If you happen to be in London with a 6- and 9-year old and your 6- and 9-year old companions happen to enjoy the likes of Matilda Wormwood, James Henry Trotter, Charlie Bucket, Sophie and the like, then you truly must hop aboard the Chiltern Rail out to Great Missenden for a treat. (Thank you Campbell family!) Not only is the train ride an experience unto itself, the journey out into the English country offers a nice respite from the weight of just being in London. Your 6-year-old companion might even comment about how “peaceful” it is out in Great Missenden.For many years and even a few decades, Great Missenden was the home of Roald Dahl, and for ten years now, only one decade, Great Missenden has been the home of the Roald Dahl home and museum. The walk from the train station to the Dahl museum is mostly along a crescent of a street, no wider than those oversized Humvees that masquerade as passenger vehicles – indeed, on several occasions, the 36-year old among us noticed cars having to pull to the side, their left tires up on the curb, in order to allow other cars to pass. And these were regular sized cars, nothing special at all. All the buildings, two stories tall and without any space between, make it feel like some impossibly quaint village where there is a single baker and a single postal carrier and just one employee for the local newspaper, which really isn’t a newspaper at all, but a weekly flier handed out to the shops along the row, the proprietors of which live within walking distance and who are the only customers at the other shops anyway so the newspaper printer really need only print a single copy of the flier because by the end of the week, everyone in town would have visited every other person in town at least once and the presence of the flier in every single shop visited by every single resident is likely superfluous, if comforting.
But the real treat is the museum and home itself, beginning with the gift shop, which brings to life the familiar characters in a whole tradoodlian way. Indeed, it was not until the gift shop that the 36-year old realized what a central part the characters of Mr. Dahl have come to play within this particular family. One is reminded of the 35-year old’s BFG voice during family read alouds, listening to the entirety of Jeremy Irons’s absolutely incredible rendition of James and the Giant Peach on audiobook along the drive to St. Louis (an extraordinary presentation of Aunts Sponge and Spiker), the soul-sisterly connection between the 9-year old and Matilda on page and stage (not screen). Here they all were, together.
Here we learn about the candy horder that provided Dahl – and ultimately Charlie – with the desperate longing for chocolate. Next we discover that it was originally James and the Giant Cherry and that the BFG’s companion (Sophie) was initially male. Over there is Roald Dahl’s advice to aspiring author’s young and old (needs: lively imagination, stamina, strong self-discipline, sense of humor, drive for perfection, reserve of humility). The biography of the author is told in an engaging way, the centerpiece being the quirky author’s hut that he had constructed in his backyard in Great Missenden, now relocated onto the museum’s grounds and staged as the author left it, complete with questionables like the top of the author’s hipbone, which was presented to him after surgery to remove it. A mythical and specially-constructed (Dahl suffered physically after injuries sustained after being shot down while piloting for the Royal Air Force in World War II) and utterly worn out chair is at the center of this hut, the legal pads and pencils nearby, the felt-covered lap desk held at just the right height by a constantly evolving roll of paper – photos of the 6- and 9-year old included. And so the museum is a celebration of (in the following level of importance in the opinion of one 36-year old visitor) (1) the characters Roald Dahl created, (2) the process of writing and rewriting and writing some more, (3) the gift of imagination, and (4) the life of Roald Dahl.
Highlights for the 6-year old included measuring himself against the height of Dahl characters (he stands right in the sweet spot near Oompa Loompas, Bruce Bogtrotter, and right even with Sophie). Highlights for the 9-year old included sitting on the floor of the actual library Matilda visited while her mother was off playing Bingo (not actually in the museum, but down the street and thoroughly enjoyed for its simplicity). And both the 35- and 36-year old photographed the following quote:
“Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
PS- Dahl-mania continued the following day with a visit to the West End to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (clever and fun, but not as special as Matilda on the stage).
PPS- Other London highlights include: building fairy houses in Kensington Gardens, stumbling into the WonderGround near the London Eye, catching a parrot on a hand in Hyde Park, riding on lots of double decker buses, reading at a café after taking tea, Snog frozen yogurt atop the Snog bus along the Thames. Lowlights can hopefully be forgotten, but one closing bit of advice – if you are in London with a 6- and a 9-year old and you have an opportunity to purchase tickets to an Arsenal match on craigslist, do not do it. Still, to reiterate from Mr. Dahl: Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.