As Roald Dahl fans count down the days until the UK release of Steven Spielberg’s film of The BFG, we took our four children to visit the museum dedicated to his work and explore the village he loved so much.
‘Look, the window’s open,’ shouts Emil, our eight-year-old to his three sisters as they all stare up at the old timbered house.
‘That’s the window where the BFG snatched Sophie,’ he says emphasising each word to stress their great importance.
Our two youngest girls stare up at the window nervously, their mouths open slightly like the window itself. They look in equal measure impressed and terrified.
The residents of No 70, High Street, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, must have grown accustomed to the shouts of children and stares of adults, for although it appears people are home, no one looks out.
Emil continues to regale our girls with stories of the BFG until his older sister Yasmine takes pity on their vivid imaginations and realising that if he carries on she will be kept awake by their nightmares stops him by kindly saying, ‘It’s only a story, there were never any real giants walking up this high street.’
But, in fact, a big friendly giant did indeed walk along this very street. Roald Dahl himself was an impressive 6ft 5 and this was the village he lived in and loved for the last 36 years of his life.
Along the narrow high street are reminders of places that inspired his great stories. Just past No 70 is the Red Garage Pump that appeared in Danny Champion of the World. It’s no longer a petrol station, although the pumps have been preserved much to the appreciation of my children who pay homage to them and talk about how much they loved the story.
On a former coaching inn opposite is a giant mural of the BFG and in huge words, ‘It is truly swizzfiggingly flushbunkingly gloriumptious.’ It’s impossible not to laugh at the outrageous words on the building and we resolve that we must do the same to the outside of our house. This is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.
Through the archway are the gates of Mr Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Well, they would have been the gates. Warner Bros agreed to donate them to the museum, but unfortunately the gates from the 2005 film were simply too large. So they very kindly created replica smaller ones.
The inside of the museum lives up to the expectations from the outside. There are three rooms to explore with exhibits about both his life and his writing process.
All our children love it. Yasmine, 10, loves seeing the inspiration for his ideas and learning how his wonderfully eccentric stories were inspired by his experiences in life.
Emil loves the model of The Nags Head made for Fantastic Mr Fox and the props of the tortoise catcher itself, from the film version of Esio Trot. He loves the hand written manuscript of a speech Dahl gave to American students explaining how he got the idea for the story while visiting his daughter in her apartment and spotting a tortoise on the balcony below.
Sissi and Summer love the dressing up box and glueing bright feathers and gems on pictures with no one minding the mess.
The best bit, they all agree, is Dahl’s writer’s hut, which has had the front wall removed, and now sits behind glass exactly as he left it.
Dahl visited his hut every day for 30 years to sit and write. It’s full of eccentric, magical objects, like a heavy ball made up of wrappings of chocolate bars, his father’s silver paper knife, bits of bone from his much operated on spine and a pot of the yellow Dixon Ticonderoga pencils which he imported from the US and insisted on always using.
The first thing he did when he got to his writers hut around 10am was sharpen six No 2 pencils.
When all of the pencils needed to be sharpened again he knew that he had written for a couple of hours and it was time for lunch.
The old winged armchair has a hole in the back to support a lump in his back, a lasting legacy from a crash landing as an RAF pilot in World War II.
There’s a wooden writing board covered in green billiard cloth balanced across the arms.
‘It’s as if he has just got up after finishing his work,’ says Yasmine who is fascinated by the hut.
After the museum we walk the paths through the fields where red kites swoop dramatically towards the woods behind his home, Gipsy House.
It is now owned by his granddaughter Sophie Dahl, a writer and model famous in her own right and her husband, musician Jamie Cullum.
We can just make out the windows where Dahl would have climbed up the ladder to his younger daughters’ bedroom window and tapped on the glass and shook the curtains to scare them after telling them early versions of the BFG at bedtime.
We imagine him taking his children for walks in these very woods and delighting them with stories of Fantastic Mr Fox. We don’t need to look for the magic, it’s here, in the stories of the woods.
Our last stop is the Church of St Peter and St Paul where Dahl is buried, according to reports, with a bottle of Burgundy, snooker cues, pencils, and a power saw.
From the stone, there are giant BFG footprints to a memorial bench. The bench encircling a tree carries the names of Dahl’s five children and three step children. On the stone slabs around the base of the bench is an extract from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.
‘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 and see us again,
The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.’
As we say our goodbyes, my children shout out, ’We love your stories, thanks for writing them.’
We hope it would have made Dahl smile.
Our favourite Roald Dahl quotes:
“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” – The Twits
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.” – The Witches
“I am the maker of music, the dreamer of dreams!” – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.” – Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
“Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous…” – Matilda
“Two rights don’t equal a left.” – The BFG
“Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.” – Matilda
“A message to the children who have read this book. When you grow up and have children of your own, do please remember something important. A stodgy parent is no fun at all! What a child wants -and DESERVES- is a parent who is SPARKY!” – Danny the Champion of the World
“There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there, you’ll be free if you truly wish to be.”
Visit: The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre
81-83 High Street, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, HP16 0AL