Guest Post: Roald Dahl's Great Missenden
Roald Dahl died twenty-six years ago today. In this, his centennial year, books have been published, films released, and beer brewed in his (well-deserved) honor. Today, our correspondent in England brings us to Dahl's Great Missenden, the village he called home and where he is buried. The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, which opened in 2005, celebrates his literary legacy.--Editor
Guest Post by Catherine Batac Walder
In Roald Dahl's writing nook that's preserved behind glass, we find ucky-mucky and strange things similar to what our grandparents might have possessed. There is what appears to be a cannonball that is in fact made from hundreds of silver foil chocolate wrappers, presumably Cadbury Dairy Milk, which he ate every day while working in London.
No doubt Dahl loved his chocolate, and he devoted a chapter to it in The Roald Dahl Cookbook. In it he charted a 'history of chocolate,' seven glorious years that started from Crunchie in 1930 to Kit Kat in 1937 (as someone with Norwegian parentage, it would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on Kit Kat vs. Kvikk Lunsj). I overheard a young boy looking for "Dahl's bone" and that would indeed sound gruesome if you didn't know he meant a piece of Dahl's femur bone, removed during one of his hip replacement operations, now a paperweight. Dahl also had a glass bottle containing shavings from his spine, from several operations on his back to ease wartime injury problems. These objects were once housed in Dahl's writing hut at the bottom of his garden in Great Missenden. They were in the inner part of the hut where Dahl wrote his books, which was transferred to the nearby Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre a few years ago.
We didn't go to museum when we first visited the village in 2011, and instead searched for Dahl's home, Gypsy House, and the writing hut, which were understandably not open to the public. Months later, Dahl's family's appeal to raise £500,000 to save the hut (and a further £500,000 for the interactive exhibitions) in a recession-stricken England received a lot of criticism. The hut was built in the 1950s by Dahl's friend Wally Saunders, who was also the inspiration for The BFG. Built only of a single layer of bricks and insulated by polystyrene blocks, it wasn't made to last. Moving it would cost a lot of money--bear in mind that the hut was left untouched since Dahl's death in 1990, so the objects there were probably damaged and crumbling. The project required for nearly 300 objects to be checked for bugs or mold and treated for damages. This wasn't just packing an ordinary room, this was now a museum and conservators were needed to do the job. Hundreds of photographs and measurements were taken to keep a record, as in every paperclip and the hole it made pinning a photograph on the polystyrene, should go back to where it should be. Once packed, further treatment and freezing were required to keep away bugs. Old curled postcards and photographs were dry and brittle and thus needed to be softened carefully by re-humidifying them with damp air. Included in the move was real dust swept up from the hut floor and baked to kill any bugs, giving the place a "never cleaned" look. Only the contents were moved as the building itself was too big to house in the gallery. In a way, it was sad to think that the humble garden shed that served as a story factory, would just be left to rot.
Other curiosities at the museum included pages from Dahl's manuscripts. He mainly wrote by hand, and with a pencil. "There are six children in this book," he wrote in an earlier draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There was something for film fans as well, such as Mr. Fox's study, the original set from Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and I only realized it then that details of Dahl's writing hut were recreated in the film. At the entrance of the museum are the gates from Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), that is, smaller replica ones donated by Warner Bros., as the ones in the film were too large.
Dahl's 100th birthday was in September, and schools in England celebrated it by encouraging students to dress up as their favorite Dahl character. Recently, my daughter's homework was to read Revolting Rhymes and create one to share with the class. There is a lot of Dahl being done at school so I thought it was time to go back to Great Missenden. Places of interests in the village include the library where Matilda read all those books, the petrol pumps in Danny the Champion of the World, and the Crown House which was the inspiration for the orphanage in The BFG. The Post Office that received hundreds of sacks of letters every year from fans all around the world still stands, and when Dahl was alive, the postman would deliver up to 4,000 letters every week to this house. In the village is also the Church of Peter and Paul, where Dahl is buried. His gravesite is marked by a tree surrounded by a memorial bench carrying the names of his children and stepchildren. There are BFG footprints from the bench to the grave. Carved into stone slabs around the bench are lines from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me which could bring tears to anyone's eyes:
"We have tears in our eyes, as we wave our goodbyes, we so loved being with you, we three. So please now and then, come see us again, the Giraffe and the Pelly and me."
As we walked on that cold autumn day, I told my daughter that it was in this village that Roald Dahl lived for thirty-six years till his death, "just imagine him walking these paths all the time," I said to her, "and shivering," the freezing daughter added.
If you're visiting and have more time, go beyond and explore the countryside. Though admittedly, there was so much to see and do within the museum itself that it felt like a day wasn't enough. Pre-booking a visit was advised. You book an hour slot although apparently you could turn up any time, and a wrist band would allow you to get in and out of the museum for the day (which isn't ideal during school holidays when this small and popular museum really gets busy). We went during term time on a Sunday and it was fine. Parking in the village is very limited so visitors are advised to go by train.
My favorite things at the museum were Dahl's replica writing chair in which we sat and just wished that some of his magic would rub off on us. There was the rolled up paper underneath his writing board to keep it in place and the clothes brush he used to clean the board every day before he began writing. The brush is believed to have been from his Repton School days and had "R. DAHL" carved by hand on the back of it. I liked that he used nothing fancy to write and it reminded me that however intimidating he looked with his towering height and success, above all, he was a granddad and in BFG speak, just plain hopscotchy and fun.
--Catherine Batac Walder is a writer who lives in the UK. She has contributed several posts from abroad over the years, including "Sherlock Holmes in Switzerland," "The Making of Harry Potter," and "James Joyce's 'Years of Bloom' in Trieste." Find her at: http://gaslighthouse.blogspot.com.
Images: Dahl's writing hut behind glass; A list of words kept with the first draft manuscript for The BFG; Dahl's grave. Credit: Catherine Batac Walder.