Friday, January 20, 2017

The Wondercrump Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre

Outside the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre with a Big Friendly Giant (BFG) on the front

After hauling my family around England to places associated with the Brontë Sisters and Jane Austen, I thought it only fair to honor my daughter's request to visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Center. Like many children,  she's a fan of his books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Watching the musical, Matilda, based on Dahl's book of the same name was one of the highlights of our family trip to New York City. Plus, the Steven Spielberg movie adaptation of his book, The BFG, was released immediately before our trip to England. During our time in London, we crossed paths a few times with The BFG Dream Jar Trail which was set up to both promote the movie and celebrate Dahl's 100th birthday.

Simon Cowell's Dream Jar outside the Tower of London

So, it was with great excitement that we pulled up outside the museum on the High Street of Great Missenden, located about 20 miles northwest of London. This is the Buckinghamshire village where Dahl lived for 36 years after returning from life in America. The two-story museum building which was originally a carriage house has a Big Friendly Giant painted on the front looking in the window, just as he does in the book and movie. Along the same street, we spotted the dual pumps that inspired the petrol station in Dahl's 1975 book, Danny, the Champion of the World. 

Petrol pumps that inspired the petrol station in Danny, the Champion of the World

The museum is aimed at children ages 6 to 12 years old and divided into three parts — Dahl's life, his writing process, and an interactive, kid-friendly story centre. The first section covering his boyhood antics draws from his autobiography Boy:Tales of Childhood. If your child is ever given the assignment to read a biography, Roald Dahl's is a good choice full of both the honest truth and mischievous imagination. While at the boarding school Repton, he and his classmates were testers for Cadbury chocolates. Lucky them! They'd be given Cadbury's latest trial flavors wrapped in plain packaging and asked for their feedback. Dahl eventually started wondering what it must be like to have the job of inventing delicious creations like the bubble-filled Aero or the convoluted layers of a Dairy Milk Flake bar. Someone has to do it, after all. And hence, the seed that would eventually develop into wacky candymaker, Willie Wonka, was planted.

How do you measure up?

Dahl joined the Royal Air Force in Nairobi after the outbreak of World War II. Being exceptionally tall at 6 feet and 6 inches, Dahl was told by the flying officer that he was too tall to fly. The gallery draws the kids into this with a measuring stick showing the respective heights of various Dahl fictional characters alongside a life-sized cutout of young Dahl. Honestly, I thought Oompa Loompas were much smaller. Apparently, my girl is only a tad shorter than a Human-sized Duck.

Sit in the cockpit

Accustomed to modern day planes, my kids may have been surprised when they sat in a mockup of Dahl's Gloster Gladiator biplane with its exposed cockpit that was already out-of-date when Dahl piloted it. After a horrible plane crash in Libya, he recovered and was posted to Washington, D.C. as an assistant air attaché. He wrote an essay about the crash, and the story appeared anonymously in The Saturday Evening Post — his first paid piece of writing. Later, he adapted some of his short stories for adults for the television show,  Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including one which was nominated for an Emmy award in 1958. He wrote the screenplays for Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. Dahl was married to Oscar-winning actress, Patricia Neal. Proving that he was more than just a writer, he also helped invent the Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT) valve, a cerebral shunt for draining excess fluid from the brain which was subsequently used in thousands of operations.

Inside Dahl's Writing Hut

My favorite part of the museum is the Writing Hut that originally stood in his Great Missenden home garden. I would fancy a Writing Hut of my own. After his death, the exact location of the various mementos he kept scattered around the hut was painstakingly recorded by a conservationist, and each item was put back in place when the hut's interior was reassembled in his museum. In its entirety, it's a bit quirky, strange, and hobbled together... much like Dahl's stories. I especially liked the massive foil ball made of his collection of chocolate wrappers.

A set piece from the stop motion animated movie based on Dahl's book, Fantastic Mr. Fox

When Wes Anderson adapted Dahl's book, Fantastic Mr. Fox, into the 2009 stop-motion animated film starring George Clooney as the titular character, a miniature version of Dahl's own custom chair and lap desk from the Writing Hut became a focal point of Mr. Fox's underground living room. See the resemblance?

Sitting in the chair of a great writer

The actual Writing Hut was protected behind glass, but a hands-on replica is located in the Story Centre gallery. We could sit in his chair and place his desk in our laps. Being more than a foot shorter than Dahl, I found that my feet could barely touch the floor when sitting. The desk had a bit of rolled up cardboard taped to the underside to keep it at a comfortable height. We could also pick up and handle replicas of he odd items he kept in the hut. 

First mention of the BFG in Dahl's Idea Books

Whereas the other literary locations we visited in England enabled me to attempt to imagine the Brontë sisters' and Jane Austen's inspiration for their works, Roald Dahl kept careful records in his Idea Books which are on display in the museum. Coinciding with the release of The BFG movie, the items featured while we were there had to do with the development of his original novel. The page above is the first time the name BFG is mentioned, and the first paragraph describes the giant's dream jars.

Rough draft of The BFG

Next, we see a few pages where Dahl starts fleshing out the BFG's story. I thought it was good for children to see that great writing is not a straightforward, linear process. Even heralded authors must make many revisions. It's a far cry from the timed essay writing that my kids must do for standardized tests where they are judged on their first attempt.

Brainstorming the BFG's odd vernacular

At some point, Dahl decided that the BFG must have his own odd vocabulary which was both strange yet familiar to readers. I was fascinated by his brainstorming and how he might invent one word then tweaked variations until it sounds just right. Getting to peek into Dahl's writing process was flushbunkingly gloriumptious. If you want more linguistic insight, read Oxford Dictionaries' Why Gobblefunk is not Gobbledygook regarding Dahl's fictitious vernacular.

Kids are invited to create their own stories

The Story Centre encourages children to be creative with magnetic poetry and sticky note plots. There's also a stop-motion animation station, dress up boxes, and place to craft creatures.

You must eat the entire cake

If visitors get hungry, the on-site Cafe Twit offers sandwiches, soups, jacket potatoes, snacks and drinks for purchase. I was drawn to the Bogtrotters Cake which refers to the Bruce Bogtrotter character in Matilda who is caught stealing a slice of chocolate cake by the school matron,  Miss Trunchbull, and then forced to eat an entire cake in front of the assembled student body as punishment. Alas, we had early dinner plans elsewhere, so I had to give it a miss.

Adult book section of the gift shop

The gift shop naturally has all of Dahl's children stories and merchandise related to the books and the movie adaptations. What I found particularly interesting was the section of his adult books. I had not quite realized how many there were... and my girl covered her eyes when she spotted the title of one of the books on the top shelf. Like his children's books, the tales seem strangely fantastical yet rooted in reality. I can see why they were suitable for Alfred Hitchcock and the British TV series, Tales of the Unexpected.

Granted, this isn't a museum that the typical first-time-in-England,  only-here-for-a-few-days visitor would head to. However, if you have a child who loves Roald Dahl's stories and are in the vicinity of London a few times, this is a fun visit.

Located in Great Missenden, about 90 minutes from of London via public transportation.
See museum website for more information.

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  1. I would love to see this museum I like how playful it is and that you can see his writing hut and sit in his chair! Keeping this in mind when I make it to England.

  2. I love his books:) this museum seems like a lot of fun:) #wkdtravelinspiration

  3. I love Roald Dahl so this museum sounds so neat! I had no idea it even existed. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  4. What a great museum. I know it's mainly for kids, but I think I'd love it, too! #wkendtravelinspiration

  5. Tracy McConnachie CollinsJanuary 21, 2017 at 12:43 PM

    I live in England and didn't even know about this museum! As a big fan I am going to have to try to get to visit! Looks so interesting! #weeklypostcard

  6. My kids loved reading Roald Dahl books. The museum looks very well done and I'm sorry we missed it when we were in the U.K. several years ago.

  7. Bryna | Dotted Line TravelsJanuary 21, 2017 at 7:07 PM

    I LOVED Road Dahl growing up! James and the Giant Peach and B.F.G were my favourites. I would love to visit this museum and see what his writing hut was like!

  8. I didn't read even one Dahl book as a child... imagine that, but my children have and loved them. I love the reading hut the most about this museum. Thanks for sharing... Annette #TheWeeklyPostcard

  9. My first introduction to Roald Dahl was actually in my teens and it was his collection of short stories for adults, that I first read, so I initially considered him a writer of dark fiction. Having come across some of his books for kids since then, I can see how his wonderful and wild imagination could easily go over to the dark side. Enjoyed reading about your visit to the museum and the story centre sounds lovely.

  10. Learned so much reading your post! I have heard about many of the stories you mentioned in here but wasn't aware they came from the same author. The story about inventing Willy Wonka after the chocolate testing makes sense. My nephew stayed here two weeks ago and he had a blast watching the movie. #wkendtravelinspiration #TPThursday

  11. Oooh this looks like such a fun place to go! Loved the story about Willy Wonka! Love that movie! #Wkendtravelinspiration

  12. Once again, you and your family have found something I would absolutely love to do. This looks fantastic. I guess you could say that I would love to visit all that is literary and quirky in England. I've been but only hit all the touristy spots. Guess I need to plan a return trip.

  13. A very interesting museum, especially if you have children. I don't know much about Roald Dahl. Back in Romania where I grew up, he wasn't very famous. The only bell that rings in my mind is Willy Wonka, but I only found out about this character by watching the movie.

  14. I'd love that museum and am no where near the age of the visitor for whom it is designed! Loved that cozy little hut of his for writing.

  15. If our kids were young this would be a wonderful place to visit. I'm sure a lot of families will take your advice and visit.

  16. You had me at how tall Roald Dahl was, and then the meticulous characterisations he devised. Wow, I am going to bring this up at our next dinner party.

  17. We would love to visit this museum next time we have a more flexible London schedule. My kids grew up on his books. Such great timing for your visit! This was such an interesting read and learned so much more about Dahl. I didn't know about the James Bond connection. I love that his idea books are on display and really give insights to his thought process.


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