Above: The Roald Dahl Museum and Story-Telling Centre (credit, Marcus_jb1973 via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Due to the UK’s three lockdowns I haven't visited a museum for over a year, so I thought I’d draw on my experience working in museums to write this. I settled on the place I’d spent a significant proportion of my life: The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden.
Before the museum arrived, the building was a hairdresser’s, a bank and many, many years before that it was a coaching inn. Some parts of the venue have changed since I was there - my old desk space is now additional seating for school lunches and cafe visitors (apt as I had a never-ending supply of Mars bars underneath my desk!). The shop and cafe are both stocked with veritable delights and are open to non-ticket holders.
The Museum is divided into three spaces: The first looks at Dahl’s childhood as told in his autobiography Boy. Then along the corridor, you enter the Solo gallery named after ‘part two’ of his autobiography Going Solo, which details his experiences as a pilot in the Second World War. There’s also reference to his spooky stories for adults and even the original writing hut where all the magic happened! Then it’s back out into the courtyard, past the ‘noisy’ toilets and into the third space which encourages creativity with interactive wordplay exhibits, character creation and hints and tips from some other famous authors who encourage us all to give writing a go: “Someone is quietly sitting in a room somewhere, (and it could be you!), and they’re writing the next big thing.” (Paraphrasing Philip Pullman from memory!)
Live storytelling has always been part of the experience with both indoor and outdoor spaces utilised, and storytelling methods passed on from old to new staff as if they were folk tales. ‘My’ storytelling team could cause a courtyard full of people to break into uproarious laughter, and whenever I visit, the echoes of that laughter lingers - the ghosts of my memories haunting this listed building.
There are real ghosts too. (Yes, okay, I know you’re thinking this review has taken an unexpected turn and I must press upon you that I am in fact a very rational person!) There are many stories… a man dressed in Elizabethan clothing was seen wandering the building after closing, a figure appeared in a locked room and when the room was checked no-one was there. Books leaped from shop shelves, and a huge file flung itself from a cabinet falling onto the office floor with such a bang people screamed! And there was the time a meeting was interrupted by loud footsteps… we looked up shocked to see no-one was there.
But the time that spooked me the most was when I was alone one evening finishing some work. As I left the office and headed downstairs, I saw light glowing through the porthole-shaped window in the door and my face in the reflection on the glass; odd because there was no reason for the light to be on. As I stepped back a couple of steps to double-check, I realised it hadn’t been my face - it wasn’t possible to catch my reflection from where I’d seen it. I stood where I had been before. No reflection. And the lights were now… off. Feeling somewhat confused I continued downstairs and heard the sound of the audio still playing in the galleries - the unmistakable well-spoken, boom of Roald Dahl’s voice. The staff must have forgotten to switch it off when they left. No matter - it just required the flick of a switch but… it was already off… I gathered my things and left in a hurry.
Roald Dahl actually loved ghost stories, so I wonder if he was aware of any ghostly goings on himself, (a collection of his favourite ones are available to buy). Further along the road from the Museum is Missenden Abbey (now a conference and events centre). The monks of the Abbey were allegedly ‘very naughty boys’ who had created secret tunnels allowing them to escape so that they could enjoy drinks and debauchery in nearby towns and villages and even made the escape into London for more of the same. Only recently I was telling this story to a colleague who was shocked - he’d had no knowledge of these tales, but his partner (who’d lived in the village) had told him he had seen a ghostly apparition of a monk! In fact many report seeing a ‘mad monk’ wandering the countryside - a fact which surprised a Museum storyteller who had written a comic spooky tale which featured…a ‘mad’ monk! (He’d had no idea!)
Dahl was inspired by his surroundings and you can do two local trails - the 'Roald Dahl Village Trail' around Great Missenden to see how it inspired Matilda, Danny the Champion of the World and The BFG, and 'The Countryside Trail’ which gives you a taster of the Chilterns (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) with ancient woodlands and globally rare chalk streams. I fear there will be more ghosts wandering the countryside soon, for one of the woods where Dahl imagined Fantastic Mr Fox securing victory over Farmers’ Boggis, Bunce and Bean is now the site of his imminent defeat, about to be obliterated by a high-speed rail link (HS2) plowing straight through the countryside with even less remorse than Miss Trunchbull on a bad day. If there was ever a time Dahl’s magic was needed, it’s now. In Dahl’s notes for The Minpins, he has an idea that there are ‘Tree ghosts' in the woods… I think there might be. Perhaps you will see them.
Location: The Roald Dahl Museum, 81 to 83 High Street, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, HP16 0AL
Admission: £7.40 (adults), £4.90 (children and concessions), under 5's go free. Tickets are valid for a year (availability dependent) and booking is required
Opening hours: pre-booked tickets are currently valid for a 15-minute arrival window, with average visits taking at least 90 minutes. See website for more information
Covid-specific information: at time of publication (June 2021) the museum was open for pre-booked visits with a phased re-opening process. Safety guidelines and more info can be found here
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Holly Burrows has worked in museums and galleries for over a decade starting out with the National Trust before working at the V&A, London Zoo, The Roald Dahl Museum, House of Illustration and now The Cartoon Museum. She’s passionate about the arts, the environment, cats and chocolate and enjoys occasional bouts of writing and drawing.