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Julie Conway

Roald Dahl Museum
Children's Books, Family Travel, UK Travel

Celebrating the BFG film release

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.Roald Dahl Centenary Story - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England.

‘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.

Roald Dahl Centenary - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England. The Roald Dahl Museum

Roald Dahl Centenary Story - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England. The Roald Dahl Museum.

Roald Dahl Centenary Story - Great Missenden ,Buckinghamshire, England. The Preserved Writing Shed at the Roald Dahl Museum.

 

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

 

 

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Nature’s Most Romantic Song – The Nightingale

The sound is so clear it wraps itself around us like a warm blanket.  It’s 8.30pm and the liquid trills and repeated phrases serenade us as we sit in the garden on long cushions delighted by this beautiful evening concert.

The melody is endlessly varied. For about an hour the bird sings in deep, clear notes. Yasmine, 10, sits happily wrapped up in the same blanket as me, enchanted by the performance which like an opera carries us on a journey. We understand the words even though it’s in a different language.

It’s the nightingale. The beautiful, nocturnal chorister. He’s flown 3,000 miles from west Africa to reach the UK.

19 May 1924 was the first day radio listeners heard a cello playing while nightingales sang, live from a Surrey garden. The cellist was Beatrice Harrison, who had recently performed the British debut of Delius's Cello Concerto, which had been written for her. The nightingales were the birds in the woods around Harrison's home in Oxted, who were attracted by the sound of her cello.

19 May 1924 was the first day radio listeners heard a cello playing while nightingales sang, live from a Surrey garden. The cellist was Beatrice Harrison, who had recently performed the British debut of Delius’s Cello Concerto, which had been written for her. The nightingales were the birds in the woods around Harrison’s home in Oxted, who were attracted by the sound of her cello.

May is the best time to hear nightingales as the males who arrive first sing to establish territory and attract a mate.

Sussex, Suffolk and Kent are the best places in the UK to hear the nightingales song.

Nightingale Tales:

In 1924, a famous cellist, Beatrice Harrison was practicing in her garden in Oxted, Surrey, when she heard the nightingale respond with its own song to her beautiful tune.

Night after night she played and the bird sang with her. She wanted to share her extraordinary experience and persuaded BBC radio to record it.

Lord Reith, founder and director general of the BBC initially didn’t support the idea, complaining it was a costly and unpredictable exercise as birds could be prima donnas.

The engineers prepared the microphone, Beatrice played, the broadcast was live…but the nightingale was silent.

Then finally 15 minutes before the end of the broadcast, he sung and sung.

The public were enthralled. The performance was so popular it was repeated the next month and then every spring for 12 years.

Here is a clip of Beatrice Harrison’s cello and nightingale duet, 19 May 1924 on BBC Radio.

Did a nightingale sing in Berkeley Square? Romantics all over the world who love the British wartime song written in 1939 would like to believe they did.

Doubters say almost certainly not as nightingales prefer woodland with a dense undergrowth. But nightingales were once found in London. We know the nightingales on Hampstead Heath inspired Keats to write his Ode to a Nightingale.

 

One February, Margaret Thatcher is reported to have told a senior official that she heard a nightingale singing outside 10 Downing Street. The aide, a keen birdwatcher, explained that she must be mistaken as the nightingale is a woodland bird and a late spring migrant.

The Prime Minister kept insisting, but the aide was equally determined. On the third time her private secretary intervened and said discreetly, ‘If the Prime Minister says she heard a nightingale, then she heard a nightingale.’

The beautiful song of a nightingale singing in East Sussex. This was recorded from our garden last night.

 

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Halcyon Days

Photo: Stuart Conway

Photo: Stuart Conway

A tantalising glimpse of the electric blue and orange stripe of a kingfisher streaking past me and I was hooked.

I waited all day, tried to spot it again, but nothing.
What is it about kingfishers? Once you’ve seen them, they work their way into your consciousness and you have to see them again. It becomes an obsession. I needed to see these birds.
For years they eluded me, and it definitely wasn’t for want of trying. I’d sit in bird hides all day, brave nettles and brambles along quiet river paths where there were reports that they’d been spotted.
I started to think the only time I’d ever see them was on the side of one of my favourite mugs.
It was my eight-year-old son, Meely (Emil,) who unlocked the key to this mysterious bird for me. We’d been sitting in a hide waiting and watching. It was late afternoon and I could hear the rest of my family in the hill above, playing in the bluebell covered woods. I had the picnic bag and I knew our girls would be getting hungry.
I packed up my binoculars, flask and notepad and assumed Meely would be relieved to be leaving after sitting so still for so long.
But he refused to move, his eyes transfixed on the river.
‘We can’t leave, he’s here I know he’s here,’ he said with absolute certainty and determination.
‘We’re not going to see him, I’m so sorry,’ I said.
I got up and stood by the door ready to lift the heavy wooden latch, but he still wouldn’t come.
‘Lets go,’ I said, ‘I can’t see him.’
‘No, but I can hear him,’ said Meely. ‘He’s been calling, the sound is close we are going to see him.’
And at that moment the beautiful elusive bird, called with his distinctive sharp whistle…. zoomed in to the branch and sat on it, while another hovered, wings fluttering before disappearing down the river.
The king of birds sat on the branch for almost a minute and then disappeared. I felt elated, at last I’d seen this special bird. I hugged Meely tight. He was so proud, he chattered and chattered about every detail, every moment.
 
He taught me the most important lesson, to spot a kingfisher, listen first, then look. Now I hear them regularly. And most of the time I see them too.
And everytime I still feel the same elation and I’m grateful to my boy.
K2

Photos: Stuart Conway

Did you know…
The ancient Greeks called the bird the ‘halcyon.’ They believed the female built her nest on the waves and the Gods calmed the seas while she brooded her eggs around the time of the winter solstice.
Now the phrase, ‘halycon days’ refers to nostalgic summer days even though the original halcyon days were in winter.
Kingfishers build their nests in a burrow 60-90cm deep into a sandy riverbank. 
They bring more than 100 fish everyday to feed their brood.
At 24-25 days old the chicks are usually ready to leave the nest.

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The Best of the Bluebells

‘When I grow up, I want to be a fairy,’ says our five-year-old Sissi as she balances along the trunk of fallen tree, in a field of bluebells.
The wind creates a ripple of radiant violet blue. The bluebells nod to one another, respectfully bowing to the unseen nature spirits. 
‘Chiff Chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff.’ The beautiful olive brown birds with the stripe across their eyes sing joyfully announcing their arrival from the Mediterranean or West Africa.
It’s the best time of year to see the Chiff Chaff, as they dart around the tree canopy, singing loudly to establish a breeding territory. When the trees are in full leaf, they will rarely be seen in the open, choosing to hide in their green leafy world.
So quick, get outside. Enjoy the the bluebells and Chiff Chaffs now, while the sunlight is warming the forest floor, before the leaves cover the forest canopy once again.
Shot with a super telephoto Canon 400mm2.8 & 2x Converter

Shot with a super telephoto Canon 400mm2.8 & 2x Converter

April Bluebells in Sussex

April Bluebells in Sussex

 

HERE ARE SOME OF THE  BEST PLACES TO SEE BLUEBELLS IN THE UK.
Hole Park Gardens, East Sussex
Hole Park, Benenden Road, Rolvenden, Kent, TN17 4JA
Blickling Estate, Norfolk
Blickling, Bickling, Norfolk NR11 6NF 
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River Walking

Splash in the water, scramble over the stones, slide off rocks. We took our family to the River Barle in Somerset for a fantastic adventure.

There’s something magical about a river where salmon choose to lay their eggs. The young salmon then swim out to sea, some as far as Greenland, before returning as adults to lay their own eggs.
‘If I were a salmon, I’d be happy to start my journey in this river,’ says Emil our seven-year-old son. The River Barle in Somerset looks like a grand avenue with ancient trees, their branches hanging over the water, marking its ceremonial route on both sides.

We start our two kilometre circular walk at the Tarr Stepps ‘clapper’ bridge. Seventeen huge stone slabs make a majestic path across the river.

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Perfectly Puffin

Every year thousands of puffins land on a select few islands and we have three short months to see them before they go out to sea again for the rest of the year.
We took our four children to the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland for their annual puffin pilgrimage.
There’s a storm brewing. The sea has turned a menacing petrol blue.
‘I’m sorry we have to cancel,’ says the captain. ‘You won’t enjoy it, there’s 47mph winds predicted. You don’t want to get thrown around on a boat out there.’
But that’s where he was wrong. My husband Stuart and my children don’t care about getting thrown around. They do care, however, about seeing the puffins.
The puffins have been elusive to us this year. We were in Scotland hoping to sail from Anstruther, in Fife, to the Isle Of May to visit them, but bad weather kept cancelling the boat.
Undeterred, we drove to Northumberland to try our luck in the Farne Islands, a seabird nirvana that we’d always intended to visit.
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Fossil Hunting in Watchet, Somerset

The film Jurassic World is creating a box office sensation, breaking records as the highest grossing debut of all time. We decided to take our children on a real Jurassic adventure and we discovered a vivid picture of what it was really like at the time of the dinosaurs.
 ‘Look up at the sky,’ says geologist Dr Andy King.
‘Imagine that all the seagulls you see flying above us are pterodactyls that look a bit like giant winged lizards.
‘If we were standing on this sand 195 million years ago, we would have been standing at the bottom of the sea.’
‘Look up again and imagine you are watching thousands of ammonites swimming around like enormous squids, with their tentacles extending from their shells waiting to catch their prey.’
My oldest children Yasmine, 9, and Emil, 7, are captivated by every word. Their four-year-old  sister Sissi keeps looking up at the sky nervously as if expecting flying dinosaurs to appear at any moment.
‘Now lets go and find some ammonites,’ says Dr King.
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Six Go On A Highland Adventure – Tanera Mòr, Summer Isles, Scotland

‘Let me get this straight. You are taking four children aged 9 years to 18 months on a train, car, boat and then smaller boat to an island where there are no cars, no shops, no TV and no internet,’ said my best friend her voice getting higher and higher as she realised from the look on my face that I was serious.
‘It’s a great idea,’ I said a little too cheerily, as her words seemed to bring home the monumental nature of the task.
The idea was simple, we wanted our children to experience the sense of freedom to explore that we had when we were children.
‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could let them be truly wild. It would be so good for them,’ I said to my husband Stuart, getting carried away with the idea after finishing a chapter from Swallows and Amazons.
I went online searching for a wild adventure and somehow the Summer Isles off the coast of the Highlands in Scotland popped up and I was sold.
Only one of the Summer Isles is inhabited, the beautiful Tanera Mòr. It has just six holiday cottages, a tiny post office and cafe, no cars, no modern life intruding. Bliss.

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Snorkelling with Humpback Whales in Tonga

Looking down into the water, all I could see was the blue abyss. Then I looked up, and there she was: a 45ft humpback, floating just 20 feet away. In that moment, everything stopped. A marine encounter to top swimming with dolphins – swimming with whales.

By Julie Conway

For years I had longed to swim close to them and explore their world. And for months I had planned my trip, waiting patiently while they made their migration from Antarctica to Vava’u, a string of tiny islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, in the South Pacific seas, where they gather in large numbers to mate and give birth.

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Photography – in The Galapagos

How to make the most of your camera in the Galapagos. Stuart Conway, an award-winning photographer, tells Julie Conway .

Splat. A splodge of goo landed right on my lens. It had been snorted out of the nose of a Marine Iguana sitting inches from my camera. Another narrowly missed my arm. This dragon-like creature wasn’t telling me to get out of his space; he was expelling salt water taken in while feeding.

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