Westmont Magazine Schooled in Dickens
Nancy Asper Hughes ’78 enjoyed traveling as a student. An English major, she studied in England with Westmont’s semester-long program, toured the East Coast for a class on the Bicentennial and went to Costa Rica on a short-term mission.
In 1980 she returned to England to work in the travel industry there. Living at first in London, she became well acquainted with the city — and with tourist destinations around the world. She loves to travel.
A founding member of Tourism Concern, she also worked for this organization, which lobbies for greater awareness of and sensitivity to tourism’s impact on Third World countries.
Through her involvement in the travel industry, she met her husband, Tony, then managing director of P&O Travel in the United Kingdom.
After they married, they moved to Higham, a small village in Kent 30 miles south of London. Tony grew up in nearby Rochester, known for its Norman cathedral and castle. Higham is the site of Gad’s Hill Place, the only house Charles Dickens ever owned and where he died.
Since 1924, this historic building has housed Gad’s Hill School, which Nancy’s son, Jamie, started attending when he was 4 years old. As a parent volunteer and member of the board of governors at the private school, Nancy has worked to promote the school and preserve the landmark home.
Dickens fell in love with the house, built in 1780, when he went on a walking tour with his father as a boy. The author never forgot what his father said as the two of them admired the residence: “If he were to be very persevering and work very hard,” he might one day live there. Dickens recounted this experience in the “The Uncommercial Traveller: Travelling Abroad.”
After achieving success as a writer, Dickens returned to Higham in 1856, bought the property and lived there until his death in 1870. He studied in the room now used by the headmaster. One wall still features his false leather book spines inscribed in gold with humorous titles such as “Life of a Cat in Nine Volumes.” The school’s kitchen retains many of its Victorian features. The children eat in the Dickens’ family dining room; their media room was once the drawing room.
One of Jamie’s classes met in the author’s bedroom. “As a 7-year-old, he knows more about Dickens than most people,” Nancy says.
The house was falling into ruin when the school acquired it in 1924, thereby preserving it. Gad’s Hill School is now successful and expanding, so the governors decided to move the school to new buildings and return the house to its 1870 appearance. Nancy worked on setting up the Charles Dickens Gad’s Hill Preservation Trust, supported by English Heritage. They have already received a grant toward restoration of Dickens’ walled garden.
“It’s doubly challenging to be on the board of a school with heritage property as we had to balance the needs of the school and keep it running while looking after the property,” she says.
A member of the Dickens family always sits on the school’s board. Nancy served first with Dickens’ great-grandson Cedric and then with Marion Dickens, his great-great-granddaughter. When Cedric published a new work on Pickwick, Nancy sent a signed copy to the Westmont English department.
“I love literature, and I love Dickens,” she says. “So many places in the Higham area are featured in his stories, and it’s wonderful to see them. For example, the village church in Cooling has the row of tiny gravestones described in “Great Expectations.”
Nancy also taught Sunday school at the Higham parish church. “We lived next door to the vicar, and it was hugely rewarding to worship with people we saw every day,” she explains. “As there was no Sunday school for very young children, a girl and I set up junior worship. I wanted Jamie to go to church and learn and not have to sit and be shushed. We also set up PTO (parents, toddlers and others) that met Thursdays for a 15-minute worship service led by the vicar. Afterwards, we had a picnic lunch and the parents talked while the kids played.”
When her husband Tony accepted a new position as president of Radius, the global travel company based in Bethesda, Md., the family moved to the Washington, D.C., area. While Nancy misses Higham, she looks forward to getting involved in a new community.
But she intends to stay in touch with Gad’s Hill. “I still feel passionate about the place.”