It’s hard to believe as you walk down the picturesque and medieval-looking Walstraat in Deventer, but thirty years ago this street in the historic Bergkwartier was run down, unloved and impoverished. It’s even harder to imagine during the annual Dickens Festival, when the area transforms into 19th century London, and hundreds of local inhabitants wear Victorian dress and become characters from the novels of Charles Dickens.
Deventer’s Dickens Festival is unique in the Netherlands. It’s deservedly famous (around 140,000 people visited it this year), yet no one I know could tell me why a small Dutch town has an festival dedicated to a Victorian-era British novelist. The official website gives few clues as to how and why this 26 year-old tradition stared, and online searches were equally unhelpful.
What is clear, is that Dickens never visited Deventer, and there seems to be no known connection between him, any of his work and the town. This lack of connection troubled me. Why was there a weekend-long Dickens Festival in a small town in the eastern Netherlands?
Walking down the Walstraat during the festival a couple of weeks ago, I stopped to allow a gang of street urchins past, and found myself chatting to a man wearing a checked waistcoat, lounge coat and bowler hat. Under normal circumstances this would be a warning to quickly move away and possibly call the authorities. These, however, were not normal circumstances. A fact underlined as the black-robed Ghost of Christmas Future walked past.
My new acquaintance knew the history of the festival. Thirty years ago, when the area was decaying and run down, someone bought the whole of Walstraat and renovated its buildings and surrounding area. Shops and businesses were encouraged to move into the street. The crowning glory of this regeneration was the launch of the Dickens Festival to promote the area nationally and internationally.
This information raised more questions that it answered. Who was this mysterious benefactor, and why did he choose to launch a Dickens Festival to promote the area? Answering these questions is probably less important than the fact that it was clearly a brilliant idea: one which has contributed to reinvigorating this historic area and left behind a strange but wonderful cultural legacy.
As you walk around the streets, scenes from daily Victorian life merge with scenes straight out of the pages of Dickens’ novels. This is a fantastic event that brings alive a sense of Christmas far removed from the traditional (and overly commercial) Christmas fairs that have proliferated across Europe.
At one point I passed a group of carolers performing on the street, inside the church a band played and sang songs. A dandy with a perfect lipstick kiss on his cheek tried to attract the attention of passing women, and glamorous Victorian ladies promenaded through the cobbled lanes. A family did laundry the hard, traditional way, and another street band knocked out crowd-pleasing sing-alongs, like the Wild Rover, Cockles and Mussels, and the Leaving of Liverpool.
Passing the church, a couple of working women wearing bonnets appeared, blackened teeth, laughing drunk and what sounded like whooping cough. The two of them roared around the crowds, acting out a scene more fitting for Hogarth’s Gin Lane. It was brilliant. As they entertained the crowd, I had to remind myself that they weren’t actors, but people who lived here. That’s what makes the Dickens Festival so special.