A phizz-whizzing visit to Roald Dahl’s house
GREAT MISSENDEN, England — “Gipsy House.” So said the sign on the gate. I’d found it, then. Turning back onto the wooded path, I stepped gingerly toward the tall white wall hoping to get a peek at the house. At only 5 feet tall, I had to stand on my tip toes. The whitewashed cottage is relatively large, probably four bedrooms, and sports a sloping roof and a squat yellow door. It’s a lovely country home, but it’s the garden that seemed imbued with magic. After all, this is the residence that inspired one of the greatest children’s authors of all time: Roald Dahl.
Dahl’s home is located on the outskirts of the English village of Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where the storyteller lived from 1953 until his death in 1990. The garden was designed by Dahl himself and planted with a friend of his named Wally Saunders, a gentle giant of a man who served as the inspiration for “The BFG,” or Big Friendly Giant, the film version of which will be released in July. Together with Saunders, who was a carpenter, Dahl laid the paths, planted the pleached limes, and built the author’s special writing hut as well as the magical birdhouse with window ledges lined with ‘dream jars’ (for those not familiar with the BFG, they’re the jars that giants catch dreams in. What else would they be?). Dahl also grew fruits and vegetables, including giant onions, cherries, and peaches.
Buckinghamshire county, or “Bucks” as it’s also known, is set in the Chiltern Hills just 40 minutes northwest of London by train. Though Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales, he never lived in a town or city, saying he would have hated it. In fact, Great Missenden is affluent commuter country for the London stock exchange set, but it feels much more country than suburb. The Chiltern Hills have actually been designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” by Natural England, which means that the area’s natural environment is worthy or protection. With its grand country homes hidden in the folds of its gently rolling hills, all paddocks, bridle paths, and green woods, it’s easy to see why.
And, with its higgledy piggledy streets, ancient churches and charming vine-covered cottages, the village itself is also picture book pretty. Some of the buildings and fixtures that feature in Dahl’s works can be found right here on the main street, including the vintage petrol pump from the Red Pump Garage that appears in “Danny, Champion of the World,” to Crown House that stood in for Sophie’s “norphonage” in “The BFG,” to the local library that so inspired the lonely Matilda when her mother would go off to Aylesbury to play Bingo. There is also the quaint local post office, where hundreds of sacks of letters were sent to Dahl every year from fans all around the world.
Also in the centre of the village, right on the High Street, is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. Visitors, particularly kids ages 6 to 12, should prepare for a swizzfiggingly, flushbuckingly, gloriumptuous good time. The museum is impossible to miss, given its larger-than-life illustration of the BFG and the Gobblefunk words inscribed on the violet-hued facades of its two buildings.
Inside, kids enter the world of Dahl via its three interactive galleries. Boy gallery looks at Dahl’s childhood and school days while Solo gallery explores the author’s time as a pilot in the RAF during WWII and also houses his original writing hut, encased in glass. The third gallery, the Story Centre, puts kids centre stage, offering story time and creative games and activities to inspire young writers. Children can choose costumes from a dress up box, make up nonsense words, sit in Dahl’s (replica) writing chair, find out how tall they are compared to favorite characters and participate in messy workshops.
Best of all, perhaps, are the gift shop, where you can stock up on kids’ birthday presents, and Café Twit, where children and adults alike can enjoy scrumdiddlyumptious lunches and treats such as jacket potatoes, lickwishy panini, and the Bogtrotter cake loaded with smarties, marshmallows, and maltesers. Oof!
Now, back on the leafy lane outside Gipsy House, and armed with the Roald Dahl Countryside map obtained from the museum, I headed toward Angling Spring Wood, the inspiration for “Fantastic Mr Fox.” Passing through a wooden “kissing gate”, a type of gate that allows humans to pass through, but prevents animals from doing so, I came to a pasture where dozens of sheep are busy munching on grass. I spent 20 minutes trying to photograph the shy creatures, to no avail. All was not lost, however, as the view down to the village from here is classically English: rolling green hills, golden fields, sloping red roofed cottages and the crenellated tower of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church piercing through. Interestingly, many of the episodes from the popular BBC television series “Midsomer Murders” are filmed here.
On the way back down to the village, I decided to pay my respects to the great storyteller in person. Passing some adorable brick cottages — many with unique name plates and door knockers, including one of a fox — I headed to the village cemetery at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church. Dahl, who would have turned 100 on Sept. 13 this year, was buried here, in the new cemetery. At the top of a slope, a tree is surrounded by a circular bench inscribed with the names of the author’s five children and three stepchildren. From the memorial bench you can follow the BFG’s footsteps to Dahl’s grave. Here, many children leave toys and flowers, notepads and pencils. I crouch down and whisper, “It’s been a gloriumptuous good time, my friend. Thanks for all the stories.”