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.

It’s Your Turn, Link Up Your Newest Travel Inspiration

I've joined up as one of the co-hosts of Weekend Travel Inspiration.
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Friday, January 13, 2017

Bath, England through Jane Austen's Eyes

Dressing up in Regency era clothing such as Jane Austen may have worn

I have realized that I am slowly turning into a woman who could easily slip into a Jane Austen novel. Alas, I am not becoming one of those spirited, self-assured main characters in the tradition of Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Instead, I am displaying all the old-fashion qualities of a mother worried about social graces and fine manners. At eleven years old, my daughter is on the brink of becoming a "young lady," and against her will, I signed her up for etiquette classes (a.k.a. "charm school").

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Walk on the Yorkshire Moors with the Brontë Sisters

Today is the perfect, lazy day for curling up with a good book. The weather is unusually cold... well, for Central Texas... just a tad below freezing. The sky is dark with clouds, and the trees have lost their leaves. It's the type of gloomy, Gothic setting I pictured  when reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë or Jane Eyre by her sister, Charlotte Brontë. A place inhabited by dark and brooding types.

Ever since I read those novels in high school and at university, I've always wondered what it was like to stroll along the Yorkshire moors. Growing up amid the metropolitan sprawl and suburban strip malls of flat-as-a-pancake Houston, it was difficult to picture myself inserted into such a foreign scene. So, when we decided to visit York, England last summer, I was seized with the notion of making a pilgrimage to  the Brontë Parsonage in the tiny village of Haworth and finally walking among the heather in the rolling moorlands. "It's just a 90-minute drive from York," I explained to my husband with pleading, puppy dog eyes." How could he resist?

Friday, December 30, 2016

Traveling Near and Far in 2016

2016 is what I'm calling "the New Normal." It's been two-and-a-half years since we returned to Texas from our three year expat assignment living in Malaysia. There's no doubt about it. Malaysia was a turning point in family travel for us. Before that, we fell into the "One Big Trip a Year" category, typically during the summer. Most holidays were spent visiting our families who live 3 hours away in Houston where both hubby and I grew up. With the overseas move, we were in a rush to squeeze in as much travel as possible while living on the other side of the world. It really helped that almost all our friends were in the same mode.

The "New Normal" is a mix of both styles. We still drive to Houston for Easter, Fourth of July (USA's Independence Day), Thanksgiving, Christmas and other weekends here and there. But, we managed to take three big family trips this year, too. On top of that, hubby spends a total of one month in Malaysia and one month in Hungary on business.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Favorite Photos from 2016

As 2016 draws to a close, I am reminded how much I rely on my photos to jog my memory about all that I've done throughout the year. If I didn't take photos, I swear that I would completely forget half of it. That's part of the reason why I blog... to remind myself of where I've been. There are a few images, however, that stand out in my mind either because I like the visual or because of the story behind it. Here are some of my favorites from the past year.

Monday, December 12, 2016

GPSmyCity Travel Article App review & giveaway

On my family’s trip to England this year, I tried a travel article app for the first time after winning one in a giveaway. It was free, so why not? After downloading GPSmyCity and getting a few clicks in, I was already won over. I would gladly pay for travel assistance like this in the palm of my hand. What exactly is GPSmyCity? It’s an app you can download onto your iOS device that delivers travel articles, city specific tours and GPS-guided navigation all in one place. (Android version will be launched in 2017.)

Ever since I discovered travel blogs, they have factored heavily into my trip planning. After reading them, I usually use a combination of different apps to pin info about where I wanted to visit, to map where they were all located relative to each other and to figure out directions to get from one place to the next. Once I started using GPSmyCity, I realized that I could finally do it all on one app without having to switch back and forth.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

ICE! Sculptures at Gaylord Hotels

A life-size nativity scene carved entirely out of ice

Every winter, I get a little jealous when people visiting colder climes start sharing photos of ice sculpture festivals and ice hotels. In Texas, Mother Nature does not keep the outdoors cold enough for us to enjoy such things. December weather is all over the place. Some Christmases, it's been warm enough to wear shorts. On another, more magical Christmas, snow flurries fell from the sky, causing my children to abandon their half-unwrapped gifts to run outside. When I heard about the Gaylord Texan Resort hotel's ICE! Winter Wonderland, I knew that it would be the perfect mini-getaway during our holiday school break. Gaylord Hotels has four locations around the USA, each with a different themed ICE! exhibit.
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