A Christmas Carol in Dickensian Deventer

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.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

A winter wonderland at Deventer’s Dickensian Christmas

Every year, over a weekend in December, the historic Dutch town of Deventer plays host one of the more unusual events the Netherlands has to offer. The medieval centre of this lovely old town is transformed into the 19th century world of Charles Dickens. The novels and characters Dickens is so famous for, are brought to life by over nine hundred of Deventer’s inhabitants, who parade through the streets reenacting scenes from the novels dressed in period costume.

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

This little slice of Victoriana is a lot of fun. Now in its 26th year, it  attracts more and more people every year. Deventer is home to around 100,000 people, and over the Dickens Festival weekend the population more than doubles. Around 140,000 people are estimated to have visited this year. That makes for a bit of a crush in the narrow streets, and makes getting there early worthwhile.

The route through the streets is flanked by stalls selling glühwein, wintery food like roasted chestnuts, and Dickensian souvenirs alongside more ‘traditional’ retail opportunities. As you wander along cobbled streets, scenes from Dickensian life unfold before you; or, in the case of the half dozen people cycling around on Victorian bicycles, hurtles at you in a homicidal manner.

Victorian couples promenade through the streets, wishing each other a “Merry Christmas”; bands of chimney sweeps and Oliver Twist-style pickpockets roam around trying to extract money from people; troops of school children parade through the crowds with their fearsome looking teachers; choirs gather near the church to sing carols; parents push period perambulators down cobbled lanes; and street urchins sit in doorways looking woeful.

It all adds up to one of the most unique and entertaining Christmas fairs I’ve visited. It’s certainly a big improvement on the majority of fairs, which seem to be inspired only by commercialism. What makes it so special is that everyone in costume is a local resident. You regularly see people emerging from their houses in full Dickensian dress, or popping home after a circuit of the festival streets.

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Street urchins, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Street urchins, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

While a lot of people simply parade through the streets as generic Victorians, some are easily identifiable as Dickensian characters. Many of these perform scenes from the novels throughout the streets. One of these mobile plays is the funeral of Little Nell. I kept coming across the funeral cortege, pushing a coffin while the mourners wail and cry. Every so often they stop, open the coffin and reveal the ‘body’ inside.

Elsewhere, chimney sweeps run through the lanes, soot-covered faces and brushes in hand, or can be spotted on rooftops. The ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future walk silently through the streets. The Artful Dodger and his gang lurk amongst the crowds. Queen Victoria makes an appearance flanked by British soldiers in their red uniforms. A shepherd herds a flock of sheep through the streets – the sheep ate the Xmas trees. It all makes quite an impression.

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Death of Little Nell, Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

Bah! Humbug! A stroll through Dickensian Deventer

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.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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 Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

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.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

What the Dickens? It’s Christmas in Deventer

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to be transported back to Victorian London, but then again it’s not every day that the inhabitants of a Dutch town collectively decide to dress up as characters from the novels of Charles Dickens. Not just dress up, in many cases people spend a day in character as if they were from a Dickens novel.

Obviously, if you did this outside the safe confines of a Dickensian Festival you’d find yourself removed to a secure facility and into the company of a psychiatrist (possibly two); but for one December weekend in Deventer Dickensian fantasies can be lived to the full…and they are.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

If that wasn’t enough, at the Dickens Festival in the beautiful and ancient Dutch town of Deventer, scenes from the books are played out on the streets, impromptu readings are given, choirs and bands perform around town, and you might be accosted by a character who refuses to break character regardless of what you do or say. I saw a couple of Fagin’s boys do a job on one unsuspecting tourist who took some calming down.

Two lepers closed in on another tourist, threatening to put her in their cart, she screamed and tried to hide. To no avail, they continued pursuing her. At a gluhwein stall a woman with very realistic boils on her face and doing a very passable impersonation of a drunk tried to pimp me her daughter. She was good in the kitchen, as well as other rooms in the house, if I knew what she meant, nudge, nudge! Perhaps a little too much realism.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

One woman spent the day wandering the streets in paroxysms of hysterical laughter, contorting her body and howling out as she stumbled through the crowds who, as people tend to do when confronted by craziness, parted to allow her through. A man spent the festival carrying a book bound in brown paper utterly detached from what was going on around him. These are remarkable ‘performances’.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

There are street urchins laying in the gutter; workhouse children sweeping the streets; chimney sweeps with soot-covered faces; couples parading; school children singing on their way to class; Fagin’s gang of pickpockets roam the streets; a company of Scots Guards stomp through the crowds; rather unsteady Penny Farthing riders career around. Even Queen Victoria makes an appearance…and then there are the mistletoe sellers.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

In the Pickwick Papers, Dickens calls mistletoe a “mystic branch” and, referring to being kissed beneath the mistletoe, describes how the “younger ladies, not being so thoroughly imbued with a superstitious veneration of the custom…screamed and struggled and ran into corners” to avoid being kissed. Judging by the somewhat salacious sales technique of the two young ladies at the mistletoe stand in Deventer, those days are long gone.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

It’s a huge amount of fun and, despite the large crowds, atmospheric. I take my hat off to the people of Deventer for doing something so brilliant. After all, the 950 or so people who spend the day in costume and character are residents of the town; and it isn’t just adults who get involved, whole families are decked out as Dickensian characters.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

I’m glad I got there early though. The festival follows a route through Deventer’s most historic streets and the crowds grew throughout the day. Upwards of 170,000 people visit over the weekend and it can get pretty crowded despite controls on the numbers allowed in at any one time. Queues of up to one and a half hours are not unusual…although once inside the queues for the gluhwein stalls are mercifully short.

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands

The Dickens Festival, Deventer, Netherlands