The new Dickens World theme park opens on 25th May. It has re-created Victorian England and visitors will feel as though they have travelled back in time....

www.dickensworld.co.uk (external - login to view)

What the Dickens do they think they're doing?

The Telegraph

Fagin’s Den as a soft-play area? Surely not, says Max Davidson of the new Dickens World in Chatham.

And now - as Charles Dickens did not write - for something completely different. We have done Ann Hathaway's cottage. We have done Wordsworth's cottage. We have done Thomas Hardy's cottage. We have bent ourselves double, banged our heads on oak beams, traipsed through six-by-six bedrooms talking in whispers, all in search of our "literary heritage": those iconic spaces in which famous writers ate and slept and put pen to paper.

Victorian London re-created: Water rides, animatronic rats, life-size ghosts and walk-through prisons in Dickens World. The only thing missing is the horrible stench that was common in Victorian English cities.

But suppose "discovering" writers is not about trying to connect with their roots, or even poring over their work, but simply having fun - fun of a kind that the writers themselves would have recognised and loved?

That is the premise underpinning the new Dickens World in Chatham, a 62 million development that, on the face of it, owes more to Walt Disney than to the author of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

The idea for the attraction was first mooted in the 1970s by the theme park king Gerry O'Sullivan-Beare, who died last year. It has been dogged by difficulties.

First, there was the problem of finding a suitable location. King's Cross in London was considered, but had to be abandoned because of soaring property prices. More recently, the opening had to be delayed because of glitches with some hi-tech animatronic figures from the United States.

There is no danger of banging your head on an oak beam here - certainly not on an oak beam that has been around since the 16th century. The entire attraction has been built from scratch, in a vast aluminium warehouse on the Medway waterfront, half a mile from the old Chatham dockyard.

Dickens spent part of his childhood in the town - his father was a clerk in the Navy pay office - and remained loyal to the area to his death. Gad's Hill Place in Rochester, the house where he died, is just a few miles away.

But the poet of dark alleys and stinking alehouses would have not have recognised this bright, clean, antiseptic townscape, with an Odeon cinema on one side of Dickens World and a new shopping mall on the other.

"Am I really in Kent?" I think, looking at the stark modern buildings. My mind flies back to Mr Jingle in The Pickwick Papers. "Kent, sir - everyone knows Kent - apples, cherries, hops and women." The only cherries here are on the fruit-machines in the arcade.

As for what is inside Dickens World... water rides, animatronic rats, school desks with LCD displays, Miss Havisham on stilts, life-size ghosts, walk-through prisons, mock-ups of the London sky at night... It is not for the purists.

"Maybe not," says Kevin Christie, the managing director, "but I still think Dickens would have loved the place. He was not just a populist, but the ultimate showman. His novels were published in serials, with cliff-hanger endings, like TV soaps.

''When his career hit the rocks, he took his show on the road, going around the country reading his books on stage." With his ruddy face and his long straggly hair, Christie could be a fop in Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby: a man not afraid to enjoy himself.

"I prefer the lighter Dickens stories," he admits. "The Pickwick Papers is probably my favourite. The darker stuff, like Bleak House, is not really my cup of tea." So Dickens-lite it is: a fun day out for people who might find the original novels heavy going; a place of entertainment that owes more to the circus than the library; an all-singing, all-dancing attraction for the 21st century.

Pride of place goes to the Great Expectations ride, inspired by the pursuit of the escaped convict Magwitch across London to the Kent marshes.

The ride is more than 200 yards long, with much plunging, swooping, splashing, hurtling through darkened sewers, etc. It beats revising for GCSEs. The same goes for the Haunted House, a walk-through attraction where you will feel like Ebenezer Scrooge on amphetamine, with ghosts popping out at you from every direction.

At Dotheboys School, the horrors of Victorian education are lovingly reproduced. You will not get six of the best from the cane of Mr Wackford Squeers if you get the answer wrong, but you will have to satisfy that arch-pedant Mr Gradgrind, the stickler for facts in Hard Times. "DO AS YOU WOULD BE DONE BY," reads the motto on the wall. Multiple-choice questions on touch-screens enable a little serious information on Dickens and his world to slip through the pervasive levity.

"We do want to give visitors a real feeling of Victorian England," says Christie. "The Dickens Fellowship, who are very much the keepers of the keys where his legacy is concerned, have been closely consulted at every stage.

We have tried to recreate the kind of urban environment Dickens would have known, from the houses to the street-hawkers. Mind your head, Max." This as we pick our way through Newgate prison, as grim and cheerless and claustrophobic as it would have been in the 19th century.

Only the stench is missing. That, and perhaps, too, the sense of horror lurking beneath the novels of Dickens, even when he is at his most entertaining. If Dickens World has an obvious flaw, it is not that there are not long excerpts from the books plastered on every wall, but that the emphasis is too much on have-a-laugh entertainment, with social history taking a back seat.

How can Fagin's Den, a soft-play area where children can get their pockets picked by the Artful Dodger, even begin to hint at the grim underworld which Dickens was portraying - and which, in mutated forms, like child prostitution, is still with us?

As I take a peep into the themed bar, based on the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub in Our Mutual Friend, I can almost hear the first mutterings about "dumbed-down Dickens" from the groves of Academe. But I suspect, somehow, that Dickens World will outflank its critics. Its management hopes to draw 300,000 visitors a year and, for an attraction so close to London, that looks feasible.

Our greatest novelist - and one can only whisper the words when the Blessed Jane seems to be on every TV channel - deserves some suitably flamboyant memorial.

For students of the author who want to make a more serious literary pilgrimage, there is still the Dickens Museum in London, the birthplace museum in Portsmouth, the Dickens exhibition in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester. And there are, of course, the books.

Dickens World offers something else. Call it excitement. Call it simple stimulus.

An actor dressed as Mr Pickwick can be no substitute for the Mr Pickwick of the novel. But 50 actors in Dickensian costume, bustling along mock Victorian streets, working the crowds, stirring affectionate memories - of Mr Micawber, of Tiny Tim, of Oliver Twist, of Little Nell - offer a glorious reminder of a writer whose relish of character was his trump card.

Learn more about the writer

Dickens World in Chatham (08702 411415, www.dickensworld.co.uk (external - login to view)) opens on Friday, May 25. Open daily, 10am-7pm, except Christmas Day. Admission: 12.50 adults, 7.50 children aged 5-15.

The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty St, London WC1 (020 7405 2127, www.dickensmuseum.com (external - login to view)), is open 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday; adults 5, children 3, family (two adults, up to five children) 14.

Charles Dickens's Birthplace at 393 Old Commercial Road, Portsmouth (023 9282 7261, www.charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk (external - login to view)), is open most days, 10am-5.30pm - phone before you visit; adults 3.50, children 2.50, family (up to four) 9.50.

The Dickens Discovery Room in the Guildhall Museum, High Street, Rochester (01634 848717, www.medway.gov.uk), is open daily, 10am-4.30pm; admission free.