I can't decide if a literary pilgrimage is an honorable way to pay homage or an invasion of privacy for the person whom you are "pilgrimming." I guess that depends on how you go about it. In any case, when my wife, Lisa, and I were in England in November, 1994, we decided to go to Great Missenden, where Roald Dahl lived the last decades of his life, and see what we could see. As most great travel adventures consist of happy accidents, the fact that we had no idea where to look once we got to Great Missenden was of little importance. At the very least, we knew that we would be able to see Dahl's grave in the local churchyard. But hey, enough of my yakkin'. Here are Lisa's impressions of a memorable day:
As Jeff stated above, we had no idea where to find Gypsy House (British folk give names to their houses as opposed to boring number addresses) but we did have the advantage of having seen some of the grounds in a wonderful educational, video* for young writers in which Roald Dahl gives a tour of his tiny writing shed and the surrounding gardens. So we went, not knowing what we would find, but figured at the very least it would be nice to have lunch in the town that inspired such works as Danny The Champion of the World and The BFG.As we neared Great Missenden the road wound through a beautiful forest. There was very little underbrush and it being early November, the ground under the trees was carpeted in Autumn leavesif ever I was a pheasant poacher those are the woods that I would prowl.
We decided that our first move, once we reached town, would be to find Dahl's grave. However, driving once or twice down Great Missenden's high street, we found no indication of a local church yard or cemetary. But there was a church-y looking building there and we stopped to see if we could get some information. Jeff stayed in the car and I went inside. An elderly gentlemen in a suit immediately offered his assistance, and I told him that we were looking for Roald Dahl's grave site. He excused himself and soon returned with a big leatherbound ledger book which he opened and searched through. In it was a hand-written record of Dahl's purchase of a gravesite. It was plot number 283. "I think you'll find it a nicely kept little plot," the man said to me. He gave me directions to the church (which was about a mile out of town, on a hillside) and we headed off to find it. After several minutes of searching, we found the markera simple brass plaque which read, "Roald Dahl, 13.09.16 - 23.11.90." There were some flowers scattered here and there as well as a few onions. We're not sure of the significance of this, although Jeremy Treglown mentions in his biography of Dahl that he found onions there as well. We spent a few minutes at his grave site and then began to look around. We discovered that the really old gravestones were in an overgrown wooded area behind the church. We spent some time poking around and reading the inscriptions before we headed back to town for lunch.
We stopped at the local bakery and ordered a few pasties and a bowl of very canned-tasting soup, but couldn't get ourselves to ask the woman at the counter if she knew where Dahl lived. We were afraid of coming across as nosy American tourists (which I suppose we were). The town was indeed small but it still would have taken half the day to drive up and down every street in search of a house we weren't at all familiar with. We took a turn up and down the high street and looked to see if Dahl's antique shop was still open (supposedly called "Dahl and Son"). If it's there, we didn't find it. We finally got up enough nerve to ask a woman on the street if she knew the general whereabouts of Dahl's house. She said she thought they lived off "that way a bit" and pointed her finger. We headed down a narrow drive in that direction, trying to read each house's name as we passed by. The lane came to a dead end and beyond we could see an open field populated with a small herd of cows. We tried a few other lanes with no success. I remembered, though, from the video, that Dahl's house and gardens were surrounded by open fields. With this in mind I suggested that we jump the fence at the end of the dead end and walk into the field a ways to see what we could see from that angle.
We climbed over the stile (a la Beatrix Potter), staying on public footpaths the entire time, and took a few steps past the cows. I passed a bunch of tall shrubs to my left, and there, just a hundred yards away was the wonderful gypsy caravan in which Danny and his father lived. Dahl had purchased the caravan years ago and parked it in his garden for his children to play in. Right next to it was Gipsy House. We found another public foot path that ran along the side of the house and were able to get quite close. It was a beautiful house, white with ivy and greenery growing up its face. His little estate included a large garden and a beautiful, wrought-iron greenhouse (he liked to grow orchids), plus a lovely orchard and a small shed.
Seeing this shed was a thrill, as we knew that this was Roald Dahl's writing place, and that in this building he had written most of the stories which we know him by. What we would have given to step inside it and see his lounge chair, writing pad and a can of his favorite Ticonderoga "2 5/10 Medium" pencils there. But, with no invitation, we weren't about to bother anybody. We walked up the road that ran in front of the house and past the garage. Roald Dahl's family still lives in Gipsy House, so we tried to be discreet with our picture taking. I secretly hoped that we'd run into his wife and that she'd invite us in for tea. But it didn't happen. Just a tad further up the road I stood at the foot of what could have only been Fantastic Mr. Fox's tree. I am absolutely certain that it was the very tree that Dahl was thinking of as he wrotethe illustrations in the book capture it exactly.
We spent about an hour there in all. And perhaps the most interesting part for me was seeing how his property and surroundings had been the setting and inspiration for many of his stories (especially Danny, which just happens to be my favorite). It seemed entirely possible that as I stood under Mr. Fox's tree, Danny may have come trotting down the gravel lane and wished me a good day as he continued on towards his father's filling station. And I would not have been unnerved to look up at the rolling hills above Dahl's property (where the church and his grave are located) and see the BFG go loping into the next golden stand of trees.
*McGraw Hill sells a fabulous educational package about writers called "The
Author's Eye," showing intimate glimpses of various authors. There is a volume
about Roald Dahl, which includes a great video wherein Dahl gives a tour of his estate and
shows exactly how he goes about the writing process. The package includes a student
workbook, teacher's guide and a poster. It costs $134 ($207 for the package that includes
enough student workbooks for an entire class), and is available by calling McGraw Hill at