Deventer is a beautiful and atmospheric old town which has retained many of its historic buildings. So it doesn’t need much of a makeover to turn itself into a passable version of 19th Century London for its annual weekend-long Dickens Festival. Why Deventer dedicates itself to all things Charles Dickens is quite another matter, but the festival offers up a huge amount of fun woven together with the thread of Dickensian narratives.
Perhaps it’s an ancient English connection that is at the heart of this Anglophile outburst: the town was founded in 768 by the English missionary, Lebuinus, known as the Apostle of the Frisians. The wealth of historic buildings, however, owe more to the town being a member of the Hanseatic League, the hugely successful trade confederation that spanned much of northern Europe between the 13th and 17th Centuries.
The historic Bergkwartier is the backdrop for the Dickens Festival and it is here where 950 or so people, residents of the town, become characters from Dickens novels. As you walk the streets scenes from the books are performed, impromptu mini-plays taking many forms. On one street Fagin’s gang of pickpockets roam amongst the crowds; suddenly a group of men rolling barrels of beer come charging through the thronged onlookers.
A coffin, complete with mourning and wailing family trundles along the street pausing only to open the coffin to reveal an actual person inside; the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future appear at windows reciting sections of A Christmas Carol before descending to mingle solemnly with the crowd; workhouse children pass sweeping the street; children skip to school two-by-two singing; choirs can be heard around the streets.
Street urchins lie in the gutter begging, elegant couples promenade, wealthy gentlemen take tea in top hats and read The Times of London. Everyone who catches your eye says “Good morning” as if to an old friend, and everyone stays in character. Staying in character is enforced by the organisers, one of the people I spoke to asked me to send some photos as they weren’t allowed to have cameras themselves.
To accompany this merry making, there are stalls selling gluhwein, roasted chestnuts, waffles, hot cider, roast pork, hot chocolate, eggnog and lots of other ways of over indulging. It all makes for a fabulous experience, and if you get the chance to be there in 2016 I heartily recommend it.