Broadstairs in Kent, Royal Albion Hotel and The Yarrow – Review
By Clare Jenkins, May 2023
Charles Dickens loved Broadstairs. After visiting the Kent resort for the first time in 1837, he and his family were to spend nearly two of the next 22 years in “our English watering place”, taking regular fresh-air breaks from London. But while his children (ten in total) built sandcastles on the fine beaches, he continued working: he part-wrote nine of his 15 novels here.
He still made time to enjoy it, though. In one letter to a friend, he wrote: “Today is one of the most wonderful and charming days I ever saw. The air is so brisk and bracing as it is nowhere but at Broadstairs. The channel so busy and alive with shipping as it is nowhere but off Broadstairs. The hotel so cosy and like a private house as it is nowhere out of Broadstairs. Everything is as nothing is out of Broadstairs. Veeve la Broadstairs!”
He told another friend how much he liked working on “this desolate island of Thanet. I love it, not least because it is tranquil and I can think and dream here, like a giant.”
You can see why. Even today, a century and a half later, there is much to enjoy in the small town – “all manner of breeziness, freshness and waviness going on”, as he wrote in 1842. Not just the sea air, the big skies and the sandy beaches (seven in all), but also the walks – following the Viking Coastal Trail to Ramsgate in one direction, Margate in the other -, the maritime history and, of course, the whole Dickens connection.
Broadstairs makes a lot of that. There’s the Charles Dickens pub and restaurant, the flinty clifftop Bleak House where he part-wrote David Copperfield, places called Nickleby Court and Trotwood Place, any number of blue plaques marking houses where he wrote or stayed, plus the odd one saying ‘Charles Dickens never lived here’ or ‘Dickens allegedly stabled his horse here’ (outside a modern-day garage). There’s also the Dickens House Museum and an annual summer festival where the Dickens Declaimers dress up in Victorian costume to recite extracts from his works.
The great man himself liked to travel the slow way from London by paddle steamer, taking six hours. We took the train: from Sheffield to St Pancras, then a connecting service onwards from the same station. ‘More sights, less tail lights’, as one of the Southeastern Railway posters puts it. Or, as a 1988 British Rail slogan so memorably said, ‘Let the train take the strain’.
The journey through the Medway towns offered glimpses of men looking strikingly like Bill Sikes and Abel Magwitch, with tattooed arms, necks and faces, plus the odd woman resembling Oliver Twist’s Nancy. Maybe that’s because we were sharing the compartment with people attending a Peaky Blinders convention. People whose Kentish accents seemed almost as foreign as French or Italian: “She was effin’ and jeffin’ every sentence, weren’t she?” Thanetian, one resident called it, though it sounded more Sid James/Barbara Windsor Cockney to us Northerners.
It’s an interesting journey for more than just people-watching. Whichever way you go – the speedy (80-minute) way via Canterbury or the 100-minute one via Rochester, Whitstable and Herne Bay – it can feel like entering another country. Not just those accents but also the landscape, with its oast houses, hop gardens and its glimpses of the Isle of Sheppey, Chatham and Tilbury Docks.
We spent our first night in Broadstairs at the Royal Albion, a traditional seaside hotel just ten minutes’ walk from the station. A handsome whitewashed building dating from the late 1770s, it inevitably has a connection with Dickens, who regularly stayed in a harbour-facing room – hence his portrait, alongside framed prints of some of his astonishing array of characters. Despite being surrounded by his large family (and a mother-in-law), he managed to write parts of A Tale of Two Cities, Martin Chuzzlewit and Nicholas Nickleby here.
“Some people come here in the winter to write,” said hotel manager Marc Duvauchelle. “They want to be inspired as Dickens was. Japanese guests in particular come to Broadstairs especially for him.”
Our second-floor, bay-windowed bedroom (one of 20 all told) looked out across the hotel terrace and garden to the sea. Sitting at the window table, we could watch people jogging, swimming or simply staring out to sea, their dogs (there were lots of those) running into the waves.
“Altar is now the bar”
The room’s interior was, like the rest of the hotel décor, understated and two-tone (white and soft grey). The furniture was homely, if perhaps a tad dated, but it’s being gradually upgraded as part of a long-term refurbishment.
As the sun was shining, we went out for an evening stroll. Past Bessie’s vintage tea parlour and The Chapel, a 17th Century building now housing a craft beer pub (Snails Bank Pig Squeal, anyone? Northtown Squiddly Diddly?) with shelves full of dusty, fusty second-hand books. Bleak House’s drunken rag-and-bone man Krook, victim of a spontaneous combustion, would have felt at home. A customer directed us to “the Statue of Maradona down the passageway”. In fact, it was the Madonna – no footballing mothers-of-God here – commemorating the site’s origins as a shrine to Our Lady of Bradstow, the town’s original name. The altar is now the bar. Make of that what you will.
We carried on past a herbal apothecary and a small amusement arcade, past the 111-seater Palace Cinema – one of Time Out’s 50 best British cinemas. Past Archway House (where, a plaque told us, Dickens wrote part of Barnaby Rudge in 1841) and Posillipo’s Italian restaurant, another former Dickens lodging-house, where he dined with Hans Christian Andersen. Past Victorian lampstands, gay beach huts and the weather-battered, weatherboard harbourmaster’s office by the pier. On the beach in front, a man was trying to round up his small but disobedient dog: “Bruce, come here! Bruce, come HERE!! BRUCE!!” Further along, two Labradors dug themselves a den in the sand and cuddled in it together.
We meandered along, taking in Eagle House, where the news of the victory at Waterloo was first brought to England by triumphant soldiers, the celebrated Morelli’s Gelato ice cream parlour and H.E. Harrington’s general ironmongers (inspiration for The Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch)… Past a little square of whitewashed stoney-flint cottages and any number of three-storey, balconied Georgian houses down lanes and in smart squares… Past Chandos Square where Oliver Postgate (of Noggin the Nog, Bagpuss and The Clangers fame) lived… Past a wise sign saying, ‘We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sail’.
Dinner in the hotel restaurant offered a relaxed atmosphere and seafront views. For starters, we had creamy red pepper houmous, and spicy warm cauliflower florets. Then we shared our mains – mushroom, leek and tarragon risotto, and sweet potato and quinoa croquettes. Both were so filling, there was sadly no room for the Kentish cheese board of Canterbury Cobble, Canterbury Chaucers and Kentish Blue.
After breakfast the next morning – a good spread of fruit, yogurt and fruit mix, croissants and pastries, plus hot dishes to order – we took the invaluable Loop bus (connecting Broadstairs with Margate and Ramsgate) up the Ramsgate Road to The Yarrow, a former children’s convalescent home turned ultra-spruce hotel. It was built in 1894 by shipbuilding magnate Sir Alfred Yarrow, a friend of Dr Barnardo, who “wanted to help people of modest means who needed to convalesce,” according to an information sheet at the hotel.
During the First and Second World Wars, it was requisitioned as a soldiers’ convalescent home. It subsequently became part of East Kent College and now, in addition to being a 28-bedroom hotel, acts as a training centre for EKC students studying catering, hospitality and beauty therapy (there’s a hair and beauty salon on site).
It still has something of the look of an institution, but an impeccably clean, light and airy one, with high ceilings and windows, wide corridors (built for the children to exercise in on rainy days), glass-panelled doors and the odd stained-glass window. The décor is also restful – neutrals and pale blue walls, with soft scents wafting from the spa area. Our deluxe suite consisted of a small lobby with separate toilet, a very well-furnished living area complete with open fireplace, and a spacious bedroom beyond, with stairs leading up to a bathroom with rolltop bath and two showers.
At dinner, we were offered a seven-course vegetarian tasting menu, starting with heritage tomatoes with goats curd, and moving through mushroom and parmesan arancini and kohlrabi gratin to gnocchi and roasted cauliflower, before a rhubarb sorbet ‘pre-dessert’. We normally avoid tasting menus on the grounds that they can involve a lot of fuss for Very Small Portions. But the whole meal – from the homemade focaccia onwards – was superb: imaginative, bursting with taste and culminating in light-as-a-feather raspberry souffle, the warmth contrasting perfectly with the vanilla ice cream. It put to shame many posher restaurants who seem challenged by vegetarian cuisine.
On our last day in Broadstairs, we finally made it to the Dickens House Museum, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. In Dickens’s day, he would take tea with its spinster owner Mary Pearson Strong – the inspiration for David Copperfield’s eccentric, donkey-chasing aunt Betsey Trotwood.
Volunteer Ken Nickoll, a former Sun journalist who devised the new Dickens Town Trail, gave us an introduction to the museum, a handsome three-storey whitewashed house furnished in suitably Victorian style. A shrine to all things Dickens, it contains his mahogany sideboard, the writing box he took to America on reading tours, his novels and letters and walls full of photos and prints by Phiz, one of his main illustrators.
Upstairs, a spooky mannequin faces a looking-glass in a Miss Havisham-style wedding dress, all faded cream lace and silk. Display cabinets are full of dolls and Royal Doulton figurines dressed as Mr Pickwick, Peggotty, Sarah Gamp, Mr Micawber; embroidered garters, pince-nez, wrist warmers, scent bottles, a Victorian Valentine card… A perfect Old Curiosity Shop of knickknacks.
Outside, meanwhile, as Dickens himself wrote: “all the sea is sparkling, heaving, swelling up with life and beauty, this bright morning.”
Rooms at the Royal Albion Hotel in Albion Street range from £80 B&B to over £200 in peak season: albionbroadstairs.co.uk
Rooms at The Yarrow on Ramsgate Road range from £150 for a small double room B&B, £180 for a larger double: yarrowhotel.co.uk
Southeastern Railway runs very regular train services to Broadstairs from London St Pancras station: southeasternrailway.co.uk
The Dickens House Museum is next door to the Royal Albion Hotel, on Victoria Parade: visitthanet.co.uk
The Broadstairs Dickens Festival runs from Thursday 16th June to Sunday 18th: broadstairsdickensfestival.co.uk
The excellent Visit Thanet website is full of invaluable information and advice about the whole area: visitthanet.co.uk
The regular Loop bus, connecting Broadstairs with Margate and Ramsgate, is run by Stagecoach: stagecoachbus.com
Top image: Stone Bay, Broadstairs from cliffs, Tourism @ Thanet District Council