Wednesday, 8 August 2012


We are in sniffing distance of the sea and our journey from London is almost over.

As a Portsmouth boy, (the sixth generation Dickens to live in the city), today felt like home territory as we walked through countryside I have strolled over several times before. As we crested one particular hill, there before us lay the first sight of the English Channel. Across fields of rolling ripe corn, small blue smudges of coppiced woodland and nestling ancient villages, I could see the hills of the Isle of Wight, the Solent forts, distant shipping making their ponderous way towards the ferry port and underneath a heavy cloud of rain, Portsmouth itself.

The day had started under misty and damp skies, but the air – even at seven o’clock when we left the sleeping pub, had a thickness and warmth to it. And while lightweight Gortex does the job in helping shirts, trousers and socks to breath, black felt top hats with their heavy inner rim of leather are not quite so advanced.

As such, a steady stream of sweat trickled down our faces and my topper now has a rather unpleasant salty white rim around its once smart band. But our trademarks continued to work their wonder as we walked from Liss into Petersfield in search of a hearty breakfast. Fate took us to the Folly Bar near the town centre and we immediately knew it was full of positive vibes and goodness. The ladies at the counter were genuine in their warmth, the other diners were equally quick to trade banter and we were swiftly ensconced at a window table with two plates crammed with eggs, bacon, sausages and all the other elements that make the full English quite so full.

Another hat wearer was quick to spot us. His purple beret suggested ‘character’ and his opening gambit confirmed it.

“Your great-great-grandfather was a randy old bugger” he roared, followed by a loud guffaw. This unconventional 72 year old was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word STIFF. The word amplified itself in to a full Technicolor boast thanks to his admirably proportioned belly and our response was quick and predictable.

His craggy features, full-on grey beard and twinkling eyes clearly betrayed an entertaining life. We learnt that he had mild cirrhosis which meant he could only drink occasionally “Bloody doctor said he had bad news, then told me my liver was damaged. Could have told the silly sod that decades ago. So I can’t drink now - but I do have some fantastic memories” he added, only slightly wistfully.

“If you can remember, then you weren’t trying hard enough” we said and he laughed at that.

He told us about an old friend who loved Smoked Salmon but was so tight, he was the only one allowed to carve it. “The slices were so thin, they were like tissue paper” he related, before continuing; “He was carving one day when someone was rude about the Queen. Quick as a flash, he raised the knife and sliced half the chap’s ear off. Case went to court and the Judge was not impressed until he found out about the rudeness to Her Majesty. After that, it was deemed perfectly fair and reasonable. Case dismissed!”
We asked for his name and the response was a reassuring nickname rather than a formal title. ‘Gibbo. Call me Gibbo’ he said, before adding “you can also call me Arsehole, but if you do, make sure it’s Mr. Arsehole as without manners, all sense of decorum in society is lost’. At that, he bid us good day and left.

And people wonder how Charles Dickens found the material for his extraordinary characters.

The owner of the Folly Bar was in equally gregarious form, desperate to donate a bottle to help us on our way. With heavy back packs and little space, we declined but he was ready to counter and came back with a solution. Two miniature bottles of Cava – one white and one pink - emerged from behind the bar and made rather curious bedfellow with the bottle of HP Sauce. If Gibbo had not left already, we would have given the bottle of Rose to him. It matched his hat and a small glass of bubbles would surely be OK - it was only mild cirrhosis after all.

Suitably refreshed, we attacked the South Downs and picked our way through delightful folds of rural countryside with only bird song and the occasional squirrel for company. Our path took us to the village of Chalton in which the 16th century pub ‘The Red Lion’ features heavily. Chalton is a tiny hamlet and it was at this wayside inn that we think Dickens set a key scene in Nicholas Nickleby. Our hero and his friend Smike find themselves 10 miles from Portsmouth and are persuaded by the Landlord to stop for the night. In the long room next to the old bar was one Vincent Crummles taking supper and the introduction – and what followed – delivered some of the funniest scenes in the book.

And we had a welcoming committee too. Hats appear to be a theme of today and purple beret had been replaced with straw boaters. Underneath them were three smiling faces, as the Pickwick Bicycle Club, beers in hand, gave us a warm welcome. They preside over the oldest Dickens club in the world and I greatly enjoy being an honorary member.
Hanging baskets rich with flowers, a gently thatched roof, an ancient church, distant views to the Downs and a bar rich with ghosts made it tempting to follow Nicholas and Smike’s lead and stay the night. But another performance beckons and as I write this in the convivial surrounds of The Robin Hood Inn, on the village green in Rowland’s Castle, an expectant buzz is building behind me.

The bar is packed, Meridian TV is here, the Portsmouth News are sending a photographer - it’s ‘curtain up’ in 20 minutes time. And with hats as today’s theme, our toppers will be upturned at the door, ready for some hefty donations.

As Gibbo might say “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

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