Seven literary destinations around the UK to inspire children
Following recent stints of home schooling, there’s never been a better time for children to venture out into the wilds for a bookish tour, soaking up some of the literary world’s greatest hits.
The UK is a land of insatiable storytellers; a place where druids, fairies, bards and kids on broomsticks have long roamed the lands. Spinning a good yarn is culturally ingrained, and those seeking inspiration need only glance at the diverse tapestry of landscapes for a hefty dose of it.
From Dartmoor’s haunting fogs and bogs, helping Sherlock Holmes to solve the seemingly unsolvable, to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth novel — a vibrant love letter to multicultural London — the UK has starred as the backdrop for countless literary classics, making it the perfect place for budding bibliophiles to explore.
From a major new Beatrix Potter exhibition open in London to brushing up on Celtic folktales on a windswept Hebridean island, here are some of the best places for families to ignite a spark of romance with the written word.
Uncover mythical folktales
Mysterious lochs and fairytale landscapes — it’s easy to see why Scotland has such a rich history of folklore. And now is the perfect time to delve into this mystic heritage, as 2022 plays host to Scotland’s Year of Stories campaign, featuring a range of events highlighting the people and places that have moulded Scottish storytelling.
Children can practice ‘addressing’ the haggis (with a side of neeps and tatties) at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in the picturesque village of Alloway, or rummage through folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw’s pivotal collection of Gaelic and Celtic stories on the rugged island of Canna in the Hebrides, surrounded by porpoises and grunting puffins.
Entry to the Isle of Canna is free. Entry to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum £7.50 adult, £4.50 child.
2. The Story Museum, Oxford
Tumble down the rabbit hole
Only the fearless would attempt to tackle Oxford’s rich literary history in a single day, but The Story Museum — situated in the heart of the city’s tangle of streets and spires, provides a mesmerising starting point.
Following a recent revamp, the freshly unveiled labyrinth of galleries includes hands-on exhibits, a wonderfully creative Small Worlds play area for youngsters and a charming cafe serving up homemade dishes, all set around a cobbled courtyard.
The beauty of this treasure trove museum is that it brings the imaginative landscape to life, from listening to fable-spouting trees in the whispering wood gallery to pushing musky fur coats aside and venturing through the wardrobe into the glittering realm of Narnia.
Gallery entry £8, Small Worlds entry £5, open 9.30am to 5.30pm, Saturday to Thursday, 9.30am to 4.30pm on Friday.
3. The V&A, London
Meet Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton–tail
It’s been 120 years since Peter Rabbit and friends first hopped onto the pages of Beatrix Potter’s beloved children’s books, brought to life by her beautiful watercolour illustrations and sing-song prose.
In celebration, the V&A museum’s latest exhibition, Beatrix Potter: Drawn from Nature, brings together 240 personal objects, including early sketchbooks, letters and artworks, alongside the chance for kids to climb inside a giant flowerpot to avoid becoming a key ingredient in Mr McGregor’s dreaded pies.
The exhibition also pitter-patters through Potter’s personal journey, from a London town mouse living within a scuttle of the V&A to a fully-fledged sheep-rearing conservation pioneer; a midlife transformation spearheaded by Potter relocating to the cloud-capped fells of the Lake District and buying her cherished Hill Top farmhouse, a National Trust gem that’s also open to the public.
Beatrix Potter: Drawn from Nature runs until 8 January 2023, £14 adult, children aged 0 to 11, free. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5.45pm.
Entrance to Potter’s Hill Top farmhouse £14 adult, £7 child.
4. Jane Austen's former home, Bath
Step into the pages of Northanger Abbey at a themed sleepover
Channel your family’s inner scribe with a literary slumber party in Jane Austen’s former apartment in the glorious city of Bath. The novelist lived here between 1801 and 1805 while attempting to write her abandoned early novella The Watsons. Overlooking 18th-century pleasure gardens and grandiose The Holburne Museum for the arts, this quirky two-bedroom home is jam-packed with antiques and curiosities.
Just a short stroll from Austen’s former residence — taking in the sweeping crescents en route — you’ll find the dinky Jane Austen Centre, where actors bring the Georgian era to life in period costume. Be sure to stop off at the tearoom for an indulgent serving of Lady Catherine's cream tea.
Rent Jane Austen’s former home from £170 per night, two-night minimum stay.
Entrance to the Jane Austen Centre: adult £12.50, child (6 to 16 years) £5.50, open Sunday to Friday 10am to 4pm, Saturday 10am to 5.30pm.
5. Burgh Island, Devon
Stay at Agatha Christie’s former retreat
Young adventurers will adore arriving at Burgh Island in style — riding a vintage sea tractor across the lapping surf to be deposited, slightly soggy, on this glamorous art deco hotel.
Agatha Christie — back on the collective radar, thanks to the recent release of the Death on the Nile film — made this privately owned tidal island, near the seaside village of Bigbury-on-Sea, her second home.
Families should book into the wordsmith’s beach hut, where Christie sought inspiration from the stunning views, mustering up two novels set on the island; And Then There Were None and Evil Under the Sun. Sleeping a family of four, this pet-friendly refuge is ideal for young Hercule Poirots in training.
Rent Agatha’s beach house from £1,450 per night B&B for two adults and two children (note that children need to be aged five and over).
6. Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle upon Tyne
Explore themes of migration
The UK’s storytelling pot bubbles over at this engaging children’s literature museum, housed in a converted Victorian mill in Ouseburn Valley’s cultural quarter. Across seven floors, you’ll find original artwork from The Tiger Who Came To Tea, unpublished early manuscripts by Michael Morpurgo and a family-friendly cafe overlooking the Ouseburn River.
The museum is also dedicated to telling stories of migration, highlighting the work of the Anglo-Caribbean poet Valerie Bloom and the Afro-Guyanese playwright John Agard through a virtual learning hub that’s soon to launch on the museum’s website.
Entry to the museum is free. Open every day except Wednesdays 10am to 5pm.
7. Ashdown Forest, East Sussex
Play Poohsticks in the forest that inspired the Hundred Acre Wood
Almost a century after the ‘chubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff’ made his debut in A A Milne’s book Winnie-the-Pooh, the loveable bear still retains a very special place in British literary lore.
The tome originally provided comfort following the devastation of the First World War. Further books continued to capture the innate wonder and innocence of childhood, complete with talking stuffed animal companions joining the befuddled but kind-hearted hero.
Fans of Pooh should make like Christopher Robin and head to Ashdown Forest, inspiration for the books’ enchanted Hundred Acre Wood setting. Here, you’ll find two walking trails; a gentle 0.6-mile stroll best suited for little legs, and a more ambitious two-mile woodland hike, taking in the legendary Heffalump Trap along the way. Just don’t forget Pooh’s favourite sandwiches, with a ‘smackerel of hunny’.
Free maps of the Pooh Bear walking tours can be downloaded from the Ashdown Forest website.
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