Wonka wonderland

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Step through chocolate doors and perform your own stories in the 'dream bottle'. Geraldine Brennan visits a dazzling new centre filled with all things Roald Dahl.

There is a distinct whiff of chocolate in the air; it must be nearly opening time at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. School preview visits started this week, with the public opening on June 11, and the education programme is booked up until next term.

The pound;3.7 million centre in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where the author lived and wrote many of his books, is the culmination of 10 years' planning and two years' building work. A network of 18th-century shops, meeting hall and stables has been transformed into a place for children and adults to explore their creativity as well as a celebration of Dahl's life and work.

Over the past month design consultants Bremner Orr have raced to finish fitting the installations that will bring Dahl's world alive: Wonka chocolate-bar doors (they smell like the real thing), benches with crocodile feet and carpet modelled on Dahl's trademark yellow-lined writing pads, with his handwritten words "those who do not believe in magic will never find it".

Some details may come after opening day, such as the Willy Wonka chocolate factory gates, replicas of those in the new film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which opens in the United States next month. But the key work of the centre began in earnest earlier this year well before opening day, with two primary teachers at its heart: education manager Katy O'Sullivan and writer in residence Val Rutt.

The first children to step inside the centre were part of Ms O'Sullivan and Ms Rutt's joint projects to introduce the local community to the national resource on its doorstep: a two-day writing workshop with 20 gifted and talented Year 4 and Year 5 pupils.

"I looked out of my office in the Easter holidays and saw real young people in the courtyard downstairs, and that was when I realised for the first time that it was really taking shape," says the museum's director, Sue Davies. "It's about grabbing the spark that's in all of us and nurturing it."

Before the story centre's interactive reading, writing and story-building activities were put in place, there was a chance to explore the wonderful stories that led to the project. Val Rutt, who is combining her writing residency with teaching at Yerbury primary in the London borough of Islington, joined the children to discover Matilda's library in the high street and Dahl's family home at Gipsy House (the house was given a blessing by gypsies who lived in what became the Minpins' beechwoods nearby).

They shared a rare visit to the author's original writing hut with his essential equipment (wing-backed chair, Anglepoise lamp, Norwegian blanket, stack of yellow pads and six sharpened Ticonderoga pencils). A replica is the basis for a story centre installation on writers' habitats.

"I couldn't resist speculating on what would happen to all the Dahl characters when the shed had to move up the high street," says Ms Rutt.

"Would Mr and Mrs Twit be squabbling all the way? Would Danny run into the woods after his father? The children were inspired. They went home and wrote reams and reams."

Since then Val Rutt and Katy O'Sullivan have led a group of 12 to 15-year-olds in staging a contemporary St George and the Dragon at a community open day ("to say thank you to the neighbours for putting up with all the disruption") and a chocolatier has worked with Aylesbury Brownies (who else?) in the Inventing Room with its seats like chocolate slabs, which will be schools' base for plenary sessions and performances.

Teachers can choose from six 90-minute sessions tailored to key stages 2 or 3, with options for Year 3. All involve some aspects of the two galleries devoted to Dahl's life and books, the family photographs and the Dahl archive, including unpublished versions of familiar stories. Dahl scholars can apply for access to the full digitised archive. There are opportunities to explore the writer's passions for growing things, inventions and flying; his Second World War flying helmet is on display with the original sandal which inspired the BFG's footwear.

Then there's the story centre, set in an orchard drawn by Dahl's collaborator artist Quentin Blake, which offers variations on wordplay, character and plot creation and reading for meaning, to inspire writing from autobiography to new Tales of the Unexpected. A gallery of contemporary writers including JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman and Benjamin Zephaniah contribute their thoughts on writing and reading.

Katy O'Sullivan promises no worksheets. "I can't bear worksheets," she says. Instead, children get pocket-sized ideas books modelled on Dahl's own (see Reader treats, page 3). "I don't want children to come here to do loads of work, I want them to have experiences, explore, do interesting activities that might involve art or drama, collect ideas that are a jumping-off point and have something to continue back at school.

"When they're here I want it to be as little like school as possible. Once they really get into something, the work gets done."

Ms O'Sullivan spent three years teaching at Down Lane junior school (now Mulberry primary) in the London borough of Haringey. In her last year, she had a Year 6 class of which 70 per cent did not speak English at home. She read them lots of Dahl ("it's a treat to read aloud, not verbose or over-complicated"), having been read her favourite book, Danny the Champion of the World, at school ("it was published in the year I was born (1975)").

Two weeks before Sats at Down Lane, she took her class to the Natural History Museum. "I thought if we spent one more day doing Sats work we might just kill each other. I told them they didn't have to do any work there, I wanted them to look, enjoy and remember."

After a late gap year travelling, during which she volunteered and did supply work at a school in Eneabba, a small mining town in West Australia, she decided the post of education manager, advertised last year, was "up my street".

For Val Rutt, working on her second adventure novel for children while teaching at Yerbury, the words "story centre" in the advertisement did the trick. "I imagined what a story centre might be like, and wondered whether there should be a Minister for Stories."

At her interview, she produced a tiny "box of stories", something she had shown her pupils, and told tales rooted in her childhood. She is the first in a series of writers and illustrators early in their publishing careers who will spend up to three months in a flat above the entrance furnished by Liccy Dahl, Roald Dahl's widow and chair of the museum trustees.

Ms Rutt has been teaching for 10 years at Yerbury, mostly Year 6. "I started with reception, I read them Fantastic Mr Fox and they loved it, so did the Year 6s. I wonder if Roald Dahl sat in his hut laughing to himself as he wrote? I bet he did."

It was the birth of her first child, she says, that freed her to start writing. "It sounds unlikely, but it happened because I was able to stop thinking about school." When writing became serious she cut teaching down to four days, then two. She then took a term off to complete her first book, The Race for the Lost Keystone, which Puffin published last year after a parent at the school, journalist Damian Kelleher, became her literary agent. "Ingenuity, fun and sheer pace," was The TES's verdict.

This term Ms Rutt is at Yerbury on Mondays, and - in between trips home to see her family and dog - completing the follow-up to Lost Keystone, The Mystery of the Darkstone, and keeping the flat well stocked with KitKats, Dahl's writing fuel of choice. She joins Katy O'Sullivan to devise writing projects for children and adults, including weekly sessions with elderly local residents, recording memories and stories.

"I want to write a Second World War story next, and their help has been invaluable in getting the language and detail right." Her pupils, "my best critics", enjoy weekly updates and she relishes the concentrated writing time.

"The wonderful thing about reading and writing, which the activities here underline, is that you're honing your craft all the time and if something is not perfect, it's still fixable."

Every day sees another piece of the big picture in place. During my last visit Mick Orr was working on a human-height "dream bottle", a clear plastic structure in which you weave your own dreams with shadow puppets and fibre-optic lights. "It's a septic tank, you know," says Sue Davies. "A new one."

While Katy O'Sullivan is desperate to rip the plastic wrap off the Ideas Table and see children tackling her programme for real, Val Rutt yearns for a few minutes in the completed but empty story centre before the doors open, "to have it all to myself". Apart from the tall man in the wing-backed chair in the writing hut, adjusting his Anglepoise, unwrapping his KitKat and laughing to himself.

To book or discuss a schools session for next term, contact Katy Sullivan on 01494 892192 or email katy@roalddahlmuseum.org. The education pack is available at www.roalddahlmuseum.org. Timed tickets for general visits should be booked on 01492 892192. Val Rutt is running a writers' evening on June 15 and two family workshops on June 25, as part of the museum's Saturday storytelling programme. Details on the website

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today