A storybook holiday
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What strikes first-time visitors as they head out of Heathrow and into the English countryside is the greenery. Acres and acres of undulating meadows conjure up images of stories hidden among the trees, old churches and cottages that dot the landscape. Unbidden, from the recesses of the mind, come visions of scenes from our childhood—the locales described so vividly in the books of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie.
However, this is not a story that is going to wax eloquent about England’s countryside. It is a story about two museums and a story centre.
This city of spires is just the sort of place you may have dreamt of if you are a lover of books and stories. A quick coffee at the quaint Oxford Story Museum Café (the management values its privacy—“staff and fictional characters only”, warns the notice on the staff door) on a windy day sets you up for what is to come.
The Story Museum (entry fee: £7.50, or Rs615, per adult and £5 per child, free for those under 2) has two floors on which a child or adult can get lost. Bang in the middle of busy Oxford, on Pembroke Street, each corner of the museum is inspired by a story. Our tour of the wonderland started with Wild About Colour, a tribute to the late Brian Wildsmith, who created more than 80 vividly coloured picture books in the 1960s and 1970s. It also featured illustrations from 12 modern illustrators—from Anthony Browne to Shaun Tan—who share Wildsmith’s passion for colour.
Move on through the Animal Stories and World Stories rooms and you come to the Talking Throne room. Pick an outfit, choose the title that best describes you, perch on the throne and hear it name what you are holding in your hands.
On the first floor is the Bedtime Stories room, complete with a giant story bed and cuddly toys. With many picture story books at hand, what could be better than reading out a story while in bed? Leading off from the bedroom is a room that plays lullabies as you step in. Sit back in the dimly-lit room and listen to the songs wafting out. Finished? Walk up to the Mad Hatter’s table in the room opposite and enjoy tea time in Wonderland. The table has riddles strewn across it—exercise your wits.
The next stop is the pièce de résistance: a wardrobe with the doors invitingly ajar. Push them open and step into the magical world of Narnia, complete with the White Witch’s sleigh. The cold and snow make it an unforgettable experience.
“You must visit Great Missenden,” said our host Jo Williams, whose 350-year-old cottage in the village of Aldbourne, Wiltshire, is a tourist’s delight too. “Oh yes,” I thought to myself, “the place I’ve always wanted to see.” The quiet and unassuming village of Great Missenden, 56km from London (in Buckinghamshire), was home to one of Britain’s greatest children’s writers. This is Roald Dahl country: The author lived here for 36 years, until his death.
Walk down the village and you will come across Crown House (the inspiration for Sophie’s ‘norphanage’ in BFG). The Great Missenden Library is where ‘Matilda’ spent many a happy hour. Further down the high street is the Red Pump Garage petrol station, which inspired the garage in Danny, The Champion Of The World.
At the heart of the village is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre (tickets: £6.50 per person). In true Dahl style, it has the extraordinary and the not-so-ordinary (Dahl’s hip-ball socket falls in the latter category) on show. Dahl’s writing hut, moved from the garden in his house to the museum (Dahl’s house itself is out of bounds to visitors), has pride of place.
The Gloriumptitous Museum Guide has 40 fun facts and interesting things to do. There’s more. Take a walk, or two: the Roald Dahl Countryside Trail or the Roald Dahl Village Trail. The Countryside Trail takes you through Angling Spring Wood, home to Dahl’s iconic Fantastic Mr. Fox. Set aside the better part of a day to relive Dahl’s world.
If you are not planning to move out of London, drop in at the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford (entry fee: £6.50 per person and £22 for a family of four). The tube is the best way to get there. With its distinctive red flags, the centre is hard to miss.
Discover, which contains the Story World and Story Garden, calls itself a place where children and their families can enjoy playing, learning and making up stories together. The centre is targeted at children up to 11 years old.
The two floors of Story World are dotted with giant trees, a steamship, stories, games and, most fascinatingly, Hootah’s Hollow. Hootah is a visiting alien collecting stories since everyone on his planet has run out of imagination. The outdoor Story Garden has a monster tongue slide, a spacecraft and a pirate ship, giant musical instruments and a quiet glade to listen to stories.
The centre also hosts temporary interactive exhibitions based on children’s authors. We were lucky enough to catch Dr Seuss and his creations. This wonderland allows children to climb on to the Once-Ler’s (from The Lorax) cart or play music with the Boom Band (you step on a square and hear a note, step off and it falls silent). Vivid illustrations from books like The Cat In The Hat and Green Eggs And Ham make the magic come alive. With a bookshop and a café to complement the storytelling area, it is certainly worth a visit, or more.
M. Venkatesh is the co-founder of the children’s literature festival Bookaroo.