Journalist and Blue Badge Guide, Sophie Campbell visits the British landscapes and locations that inspired some of our greatest children’s literature.
Every so often, while pottering through urban streets or countryside, I find myself wondering if a rock might split open to reveal a tunnel, or birds start speaking, or passing walkers turn out to be controlled by some darker power. It’s not impossible – or it’s certainly not if you read a lot as a child. So many authors of children’s fiction, from Malcolm Savile to Michael Morpurgo, from Alan Garner to J K Rowling, from Rosemary Sutcliffe to Philip Pullman, have placed their books firmly in our landscape, sometimes overlaid with fantasy, sometimes using real landscape features – or real streets in a town or city.
Then there are the writers themselves; the places they lived in, or loved. It all adds an extra dimension to a place, a pleasing, borrowed nostalgia. It’s a fine reason for going somewhere. And it makes a great tour.
It’s difficult not to look at the southern Lakes – rocky shores plunging into water of fathomless depth, distant fells and sturdy stone farmhouses – without thinking of Jemima Puddleduck or the hearty, dinghy-sailing Walker children. Beatrix Potter, countrywoman, naturalist, author and illustrator, first visited as a teenager and ended up a substantial Lakeland landowner (she left the lot to the National Trust).
Almost simultaneously, baby Arthur Ransome – later journalist and author of the Swallows & Amazons novels – holidayed south of Coniston Water with his family, learning to sail in a dinghy called Swallow.
Start at Wray Castle, a Victorian Gothic confection overlooking Windermere; this would have been Beatrix Potter’s first view of the Lakes as a 16-year old. From April to November you can take the bikefriendly boat from Brockhole Visitor Centre (once owned by Beatrix’s cousin), then bus or bike to Hill Top, her first farmhouse, slate-roofed and sturdy among lush woods. Film buffs can visit the isolated pool of Loughrigg Tarn, north of Windermere, with views to Langdale Pikes. Or stay at the whitewashed, seventeenth-century Yew Tree Farm, north of Coniston Water, which doubled as Hill Top in the film Miss Potter – and where Mrs Tiggy-Winkle might emerge at any second with the washing.
Arthur Ransome lived on the far side of Windermere but set the books in an amalgam of both lakes. There is something eerie about Coniston, a blackness to the water, and the National Trust’s Peel Island, the original Wild Cat Island, is the perfect antidote. It looks like a richly-wooded humpback whale and you can hire a canoe or boat and paddle (or sail) down for the day. If not duffers…
In 1908 Kenneth Grahame sat down to write The Wind in the Willows in Cookham Dean, Berkshire. His house, Herries, is now a prep school, but the gentle, sylvan atmosphere of the tale is easily recreated on the 20-mile stretch of Thames Path running west from Cookham Lock to Henley-on-Thames.
Get up early and you may see a kingfisher arrow into the water, aiming for a minnow or stickleback. There are herons and crested grebes and vole holes owned by Ratty’s descendants. The path detours through Cookham Village (home to the Stanley Spencer Gallery) and over the river; re-cross at Marlow to explore Quarry Wood, a 400-year old
Woodland Trust beech forest between Marlow and Cookham. It was almost certainly the inspiration for the Wild Wood, home to Badger and the odious stoats and weasels.
Upstream at Henley (Salter’s Steamers are a lovely way to skive the walk in summer) find Temple Island, start point for the annual Regatta and once the boathouse for Fawley Court. This handsome seventeenth-century mansion is a strong contender for the original Toad Hall. End your day with a visit to The Wind in the Willows exhibition at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum.
Three towering children’s literary stars have emerged from the smoke and chimney pots of London town – Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and Paddington Bear. West of the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens is a bronze statue of Peter – in full crow atop a cairn alive with animals and fairies – that appeared overnight in 1912, although commissioned by his creator J M Barrie a decade earlier.
Walk up to the Italian Gardens and left on the Bayswater Road (Barrie has a Blue Plaque at No 100) before doubling back to Paddington Station. Here, in the soaring train shed built by Brunel in the 1850s, a small Peruvian bear was found a century later sitting on his suitcase wearing a battered hat. His statue is under the Victorian clock on Platform 1 and until the new Paddington Shop opens in 2017 (in time for Paddington 2), there’s a pop-up on Platform 12. Go west to the stucco splendour of Portobello; Paddington found a home here in its shabbier days – with the Browns in fictional Windsor Gardens – and creator Michael Bond still lives in the area. The original bear came from Selfridges, merged with Barkers of Kensington in the books to become ‘Barkridges.’
From the Roof Gardens next to the former Barkers, you can survey several billion pounds’ worth of chim-chiminey pots. It’s one of the little reminders all over town that although Mary Poppins was shot in Burbank, the story belongs here, P L Travers’ home at 50 Smith Street, Chelsea; George Gilbert Scott’s house on Admiral’s Walk, Hampstead – surely, with two roof decks once adorned with miniature cannon, the original Admiral Boom’s house; the Bank of England, where young Michael Banks caused a currency panic. Oh, and St Paul’s Cathedral. Remember ‘Feed the birds, tuppence a bag’? In a snowglobe.
Where to begin in the city of dreaming authors? Perhaps with Philip Pullman, whose Dark Materials trilogy begins in Jordan College, home to anti-heroine Lyra. It’s a wickedly irreverent portrait of Pullman’s own college, Exeter, with hints of others thrown in. Lyra’s Oxford is not golden but dark and menacing, connected to London by zeppelin. Start west in Jericho, by the Oxford Canal, where much early action is set and traverse the golden heart – including the ‘Bodleian Library’ and ‘greendomed Sheldon’ – to one of the world’s oldest Botanic Gardens and ‘Lyra’s Bench’, which figures in a later book.
Christ Church, ‘The House’, is rich in literary references; it was famous first for its Alice in Wonderland pedigree, including dining hall portraits of alumnus and mathematics don Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and Dean Liddell, whose daughter was the ‘real’ Alice. The panelled Hall – its long tables glittering with glass and cutlery, stained glass windows featuring characters from Alice and tiny doors behind High Table, apparently, inspiration for the disappearing White Rabbit – found new fame in 2001 as the model for Hogwarts’ dining room in the Harry Potter films. Its fan-vaulted staircase supported Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall, admonishing small trainee wizards.
The Bodleian Library is a must, with its blind arcading in golden stone, lintel inscriptions denoting mediaeval ‘scholae’ and ancient chain library, where Harry Potter and Dark Materials filming took place. Leave by the north door and pop left to see the contemporary grotesques on the Divinity School; the dodo refers to Charles ‘Do-Do-Dodgson’ (his own reference to his stammer).
Finish at the Eagle & Child on St Giles, a pub owned by St John’s College whose arch nickname ‘The Bird & Baby’ was bestowed by the glitterati who drank there in the 1930s-40s – authors J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis among them.
No one has captured the otherness of the British landscape better than Alan Garner, who set his bestselling 1960 novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in the Cheshire of his childhood, borrowing some of its legends while he was at it. Many landmarks he mentions are real and quite easy to find, especially when armed with OS Explorer Map 268. Alderley Edge, for starters, a whopping great sandstone escarpment rearing up over the
Cheshire Plain, long associated with a myth of sleeping warriors in a subterranean cave. Garner even describes the chimneys of huge mansions peeking above the trees at one end, now probably owned by Premier League footballers. Look for the Wizard’s Well, the Druids’ Circle and the Golden Stone (on which, in the book, a stromkarl sits playing a harp), actually a mediaeval boundary stone and Scheduled Monument.
Walk through beech woods to Stormy Point: on a clear day there is Manchester, 12 miles to the north. Even the copper mines open every so often, courtesy of the Derbyshire Caving Club. Start from The Wizard’s Inn in Nether Alderley; a pint or two of Bosley Cloud and you’ll be seeing stromkarls all over the shop.
There really is a place called Watership Down and it happens to be a glorious part of the North Wessex Downs. This steep hillside in north Hampshire was immortalised by writer Richard Adams in his eponymous 1972 rabbit novel. Don’t write it off as a ‘bunny boiler’, his leporine world is as complex as that of any Hobbit, written from a rabbit’s viewpoint. If quiet, there’s a lay-by up on White Hill (off the B3015 south of Kingsclere), turn west and walk through stands of trees to the high chalk; great swoops of open grass with views north over the real Nuthanger Farm, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton estate, the Baldings’ stud at Kingsclere and even, to the west, Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle). It’s one of the wealthiest parts of England, but up here there is wind, peace, the bowl of The Warren – where the rabbits dug their new Honeycomb home – and the remains of an Iron Age outpost fort at Ladle Hill. Early in the morning you might see thoroughbreds thundering past on the gallops. Or a stray rabbit.