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Dickensian London: A character in itself

Dickens wrote so evocatively of the city's sites - many of which can still be found.

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London is as much a character in Charles Dickens's novels as Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield is. To Dickens, London was a living, breathing entity for which he had an enduring fascination. He loved its diversity yet hated its inequalities, and his descriptions of the sights, sounds, and smells of the city are among the most evocative passages in English literature.

Despite urban renewal and the German blitz of World War II, much of Dickens's London survives in alleyways and narrow streets away from the usual tourist trail.

Life in Dickensian London centered on the old walled City that covers a mere square mile and is dominated by St. Paul's Cathedral. In "Great Expectations," Pip described the adjacent street market of Cheapside as "all asmear with filth and fat and blood ... the great black dome of St Paul's bulging at me."

Toward the west lies Saffron Hill, the haunt of Fagin in "Oliver Twist," and Snow Hill, where, in "Nicholas Nickleby," Wackford Squeers advertised for pupils at the Saracen's Head.

Pip alighted from the coach at the Cross Keys Inn just off Cheapside, which is still the perfect place to begin a tour of Dickens's London. All that remains of the inn is a paved area in the adjacent churchyard that belonged to St. Peter Cheap in Wood Street. The churchyard railings have inset crossed keys with a large glass lantern above to light the way of incoming passengers. Dickens was one, arriving alone from Kent at age 12. His spendthrift father, John, spent various periods imprisoned for debt, including a time at the Wood Street Compter, which is farther down the road. A narrow passage leads into Mitre Court, the site of the old prison, and dark steps descend into a warren of dungeons beneath the courtyard.

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