The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre @ Great Missenden

The museum

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is a museum in the village of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, the South of England. Children’s novelist and adult short story writer Roald Dahl lived in the village for 36 years until his death in 1990. During that time he became famous around the world, mostly for his best-selling children’s books although he did write quite a few short stories for adults on very adult themes (witness the two hefty Penguin paperback volumes of the Complete Short Stories).

But it was for children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Matilda, Danny the Champion of the World and that he became famous. At the peak of his success the local post office delivered 4,000 letters a week from young fans around the world.

After Dahl’s death, his widow, his wider family, his publishers and better-off fans all agreed it would be good to create some kind of memorial to the great man. However, the house he actually lived in and the garden where he built the famous writing shed which he worked in every day, had passed into private hands.

Then in the 2000s a derelict coaching inn and stable complex in Great Missenden High Street came on the market. The Roald Dahl trustees had the very imaginative idea of buying it and converting it into a child-focused museum, gallery, cafe and interactive space to celebrate Dahl’s life and work and to inspire new generations of storytellers.

The comprehensively refurbished space opened as the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in 2005.

Front of the Roald Dahl Museum (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

Front of the Roald Dahl Museum (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

The Museum is aimed at 6 to 12 year-olds and their families. It has three galleries along the side of the attractive cobbled yard, as well as a café and a lunch room for school trips.

Children getting creative in the Roald Dahl museum

Children getting creative in the Roald Dahl Museum

Of the three galleries, ‘Boy’ focuses on the book of the same name which describes Dahl’s boyhood adventures and experiences. ‘Solo’ features his RAF flying days and moves onto his life in Great Missenden, including an evocative recreation of the writing hut Dahl built in the garden of his house, stuffed with the cosy bric-a-brac which made him feel at home.

Inside Roald Dahl's original Writing Hut

Inside Roald Dahl’s original Writing Hut (Photo courtesy The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre)

And there’s a story centre room with crayons and paper etc where children are encouraged to create their own stories, or can gather round on the floor to discuss and share ideas.

From the museum’s bright and colourful displays I learned that:

  • Roald is pronounced Rooo-arl.
  • He was Norwegian, at least his parents were. Roald was born in Wales, in Llandaff outside Cardiff, and sent to a prep school across the Bristol Channel in England, before going on to Repton, a public school in the Midlands.
  • He was unusually tall at 6 foot six. He joined the RAF at the outbreak of the war and his fighter plane cockpit had to be adjusted for him.
The RAF section of the museum

The RAF section of the museum with a model of the kind of fighter plane he flew

He crash landed his plane in the Libyan desert and was lucky to survive; as a result, his back gave him trouble for the rest of his life. But he continued as an air ace, shooting down enemy planes for another year until finally being invalided out of the RAF in 1941. After more medical check-ups, he was sent to the USA to promote the war effort and persuade America to join the Allies.

There’s a striking photo here of tall, handsome, uniformed Roald striding next to an overweight, jowly grey-haired Ernest Hemingway.

It was a chance meeting with the adventure novelist C. S. Forester, who suggested Dahl write about his wartime experiences. The result was his first story, retelling the story of his desert crash and introducing the idea that he was shot down, which was published in the Saturday Evening Post.

The rest is the usual story of a writer’s long warfare with publishers and critics, editors of magazines and journals, until he had established himself as a writer of cruel and sardonic short stories.

Very roughly speaking Dahl wrote short stories for adults for 15 years after the war, brought together in collections like Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch. It was only in 1961 that Dahl published his first ‘novel’ for children, and what a succession of brilliant children’s fictions then poured from his pen!

  • James and the Giant Peach 1961
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1964
  • Fantastic Mr Fox 1970
  • Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator 1972
  • Danny, the Champion of the World 1975
  • The Enormous Crocodile 1978
  • My Uncle Oswald 1979
  • The Twits 1980
  • George’s Marvellous Medicine 1981
  • The BFG 1982
  • The Witches 1983

I really liked the presentation of all this in the museum. There are blown-up photos, a timeline, models, books and illustrations and notes, it’s all big and bright and attractive and interesting, and all the time there is the voice of Dahl himself reading extracts from relevant books. Thus the first room, Boy, features Dahl reading out descriptions of key incidents and adventures from the book of the same name describing his childhood.

Billy and the Minpins

There’s a small space devoted to changing exhibitions. Currently they’re displaying 14 illustrations by Quentin Blake for Dahl’s last children’s book, Billy and the Minpins. These are, as all of Blake’s illustrations, magical, and beneath each one is displayed the relevant snippet of the original hand-written manuscript of the story in Dahl’s spidery handwriting.

Cover of Billy and the Minpins by Quentin Blake

Cover of Billy and the Minpins by Quentin Blake

The shop

There’s a massive shop, featuring a wide range of merchandise as well as DVDs of all the movies made from his books, a wall of wonderful prints of some Quentin Blake illustrations and, for me, most impressive of all, a wall of his books, not only the children’s books but a range of short story collections, including the famous Tales of the Unexpected, televised in the 1980s, as well as the surprising amount of non-fiction which he wrote.

Walks

The shop is a mine of information and the staff are very knowledgeable and happy to answer questions. They also give out free leaflets describing two walks you can do: one is a tour of the village of Great Missenden, taking in places and buildings which feature in the stories; the other is a longer walk across the railway line and up to the nearby woods where Dahl took his own children to play and ramble when they were small.

I went on both walks and describe them in my walking blog. The most striking feature of Great Missenden High Street is probably the beautifully preserved vintage petrol pumps which feature in Danny The Champion of the World.

The petrol pumps in Great Missenden High Street

The petrol pumps in Great Missenden High Street

Set half a mile away from the village, on the side of a hill overlooking the valley of the little River Misbourne is the church of St Peter & St Paul, where Dahl is buried.

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Great Missenden

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Great Missenden

It’s worth mentioning that there’s currently a Chilterns Walking Festival which runs till 1 October, with lots of group walks and other activities taking place all across the region.

Great Missenden is only a 45-minute train journey from Marylebone station and the museum is a simple five-minute walk down the old High Street. What with the village walk and the opportunity for a picnic up in the woods, this makes a wonderful day out for families with small children who love any of Dahl’s books.


Related links

Walk: Charlwood circular

25 March 2012

Half an hour from Clapham Junction is Horley, a sad, characterless town centre, surrounded by wide avenues of discreetly plush houses, and then, beyond the encircling A roads, quiet villages of thatched and Tudor cottages.

15 minutes cycle brings me to Charlwood with its fabulous church of St Nicholas, complete with original medieval wall paintings. Then across fields, behind paddocks, along a road, all rather boring, but you have, without realising it, climbed up Russ Hill and now, suddenly, you turn into Mount Noddy Wood, a few wonderful acres of ancient, broad-leaved woodland, open, with no brambles or undergrowth, just miles of bright green bluebell shoots burgeoning from the grey and brown leaf litter, overarched by slender birch and beech trees, many of which have been pollarded to the ground making the multiple trunks twisted and sinuous as if they’ve frozen in mid-dance. Steps down a steep gully to the little bridge over Welland Gill, where I stopped for my picnic. Complete peace. Utter solitude, the sun filtering through the branches and glittering on the muddy little English stream. Magical!

Steps down to the bridge over Welland Gill in Mount Noddy Wood

Steps down to the bridge over Welland Gill in Mount Noddy Wood

Walk: Fulwell to Bushy Park

27 February 2012

A birthday in the family so after cake and presents, everyone goes for a big walk from Fulwell to Kingston through Bushy Park with its waterfalls, woods and deer, on a beautiful blue Spring day.

Snowdrops beginning to blow, crocuses in full bloom, daffodil stems everywhere, and pink camellias in abundance.

Bushey Park

Bushey Park

Walk: Ockley to Horley, Surrey

29 January, 2012

50 minutes from Clapham Junction and two stops south of Dorking on the Surrey/Sussex border is the isolated Victorian railway station at Ockley.

Here I saw my first stand of flowering snowdrops. Later I saw flowering crocuses, primroses and a solitary dandelion. Has Spring ever been so early?

This was meant to be a 4 mile circular walk through the fields surrounding the pretty village of Capel, but I got the bit between my teeth and decided to make it a 9 mile linear walk to Horley. It turned into a walk through muddy fields, grey woods, punctuated by four notable churches:

  • the 13th century St John the Baptist, Capel with its oak shingle spire (not much stone round here so everything was built of wood)
  • St Peter, Newdigate where I sat and ate lunch in the shadow of another wooden shingle spire
  • the best of the bunch, St Nicholas, Charlwood with its short squat stone tower and wonderful medieval wall paintings complete with dragon and skeletons (!)
  • and finally, after trudging along the muddy banks of the river Mole as it skirts the perimeter of Gatwick airport, amid the thundering A roads and airport hotels, a small oasis of Elizabethan buildings around the Grade I listed St Bartholomew, Horley.

For a walk so close to a major airport, most of the route was amazingly quiet. The dead woods still and spooky. Then fields of heavy clay, with vast muddy puddles. Then long farmtracks of flint and chalk. In Green’s Copse a sudden movement scared me and I realised it was four deer I had startled, leaping silently between the grey skeletal trees.

Walk: Puttenham Common circular

21 January 2012

£11 buys me and the boy return train tickets to Farnham in west Surrey, a small town or red brick Georgian houses, topped by a modest bishop’s castle, ruined by a one way system.

A more arduous 6 mile cycle ride than we expected (via the ruins of Waverley Abbey) brought us to Puttenham Common, an area of rare heathland. Starting at the Tarn, a fishing pond surrounded by deciduous woods, climbing gently to open heathland next to an iron age fort with views across the valley to the Hog’s Back. Dry red sand. Heather. Gorse with yellow flowers. Along a section of the North Downs Way, a climb up a muddy track floored with sandstone cobbles. Then back within sight of Lutyens’ Lascombe Farm, round and back down to the Tarn.

Cycling back we passed through a wee village named The Sands and saw more English flags flying from flagpoles in 5 minutes than I’ve seen in the last 5 years. Also the first daffodils I’ve seen flowering, anywhere.

The General's Pond, Puttenham Common

The General's Pond, Puttenham Common

Walk: Reigate to Merstham via Colley Hill

14 January 2012

£8.50 gets me and my son by train to Reigate on a beautiful frosty morning. After half an hour pootling along the high street and round the mound of the ruined castle, we walk up the A217 to a nondescript turning into a muddy lane and embark on a 2 hour circular walk, at first along the bottom of the North Downs, through bare wintry woods, and skirting disused quarries, now overgrown and full of rich auburn leaves; then up a steep zigzag track to the top of the Downs, here called Colley Hill, stopping for a sandwich and the view.

The North Downs Way runs along the top here so we abandoned the circular walk and, instead of returning to Reigate, decided to follow the Way, walking 2 miles or so down through Gatton Park, past the lake, the private school, and the golf course, to Merstham, just as the sky turned pink with sunset, to catch the London train home. The whole day cold and crisp and beautiful.

Reigate to Merstham

Path at the foot of Colley Hill

Path at the foot of Colley Hill

Walk: St Leonard’s Forest

8 January 2012

£15 buys me a return ticket to Horsham where I discover the High Weald Landscape Trail starts on the actual train platform, a waymarked trail which runs 90 miles to Rye in Kent. But I’ve come to do the first of 28 walks in the Jerrold book of walks in Surrey and Sussex, 4 miles round St Leonard’s Forest starting at Roosthole. The sky is a deep soft winter blue, criss-crossed by distant vapour trails, the woods are thronged with slender silver birch saplings, or are deep lanes lined with muscular beech trees, or the path heads uphill among the Forestry Commission’s conifer plantations. Suddenly, downhill through the trees, appears another hammer pond, scores of them round here to drive 17th century iron works. The works have disappeared utterly. The ponds remain, quiet among the forest, keeping their secrets to themselves.

Surrey and Sussex Walks (Ordnance Survey Pathfinder Guides)

Beech trees near Roosthole, Sussex

Beech trees near Roosthole, Sussex

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