Great British Drives: around Charles Dickens's Kent in a Rolls-Royce Wraith

Rolls-royce wraith - daniel pembrey

In arguably Charles Dickens’s best-loved work, a lawyer called Jaggers announces: “The communication I have got to make is that he has great expectations …,” ‘he’ being the orphan-hero of the story, Pip.

And I can’t help share Pip’s sense of wonderment at his unexpected windfall as I enter the grand Rolls-Royce showroom in Berkeley Square, Mayfair. A sparkling new black-and-white Wraith two-door coupé is waiting.

Easing into the enveloping driver’s seat, I can see that there are few more vivid experiences of having arrived. The fibre optic ‘Starlight Headliner’ above, depicting the clear night skies over the factory at Goodwood, adds a mythic dimension to this drive.

Like Rolls-Royce and its iconic bonnet mascot, Dickens’s creations are known the world over. Characters such as Scrooge and Oliver Twist travel easily down the generations and across cultures. Yet it was Great Expectations – Dickens’s coming-of-age book with more than a hint of the autobiographical – that has proved perhaps his most consistently engaging work. “It is a novel which addresses that fundamental questions we all have to face,” says Dr Tony Williams of the Dickens Fellowship. “Who are we? What is our way in the world going to be?”  

Similar to Pip in the novel, Dickens grew up in Kent in humble circumstances. His father was imprisoned as a debtor, and Dickens struggled with his own transformation into a man of means in London. In his mid-forties, he bought Gad’s Hill Place, a large brick house near Rochester, and moved his family out from the capital. It was a homecoming of sorts, and it was at this stage of his life that he began writing Great Expectations.

The Wraith near the River Medway

The Wraith takes some getting used to in Central London. A two-door coupé it may be, but measuring 5.3 metres long, it comfortably surpasses a Range Rover Sport. Once out on the freer-flowing eastbound A2, its credentials as a ‘Gentleman’s Grand Tourer’ become clear. The build quality ensures an overwhelming sense of ease and grace, with no shortage of power – indeed, the 6.6-litre twin-turbo V12 is the most powerful car engine that Rolls-Royce has ever built. Its performance has helped lower the average age of Rolls-Royce owners to the early 40s.

Today, Gad’s Hill Place is a school, but it is half-term and I am granted admission. Dickens’s old study is now used by the deputy headmaster. It has altered little since the author’s day. Either side of the writing desk are mirrors; Dickens had a tendency to act out the scenes of his stories, and he was often seen talking to himself as he tramped the nearby marshes on afternoon walks.

One such walk would have taken him to the 13th century St James’s Church in Cooling on the Hoo peninsula. It inspired the famous opening scene in which Pip, visiting family graves, is accosted by Magwitch – ‘a fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg ...’ The convict demands food and a metal file, and Pip obliges. Mist often envelopes the site, giving an intensely atmospheric feel.

St James's Church at Cooling on the Hoo Peninsula, where Charles Dickens may well have taken many walks Credit: Patricia Payne/alamy

For my visit, the day is bright and an opportunity to admire the ‘fastback’ profile of the car, which calls to mind ‘Streamline Moderne’ designs of the Thirties and nautical themes. It is quite the contrast to the ominous ‘hulk’ prison ships once moored in the Thames estuary, from which Magwitch had fatefully escaped.

Hulks were converted from ships built at Chatham Dockyard, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year with a series of events catering particularly to families (the pirate theme features big). Dickens’s father worked here as a pay clerk. The site was the NASA of its day, covering over 400 acres at its zenith. You get a sense of its scale from the ropery, a quarter-mile-long facility that still makes rope and features a marvellously piquant, resinous smell. Rope-based products including dog leads are available in the neighbouring shop.

Lodging for the night is Read’s at Faversham, which Dickens would have passed on his way out to Broadstairs, a favourite summer spot of his. A ‘restaurant with rooms’, Read’s is an unusually handsome red brick former farmhouse set in four acres of mature grounds. Owners Rona and David Pitchford have managed the superb dining experience here for 41 years. They maintain a large kitchen garden, well stocked with vegetables and herbs. Next door stands the Macknade food shop with a further bounty of fresh produce. Small wonder this area is referred to as the Garden of England.  

Gerald Dickens (right, with Daniel Pembrey) is a great-great-grandson who bears a striking likeness to his ancestor and stars at Rochester's annual Dickens Festival

In Rochester, there is an annual summer Dickens Festival (there is an annual Dickensian Christmas Festival here too). It is a vibrant, sunny scene between the castle, cathedral and High Street, with costumes ranging from true Victorian top hats and lace to science fiction, ‘steampunk’ reinterpretations. The self-effacing star of the show is Gerald Dickens, a great-great-grandson who bears a striking likeness to his ancestor and is himself a storyteller and actor.

Last stop is Restoration House, a jewel of an Elizabethan residence just off the High Street, open to the public on certain days. It was a property that obsessed Dickens. He turned it into Satis House, the decaying home of the doomed Miss Havisham and the beautiful but haughty Estella. The contrast with the intimate, exquisitely restored interiors here today could hardly be greater.

Chatham Historic Dockyard lies just north of the town. Adjacent to the river you can see the 400-year-old site's quarter-mile-long ropery Credit: aerofilms/alamy

The most dramatic scene in the novel is when Pip discovers the true identity of his benefactor. With that comes a deeper sense of maturation and self-knowledge on Pip’s part. Maybe it goes the same way for a Wraith owner, I reflect, on my way back into Central London.

At first you can not help being dazzled by the glamour, but the real joy of driving this car comes from the thoughtful attention to detail – the double bulkhead suppressing all engine noise, the sublime softness of the ride, the discreet thrum in the steering wheel if you happen to relax unduly and cross a motorway lane marker.

Rolls-Royce co-founder Henry Royce was not a man to lord the car’s status over others. Contemporaries recount Royce tending to the prized fruit trees and roses in his garden after dark, such was the length of his working days. Royce’s down-to-earth, indefatigable, perfectionist approach to engineering informed the essence of this car and the way it feels today. “First to thine own self be true,” goes the motto at Gad’s Hill (school) now. So it goes with a Rolls-Royce, too.;


2018 Rolls-Royce Wraith

PRICE £341,000

ENGINE 6.6-litre V12 twin-turbo

TOP SPEED 155mph (governed)

ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 4.4sec


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