I saw the sea for the first time this year on Saturday. I hardly like to admit this but I went for a short spin in Jonathan's car. We had done a walk beforehand, however, and looking back towards Keswick we saw it was all covered in cloud whereas out towards the coast it was all bright and sunny so instead of driving home we drove out to Allonby on Cumbria's north-west coast and had tea in the Ship Inn.
The Ship Inn has a very odd way of informing its potential clients that some very illustrious literary figures have stayed at the inn in the past. Their brochure reads:
"The bars have real fires and exposed beams as seen by Charles Dickins [sic] and Wilkie Collins when they stayed here in 1857."
As far as I know this was the only foray Dickens made in to Cumberland. It was a curious trip. He journeyed with Collins by train to Carlisle and then travelled to Hesket Newmarket on the northern edge of the Lake District. From there they moved on to Allonby and then presumably back to Carlisle so they could travel on to Lancaster. Touring Cumberland without exploring the heart of the Lake District is rather like visiting London but concentrating all one's attention on Clapham Common.
Dickens embarked on the trip to give himself material for a magazine he then published called "Household Words" (It was in this magazine he serialised Bleak House, Hard Times and Little Dorrit). The article was to be called The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices which he was to write in collaboration with Wilkie Collins: they were the two apprentices - Dickens was Mr. Goodchild and Collins was Mr. Idle.
Dickens had read about ". . . . a certain black old Cumberland hill or mountain called Carrock Fell" which seems to have been the motivation for his visit - he wanted to climb it. I would love to know what he read, precisely. The fell is so peripheral and so unimpressive looking I must have lived a good twenty years in Keswick before I got round to climbing it. There are though the remains of an Ancient British fort on the top, or so I've read - the two times I've been to the top I could discover little evidence of them. Maybe it was reports of this fort (Coleridge once erroneously described it as being "a vast Druid Circle of Stones") that attracted Dickens. This was the result:
". . . . drenched and panting [Collins] stands with his back to the wind, ascertains distinctly that this is the top at last, looks round with all the curiosity that is left in him, and gets in return, a magnificent view of - Nothing!"
They had got to the top in mist.
On the way down Collins slipped and sprained his ankle. This then may be why they saw no more of the Lake District but went off to Allonby instead, although I'm not sure that this wasn't on their original intention anyway. Why they went to Allonby is another puzzle. I've always found it a drear little place: a huddled windswept village sprouting out of a strip of commonage bordering the Solway Firth. Even 141 years ago, when it probably looked slightly better, Dickens doesn't seem to have found the place very more congenial either:
". . .you might call [it] a primitive place. Large? No, it was not large. Shape? what a question to ask! No shape. What sort of street? Why, no street."
Dickens was 45 when he stayed in Allonby, Wilkie Collins was 12 years younger. Collins had not then written the novels by which he became famous: "The Moonstone" and "The Woman in White" they came a few years later. He was then probably best known as a writer for Household Words. This then was not at the time a partnership of equals even if they were collaborating.
The Ship Inn has a bright and cheerful dining room called the Dickens' Room (spelt correctly) with lots of prints and pictures of characters from Dickens' novels. I think its a nice touch even if Dickens did stay there only two nights at most. (In Hesket Newmarket they've gone even further, the inn he stayed in there, no longer an inn, is called Dickens' House: he probably stayed there two nights as well.) There is a full set of Dickens' novels in the Ship Inn's dining room sitting on the top of an upright piano though they are in very sad state; they look has though they've been salvaged from the depth of a cellar that was flooded and dried out on a radiator.
Quite an amiable lad served us - we were the only ones in there at time. Despite the hirsute growth round his chin I thought he might be only 18. He lived in Maryport - which is just five miles along the coast. Did he cycle to Allonby I asked? No, he had a car. Was he working that evening? No, he had the evening off. He would probably go to Workington and get pissed. Not, I don't suppose, what Dickens did when he stayed there.