13th Sep 2010
My Three Favourite … Childhood Literary Locations
I grew up on the most dismal South East London council estate you could possibly imagine. Drugs were handed out like free newspapers, Rottweilers were the only form of wildlife with enough balls to hang around and the ice-cream man stopped coming after kids smashed his windows for a box of Cadbury’s Flakes. It wasn’t an idyllic childhood so I snatched at any form of escapism I could; mostly through books.
I delved into Wonderland, Neverland and the Dorset coastline, where I would find the ginger-beer-drinking Famous Five and countless adventures that didn’t involve trying to murder the ice-cream man. I’d spend my nights under the bedsheets with a torch and Mr. Toad (not like that, filthy) and my weekends holed up on the sofa with the Malory Towers series.
On Sundays, my Irish grandfather would take me to Portobello Market, where he busked with his accordion, and I’d sit on his case reading while he played for the market crowds. I’ll never forget the day he packed up early and said we were going on an adventure, my first adventure, and the crazy excitement I felt when he told me where this would be.
I could have died.
That Sunday was best day of my life. We walked for miles and I hopped and jumped with excitement as he pointed out the variety of homes in which my beloved fictional characters and their authors had lived. It became a regular jaunt of ours, a secret hobby, and when he passed away a couple of years ago, I carried our explorations on for the two of us and couldn’t believe how littered the UK is with these literary locations. From the real Secret Garden to the writing hut where Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG were born, England is a literary goldmine.
Roald Dahl’s Writing Hut, Buckinghamshire (pictured above)
Roald Dahl’s wonderfully wicked world is positively overflowing with bloodthirsty giants, fantastical potions, snozzcumbers, frobscottle, gruesome teachers and monstrously ugly witches. It is a place where strange and extraordinary things happen and where good triumphs over evil in the most deliciously disgusting ways.
Five times a year, you can visit Gispy House on the outskirts of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, where Dahl lived with his family for 36 years. Each event is a celebration of Roald Dahl’s life with dancers, bands and magicians invading the garden for a huge party. Concealed by a mass of trees at the bottom of the garden is the main attraction true Dahl fans however; for here, you’ll find his actual writing hut. As he stipulated the hut must not be touched – or even dusted – after his death, the interior has been preserved exactly the way he left it. His cigarette butts are still in the ashtray, and his yellow Dixon Ticonderoga pencils lay scattered on the side table amongst his various treasures; model airplanes, the top of his own hip bone (replaced in an operation), a silver ball made from the foil he collected from chocolate bars and countless photographs of his family and friends. Everything is very quiet and still inside (you’re only allowed to peek through the front door) but Roald Dahl’s dark thoughts and wicked sense of humour still seem to linger in the air. This is where the likes of The BFG, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Twits all took their first breaths, and the setting seems precisely perfect for that purpose.
Beatrix Potter’s House, Lake District
Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s much-loved 17th century home is now owned by The National Trust. Set off the road in its haphazard garden bursting with flowers and herbs, this beautiful house has been preserved exactly as Beatrix left it. The kitchen table is set for tea, straw hat flung over the back of a chair and books strewn across the surfaces; it really does feel as though she has stepped out for a walk moments before you arrive. The house and garden are a pleasure to see and are positively littered with scenes from the books at every turn. The tin watering can on the garden wall looks particularly familiar and would certainly be big enough for a rabbit to hide in should he be caught out in a vegetable patch. Meanwhile, you will notice the garden is also where Tom Kitten and his sisters – tidy and dressed for company – were turned out among the pinks, arum lilies and Canterbury bells by Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit in The Tale of Tom Kitten. Inside, the grand old wooden dresser in the kitchen, which houses a collection of willow patterned plates, tea-cups and mugs, is exactly the same as the dresser in The Tailor of Gloucester. Don’t forget to listen out for ‘tip tap tip tapping’ under the tea-cups, for this is where the Tailor of Gloucester discovered tiny waistcoated mice and lots of concealed passageways.
Tom’s Midnight Garden, Cambridgeshire
Philippa Pearce was inspired to write Tom’s Midnight Garden by her childhood home in Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire. The Mill House and its garden are privately owned, but both the front and back garden can easily be seen from the road and riverside. Very little has changed since the young Philippa lived there with her family and it’s easy to see how this garden so directly inspired the magical midnight garden in her book. The great lawn with its colourful flowerbeds is just as inviting here as it was to Tom in the book whilst the beetle-brown yews are visibly humped into their various shapes familiar from the book, and are reflected in the glittering window-panes of the greenhouse. Yew trees form archways and secret alcoves, walls are covered in rose creepers and, to the side of the garden, an enticing gravel pathway weaves its way through thickly interlinking branches into unseen parts of the garden. You almost expect to see Tom, in his stripey blue pyjamas, creeping through the trees, or Abel, the gardener, pushing his wheelbarrow through the garden gate. The real downside of peering over the wall is that you desperately want to explore the garden properly. It is worth visiting, though, for real fans of the book.
This rather fantastic feature was a guest post from the equally fabulous Kerry Hiatt of Get Up and Out. Have you been to any of these literary locations? Or if not, have we persuaded you to investigate them when you’re next on your travels? Do you know of any other literary locations we should make a note of for the future? Tell us in the comments if so!