Authors,Eating Out,England,Literary Legends,Museums,Sights,Travel

Literary Legends – Roald Dahl

Yesterday I continued with my literary pilgrimages and travelled to the town of Great Missenden to visit the Roald Dahl museum.

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The town of Great Missenden is a forty minute train journey from London, and is where Roald Dahl lived and worked from 1954 until his death in 1990.  During these years he wrote many of his most famous children’s books, and you can even visit some of the places that inspired scenes; such as the library Matilda Wormwood visited in Matilda and the gas station that features in Danny the Champion of the World.

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The museum is designed for children first and foremost, and so has lots of interactive elements as well as regular story-telling events and workshops themed around different books or events, such as science week.  The main reason I visited on the 1st of March is because one such workshop was on offer, a behind-the-scenes look at the museum archives which houses original letters, manuscripts and objects that belonged to Dahl.

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While much of the information on display about Dahl’s life I already knew it was still incredibly fun and exciting to see some of the places and objects in real life.  I remember reading My Year when I was in primary school, a book about his life in the town of Great Missenden and he described his writing hut with many personal objects he had collected over the years; it was a real thrill to see them in person!

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The ‘workshop’ was definitely worth the trip.  Not only did I see some of the original copies of the letters he wrote every week to his mother but we were also shown his final school report and the original telegram he sent his mother to tell her he was in hospital after crashing his RAF fighter jet in Libya during the Second World War!  We were also shown his school sports jumper from when he was 17, so large you could easily see how he managed to end up measuring 6’5 in height!

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We also viewed some of the copious notes he had made on bugs that he might use for his novel James and the Giant Peach as well as the first draft of the novel, complete with the sticky tape where he had physically ‘cut and pasted’ the writing he wanted to keep from the page he had disposed. We also saw the original illustrations for the first editions of the novel; from before he teamed up with Quentin Blake, who went on to illustrate most of his writing.

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The final object we were shown from the archives was Dahl’s original first finished draft of Fantastic Mr. Fox although it was originally titled “Mr. Fox”.  He had written his draft in a book and planned the illustrations as he had originally intended it to be a children’s picture book, not just a book with pictures in it.  However, his original story featured the foxes tunnelling into a supermarket to steal the food and his publishers rejected it as they didn’t want to publish a book that condoned shoplifting!

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I especially liked that the room where we saw the archives was called:

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The museum is both interesting and fun, with little story ideas booklets and a pencil given to every child and lots of things to do, touch, see and create.  There were dress-ups including his old school uniform, a height chart to measure where you stood in relation to both Dahl and many of his fictional characters, as well as rooms for children to create characters and write stories.

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I particularly liked seeing his RAF pilot helmet, photos of him and his various pets, pretend fingers from his delightfully horrifying short story for adults Man from the South and a set design from the 2009 stop-animation film version of Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Incidentally, the room was designed to look like Dahl’s own writing room.
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My visit could not be complete without a trip to the Cafe Twit for a slice of Bogtrotter Cake and a ‘Swishwiffler’ (cola and ice-cream float)!  The menu also includes mouthwatering delights such as a fizzlecrumper (lemonade float), whizzpopper (hot chocolate with marshmallows, smarties, crushed maltesers and raspberry coulis) and oompa loompa sandwiches!  The brownies looked pretty delicious too…
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After my treat I then walked through the town a little way to visit the church of St. Peter and Paul where Dahl is now buried.  Walking through the town it was easy to see why Dahl had chosen to live here, it’s such a pretty little place, very quiet with picturesque old houses and birds chirping in the surrounding woodland. It feels like you are in a lovely sleepy little English village, you can easily forget it’s only 40 minutes from London.
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Roald Dahl’s grave is just below a tree that has a memorial bench around it, with the names of his children on each side of the bench and a quote in the cement from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.  There are BFG footprints leading down to his grave, and you can see where little visitors have come here after visiting the museum and left pencils and notebooks by his grave (which I’m sure he would have liked).

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Even the graveyard was in a beautiful spot, looking over the valley at the town and while it’s sad that he is gone at least he will be remembered for a long time to come though his writing, and I like to think of him being in such a lovely setting forever.  Roald Dahl’s writing had such an impact on me when I was a child, and then later when I read his autobiographical books and his short stories.  His life was fascinating and his skill in re-telling it and creating such imaginative and memorable characters has entertained and inspired countless children over the years.  He was a master of the macabre, ‘the twist in the tale’, the ridiculous and the hilarious.  I would find it very difficult to pick a favourite from his books, I enjoyed reading and re-reading so many of them over the years and have even used some of his short stories when teaching high school students.  He is one author I would have absolutely loved to meet but at least by visiting this town, the museum and his grave I have fulfilled an ambition I have held for many years! 🙂
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If you would like to know more about the museum you can visit the website here.
While I couldn’t choose just one favourite I would definitely recommend reading his autobiographical novels Boy and Going Solo simply because he had such a fascinating early life.  My Year is also a charming account of a year in the English countryside of Great Missenden.  His short story collections are also fantastic, The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Other Stories would be a good place to start if you haven’t read any of the others.  And of course his children’s books have delighted audiences both young and old for years, my favourites include The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG and of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  If you would like to know about his time spent in America during the Second World War (he was sent there as part of a team to plant propaganda encouraging the Americans to join the war) The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant is also a fascinating read.
I will leave you with a photo of Dahl on the set of the television show “Tales of the Unexpected” which aired between 1979 and 1988.  The program was initially based on his short stories, and he introduced each episode of the first two seasons.
Literary Legends Roald Dahl

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