In the 1960s we lived in Strood. My mother’s family is from Cliffe and my father was from Melbourne in Australia. One of the reasons he stayed in Britain is because he was mad about history and he passed that love to me.
When I was a child Saturdays in Rochester were our time together and the choice was mine of where to visit. My favourite was always the museum at Eastgate House. I found the place magical and even at the age of four, appreciated the different facets of the house. My father was always at my side, slowly and patiently explaining everything, whether it be the architecture, the garden, Dickens’ chalet, or the exhibits.
I was particularly fascinated by the various stuffed birds which were on display in the roof spaces. The cases towered above me and I liked the light, airiness of the room which echoed every sound, including the creak of the bare floorboards. There was never anyone in there except us. I also loved the many toys on display on the lower floors and liked to imagine how children in the past might have enjoyed playing with them. At home I had a very old dolls’ house and this made the connection even more tangible.
Eastgate House was a very exciting place to explore and I knew it like the back of my hand. I recall there was a one-way system on the stairs, though I don’t know how strictly this was enforced, perhaps it was just my father’s way of keeping an eye on me. The narrow staircase was for going up and the wider staircase was for coming down and I would go up and down quite a lot. At the bottom of the down staircase, close to the door which led to the garden, was a rack of bells – very often bathed in sunlight - and once I was allowed to ring them.
As ‘regulars’ the curator knew us well and my father enjoyed having a chat. One day he asked us if we would like to see the priest hole. I must have been about six or seven and this was incredibly exciting. I relished the fact that we were being given special treatment, not just because we were regulars (so the curator explained) but because we understood the house and its history. The hole was to the side of a large fireplace and we had to stretch right in to see it; I think the curator may have lifted me up. After all that special treatment I felt we had become ‘insiders’!
I used to enjoy ending our visit in the garden, watching the goldfish in the strangely spartan rectangular pond, disappointed that another trip was over. I often wondered why the garden was so modern in its design and I longed to go into the chalet - but even we ‘regular insiders’ couldn’t do that. Dickens fascinated me and given my Cliffe connections, I saw him as my personal friend.
We moved away from Medway in 1969 and I would dream about my Saturday visits and write about them at school. I was not to return to Eastgate House for very many years and by that time it had been turned into the Dickens Centre. I was not impressed by what they had done with the house especially as areas had been sealed off and many of the once familiar architectural features, such as the wood panelling, were covered over. Today, being a Friend has given me the opportunity to explore the house again just as I did as a child and following the refurbishment I am looking forward to experiencing the old magic once again.
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