The journey from our town to the metropolis was a journey of about
five hours. It was a little past mid-day when the four-horse stage-
coach by which I was a passenger got into the ravel of traffic frayed
out about the Cross Keys, Wood Street, Cheapside, London. We
Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable
to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise,
while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might
have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked,
narrow and dirty.
Thus Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, headed for London as a boy by coach from the north Kent coast. Charles Dickens had made the same journey, at the age of ten, in 1822, and we can assume that his experience was similar. To retrace this route provides an insight into the city as he first encountered it. If you had seen London from afar, as he did, your first impression would have been of a distant, dirty smudge of smoke. Coming nearer, you would have made out the steeples of churches and (often just as tall) the masts of shipping in the Thames. St Paul’s Cathedral would have been unmistakable, set on the top of Ludgate Hill and rising head and shoulders above its surroundings. At this point, if not before, the imaginations of those seeing the great metropolis for the first time would almost certainly have begun to stir.
Another impressionable small boy created by Dickens, David Copperfield, described the combination of excitement and fear that the sight evoked in him: