Last week I spent a magical day stepping back into my childhood and into Roald Dahl’s footsteps in the town he called home for over 30 years, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. I loved Dahl’s books as a child, I have such fond memories of my parents and teachers reading to me. I am reading Danny the Champion of the World to Mr G for the 3rd time currently, and it is an absolute joy, I’ll be honest, Dahl is one of few kids’ authors I really relish reading. With the BFG about to be released and his centenary ahead in September, there has never been a better time to understand the man behind the books. Here’s how my day unfolded…
We slip out of Marylebone station, the Buckinghamshire place names become quirkier with each stop, I can’t help but feel we are in Dahl territory. Above Great Missenden station a red kite circles, I recognise it’s distinctive forked tail, this beautiful bird of prey is the only signal that there is something unusual about this fairly sleepy looking village. We are told Great Missenden becomes more great as you wander through it, sure enough a right turn and we are on the high street, outside a the post office where Dahl received over 4000 letters a week.
Across the road a small, incongruous 1970s building stands back from the line of pretty cottages, this is the library Dahl envisioned Matilda frequenting. A short walk along the road stand two bright red vintage petrol pumps, the inspiration for the garage in Danny Champion of the World. The next house along, Crown House, number 70 is where Dahl imagined Sophie’s bedroom in The BFG, our guide Isabelle, from the Roald Dahl museum, likes to imagine the former/garret window is Sophie’s. It’s fascinating to discover that Dahl found so much inspiration right under his nose.
The high street gives way to a small lane lined with beautiful country cottages leading up to the church and Dahl’s grave. Around a tree a ring of wooden seats inscribed with the names of his children and step children and around the floor, carved in the flagstones are words. I begin to read not knowing what to expect and by the end the tears are in my eyes too, it’s a beautiful sentiment coming from his children, but also perfectly epitomises the lasting greatness of Roald Dahl’s words.
We have tears in our eyes
As we wave our goodbyes,
We so loved being with you, we three.
So do please now and then
Come and see us again,
The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.
There are even giant BFG footsteps leading down to Dahl’s grave, even in death he is surrounded by stories. Up here on the hill overlooking the village you can sense why Dahl was so happy and inspired here.
By the time we take a right turn a few houses further down the high street into the museum, my head is full of questions and I can’t wait to discover more about the man himself. I find myself sat in a replica of Dahl’s office which gives you an uncanny insight into Dahl’s methods as a writer. You can see his actual office too, behind glass, as this precious writerly resource was painstakingly transferred from his garden to the museum.
He designed the curious desk set up himself, he described it as his ‘nest’ or a ‘womb’, others say it is like the cockpit of a fighter plane, which Dahl flew in the war. A wing back armchair, a wooden board with green snooker cloth and a roll of corrugated card to raise the board up to the right angle. I loved it, once you are in, you are in, you feel committed and focussed, there can be no wriggling out of writing. Dahl would settle in to this set up for two hours at a time, twice a day, he was a creature of incredible habit.
He always wrote on specially imported yellow, lined legal pads and used DIXON Ticonderoga pencils, he would sharpen six pencils before starting work, I absolutely love the ritualistic nature of his writing habits. The engraved shoe brush was used to brush away rubber crumbs from the green baize.
What fascinated me most of all about his office was the treasures he kept on a side table, from the hip bone removed in surgery – the largest the surgeon had ever seen – to a bottle of bone shavings from an operation to relieve back pain, the result of being forced to crash land his fighter plane. Looking at his table you can see where so many of the weird and wonderful ideas in his books came from. On the wall was a picture of his family picking apples, the inspiration for James and the Giant Apple, which eventually morphed into a peach.
I brought home a wonderful book all about the significance of each object, and a headful of writerly tips and inspirations. Mr G was blown away by this book and the pictures of the objects, probably because they resemble so many of the treasures he has stashed away in his room. He immediately created his own writing desk covered with them and began to dictate his next novel to me!
I also loved having a play in the museum, my favourite part was the stop motion, you can see my story about the pirate, the tiger, the sting ray and the elephant taking shape below. Again, goes to show that having the right inspiring props to hand is all you need to start the creative juices flowing.
The last part of my day was spent exploring the trail into the woods, the inspiration for Danny Champion of the World, my favourite of Dahl’s books, what a beautiful book about father-son relationships. I watched children walking home from school though the woods – an incredible journey to make on a daily basis – and imagined so many of the scenes from Danny unfolding.
Dahl’s books are such a window into my childhood and I really cherished the chance to explore this on my own and find out more about the man who wrote them – I could share so much here, but you need to discover that for yourself. I absolutely recommend this to anyone who read, or was read Dahl as a child, or who loves to write creatively. I can’t wait to take my kids too, it will be a completely different but equally magical experience and I blown away by how just telling them about Roald Dahl’s shed has left them wide eyed and inspired.
The museum is bursting with amazing things, but it is small, so plan when to visit, half term weekdays are the most busy. Weekends in holiday time are often less busy. The museum is closed on some Mondays.
You can come and go as you please, so do pick up town and woodland trail guides from the museum and fully explore the village too. Family Ticket £21 (2 adults and up to 3 children)
Eat local – Dahl’s very own local, The Nag’s Head is a gorgeous pub animated in Fantastic Mr Fox and the food is amazing!
- For more ideas and inspiration on holidays at home, visit www.visitengland.com
- THE BFG will be released nationwide on 22 July
- Roald Dahl’s centenary is on 17 September, when the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre will become the Museum of the Unexpected. Check www.roalddahl.com/museum for more information
- Chiltern Railways operates services from London Marylebone to destinations in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and the West Midlands. Chiltern’s services are now running from Oxford Parkway to London Marylebone and will launch from Oxford in December 2016.www.chilternrailways.co.uk