music to their ears; and exhilarated by exercise and stimulated by hope, they pushed onward with the strength of lions’.
So the idea – like all good ideas - was an obvious one. Walk in Nicholas and Smike’s footsteps and make the 75 mile journey a fund raising initiative for the statue fund, become 'exhilarated' by exercise and allow the counties of Middlesex, Surrey and Hampshire to reveal themselves through leafy bridleways, quiet country lanes and lengthy vistas.

Dickens, of course, had his heroes penniless hence their need to cover the distance in just over two days. As my bank balance is slightly less pecuniary, our journey can be stretched a little longer with a decent hotel as an incentive at the end of each day. And by stretching the journey, the 75 miles can be broken down in to a much more comfortable 15 miles a day. We plan stops in Esher, Godalming, Petersfield and Rowlands Castle, arriving in Portsmouth for the opening day of the annual global Dickens Fellowship Conference. If that sounds easy, consider my current regime of half a mile a week and it’s a decent enough challenge.
Nicholas had Smike as his companion and who better for me to walk with than my brother Gerald. Which of us is playing the part of Nicholas and which one Smike in our walking partnership? Sadly, I fear the answer is clear.
Nicholas Nickleby is described a young man, so I guess Gerry, as my younger brother, wins that one (he’s still just on the right side of half a century, whereas I passed that milestone six years ago). Ralph Nickleby, the evil uncle, thinks Nicholas will never amount to anything but we can’t hang that one on my sibling as he has forged a successful career as an actor of global repute.

Perhaps the decision to quit my job allows me to inherit that quality, as well as taking on some of Smike’s characteristics which include a ‘crippled deformity’. By the end of our five days on the road, I’m pretty certain I’ll have that part off to a T.

But if it raises plenty of cash for the statue fund and allow future generations to be inspired by one of the world’s greatest writers (we are also raising cash for the National Literacy Trust), then I don’t mind in the least.


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