It is just starting to drizzle, I hug my companion tight as the wind pulls at my coat and scarf. We hurry along the dark damp streets, light of step, eager for company and perhaps a little tipple to take the edge off the day.
Doughty Street stretches before us, a neat row of terraces, the smart black and white floor tiles beckon us in. We have timed our entrance, best not to arrive too early or too late. The lamps are lit, a warm glow of welcome awaits.
There is laughter and anticipation, we waste no time but shuffle straight down past grand hallways and fine parlours to below stairs. Bare white walls, a stripped back wooden table and the London Gin Club await us. We congregate in the kitchen, surely the heart of any party. Here in Dickens’ house there are no maids and kitchen staff but the chatter and hubbub of an expectant crowd.
On the table glinting glassware is a tempting promise, the warm smell of spice and underneath the unmistakable smell of alcohol. The London Gin Club welcome us to Dickens’ house and provide a readily accepted invitation to sample the delights of the masters’ wine cellar.
We begin with a drop of Purl, drunk as a fortifying morning drink, mentioned in a number of Dickens’ novels. Sold to labourers on the river, usually a concoction of warm porter, gin and ginger. I see fresh nutmeg being grated and the amber liquid shrugs off the last remains of the damp night air, there is heat and spice and we begin to loose the edges of our inhibitions.
“It was broad day, but the morning being cold, a group of them were gathered round a fire in a public house, drinking hot purl, and smoking pipes, and planning new schemes for tomorrow.” Charles Dickens – Barnaby Rudge
Whilst we sip and swill we are told of Dickens’ cellar list from his house in Gad’s Hill. A cask of gin holding an impressive 18 gallons (around 144 pints) might seem excessive, but spirits were not sold by the bottle until 1861. Dickens moved his young family to Doughty Street in 1837, for a man who loved to entertain perhaps we can forgive his excessive alcoholic tastes. It is, after all, always best to be prepared.
Our Purl is gone too soon, where one drink slips away it quickly sets a thirst for another. Now a silky smooth Gin Punch is passed around. The London Gin Club tells us how full fat milk is used, the mixture splits, the curds are removed to leave behind the silky whey. Dickens was a dab hand at making a punch, his secret weapon – borage. This evening cucumber peelings act as a stand-in to recreate his authentic mix.
“Bishop said that when he was a young man, and had fallen for a brief space into the habit of writing sermons on Saturdays….he had frequently been sensible of a depression, arising as he supposed from an over-taxed intellect, upon which the yolk of a new-laid egg, beaten up by the good woman in whose house he at the time lodged, with a glass of sound sherry, nutmeg and powdered sugar, acted like a charm.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit
As the merry vibe spreads we reach for a Sherry Cobbler, the cobbles are the ice that chinks as we clink are glasses and drink to our health. I am sure this has a touch of orange peel in and that must count towards my five-a-day. Ice was not commercially available in the UK until the 1860s, but when Dickens’ came across this innovation on a reading tour of America in 1842 he became a huge fan of these ‘Sensation Drinks’. He writes of a ‘Gin-Sling, Mint Julep and Timber Doodle’, I am beginning to like him more and more.
“If I could send you a ‘brandy cocktail’ by post I would. It is a highly meritorious dram, which I hope to present to you at Gad’s. My New York landlord made me a ‘Rocky Mountain Sneezer’, which appeared to to me to be compounded of all the spirits ever heard of in the world, with bitters, lemon, and snow. You can only make a true ‘sneezer’ when snow is laying on the ground.” Charles Dickens – letters
With a merry warmth that reaches down to our toes it is time to leave ‘below stairs’ and sample the sumptuous rooms above. We meet a friend, good cheer and chat is shared. There is talk of politics, of Brexit and Trump, as topical as no doubt the conversations would have been in Dickens’ day.
We move on through the rooms, there is an echo of Dickens’ as we glide through the past and up the stairs. As we pop in bedrooms and up to the attic I feel almost as a trespasser straying in rooms our genial host may have preferred to keep private. The night ticks on and as legs weary and minds wander we sink down to the bar before the pressures of life outside these walls begin to close in.
By candlelight I sup on a Champagne Cup. In a high backed leather chair I slump, and deep breathe to exhale my worries away. Dickens keeps me company and I feel very welcome in his presence.
For more information on special themed evenings at the Dickens Museum please see the website – http://dickensmuseum.com
More information on the London Gin Club can be found here – https://thelondonginclub.com
Charles Dickens references via The Literature Network –
Barnaby Rudge – Chapter 60 – http://www.online-literature.com/view.php/barnabyrudge/61?term=purl
Little Dorrit – Chapter 21 – http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/little_dorrit/22/
Letters of Charles Dickens: 1833-1870, Cambridge Library Collection, Edited by Georgina Hogarth and Mary Dickens. pg 674