Today marks 101 years since the birth of Roald Dahl. For many children, Dahl's work is the gateway from picture books to chapter books. From Miss Trunchbull to Aunts Spiker and Sponge, he created the most deliciously evil of nemeses for his child protagonists to defeat - and what a glory it is when they do.
Although Dahl travelled extensively abroad, hiking around Newfoundland in his teens, later working for Shell in East Africa, flying as an RAF pilot in Iraq, Palestine and Greece and spending time as assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington DC, his imagination was sparked closer to home, in the Cardiff suburbs and at Weston-super-Mare and in Derbyshire, where he was educated.
He spent childhood holidays in Norway and in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, but it was the Buckinghamshire countryside, in which Dahl spent the latter half of life, that provided the backdrop for Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny, the Champion of the World.
Gipsy House, his Great Missenden home (which is now privately owned), was home to the greenhouse where James’s giant peach was conceived, an old caravan that Dahl wrote about in Danny, the Champion of the World.
Dahl is buried in the cemetery of St Peter and St Paul’s Church nearby, while sights around Great Missenden include “Danny’s dad’s petrol pumps” and the house that provided the inspiration for Sophie’s orphanage in The BFG.
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The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre – established by the author’s second wife, Felicity, in 2005 – is the main keeper of archives, memorabilia and photos. The museum holds special events and play sessions for young children throughout the year.
Half an hour away from Dahl's pretty village is Stoke Park, a hotel that has a family-focused policy one imagines the writer himself might approve of: there's a well-equipped games room, outdoor play area, mini football pitch, dedicated times in the pool, tennis lessons and even personalised cookies at bedtime. Read the full review of Stoke Park.
How to have a happy family holiday according to science
Handily, England is teeming with sites central to great children's literature.
- The best children's books of all time
Whether you’re looking for an active weekend, or planning in advance for October half-term, there’s plenty of scope for a literary adventure. You might even have time to read the books beforehand. Here are eight suggestions.
1. Watership Down - Hampshire
Richard Adams (1972)
This novel about rabbits finding their promised land relies on idyllic Hampshire locations. Climb the hill at Ecchinswell that gave the novel its name, and, for a bit of luxury, stay at the Four Seasons, Hampshire. This is a popular option for well-heeled urbanites looking for a weekend getaway with their offspring in the countryside - and it's close to London.
There is a superb kids’ club and two wooden climbing frames, one for older and one for younger children, plus children’s meals and family swim times. The hotel’s equestrian centre offers an “own a pony” experience – or you could bring your own horse along on holiday.
2. The Secret Garden – North Yorkshire
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
This tale of childhood friendship, absent parents and adventure is also, in many ways, a love letter to Yorkshire.
Children charmed by their parents’ attempts to do justice to the lyrical accent of the moors when reading lines from Dickon or Martha will be thrilled to visit the land that brought Mary Lennox out of her spoiled and selfish little shell.
Go for a wander in the North York Moors, and stay at Feversham Arms – North Yorkshire’s “classiest hotel”, by our expert’s reckoning.
The hotel is in the centre of the market town of Helmsley, with many of the county’s finest sights, including abbeys and a castle, within easy reach.
3. The Lord of the Rings – Birmingham
JRR Tolkien (1937)
Director Peter Jackson may have set his Middle Earth in rural New Zealand (and there’s scope for a grand family trip to Tongariro National Park), but there’s plenty of Shire to discover on the relatively little known Tolkien Trail in Birmingham.
- 10 epic Middle Earth locations that really exist in New Zealand
The first stop on the trail is Sarehole Mill (known in The Hobbit as the Great Mill), where, between the ages of four and eight, Tolkien and his younger brother Hilary spent hours exploring and being chased away by the bad-tempered miller (as did the young hobbits in the books).
During the winter months, Sarehole Mill (now a museum) opens just twice a week, but its towering brick chimney still makes a powerful impression, even when glimpsed though gaps in the undergrowth.
There’s more to entertain in Birmingham, and the apartment-like rooms at Staying Cool are just the stylish ticket for a family stay.
4. Peter Pan - Central London
JM Barrie (1904)
JM Barrie was born and raised in Scotland, but he wrote his play of the boy who wouldn’t grow up – a tribute to his brother, who died at the age of 14 – from his adopted home in London.
Today you can visit the statue of Peter Pan that Barrie commissioned in Kensington Gardens. Skip across town to Bloomsbury Square, where the Darling children lived, and then stroll towards St Martin’s Lane, where Peter Pan was debuted at The Duke of York’s Theatre.
Jumping authors, you could book in at Brown’s, where Rudyard Kipling completed The Jungle Book just a decade earlier (a suite is named after him). The hotel offers great luxury to parents, oodles of personal touches for children (a play tent in the room; personalised biscuits on arrival; a fully briefed concierge au fait with the best London has to offer children) and the in-house restaurant, Hix, has an excellent healthy and tasty menu for kids.
5. The Wind in the Willows - Cornwall
Kenneth Grahame (1908)
The stylised account of life on the river in a delightfully pastoral England transports us to a better time.
Alongside the arriviste Toad is the petit bourgeois Mole, and Rat, the gentleman of leisure, all characters one might easily encounter in the Thames valley today.
Mapledurham House, in Oxfordshire, is often cited as the inspiration for Toad Hall, though the village of Lerryn, in Cornwall, also claims to be the setting for the tale. Locals there put Toad Hall at Ethy Manor and say that the Wild Woods drew inspiration from a combination of Ethy Woods and The Great Wood, which is now managed by the National Trust.
Stay at Fowey Hall, the Victorian seaside mansion where Kenneth Grahame used to stay, when it was a private home. It has top-notch facilities for children including a crèche and indoor pool, while draws for grown-ups include a spa and fine dining.
6. The Tales of Peter Rabbit - the Lake District
Beatrix Potter (1902)
Mischievous Peter Rabbit grew out of Beatrix Potter’s love for Hill Top Farm, her home in the Lake District, which is now owned by the National Trust.
And it's difficult to beat the Lake District for old-fashioned family fun: you can hire bikes and cycle through stunning scenery; see Beatrix Potter's original artwork on display; and picnic in a glacial valley.
Stay at one of the cottages at Masons Arms Inn.
7. Winnie-the-Pooh – East Sussex
A A Milne (1926)
Even the youngest of children will jump at the chance to play pooh sticks at the Hundred Acre Wood, actually the Five Hundred Acre Wood, in the Ashdown Forest near East Grinstead, East Sussex.
The characterful Cat Inn, in a 16th century timber building, has huge inglenook fireplaces, cosy nooks, an old-fashioned bar and gently upmarket style – hop in the car for less than 30 minutes, and you’ll be playing pooh sticks.
8. The Railway Children - West Yorkshire
Edith Nesbit (1906)
When three London children find themselves living in the wilds of West Yorkshire, following their father’s imprisonment after he is falsely accused of spying, they are initially adrift – until they get to know the stationmaster.
Oakworth station featured in the excellent 1970 film of the book. For a bit of urban contrast, stay at Roomzzz, in the centre of Leeds - the small apartments are handy for families.