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A Review - Once Upon a Time in Great Britain

23/02/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 13923 votes

The success of the Harry Potter books and movies and the rediscovery of J.R.R. Tolkien by another generation serves to underscore that many of the classic children’s and young peoples stories with which we’re so familiar were either penned by an English author or have as a setting somewhere in the "right little, tight little island." Many of the nursery rhymes we grew up with also originated in England. Alas, the stories and scenes are but memories from childhood, aren’t they?

Well, not quite. Truth of the matter is that you can see many of the locales featured in famous stories as well as places associated with the authors of those same stories. And should you be wondering how to find these places then you need to start the planning process by consulting the pages of Melanie Wentz’s delightful book Once Upon a Time in Great Britain: A Travel Guide to the Sight and Settings of Your Favorite Children’s Stories. Wentz is an educator who lives in California and who, with her family, spent "a year exploring England and Scotland." The result is a book that should be consulted by anyone projecting a trip to England. It covers a range of children’s and young people’s stories from classics to more recent tales.

Now, there is probably no argument that these days the most famous of the tales covered in Wentz’s book are the Harry Potter stories by J.K. Rowling, who in a few short years has become almost as legendary as her literary creation, the boy wizard who attends a very special public school by the name of Howarts, a school which specializes in the training of a future generation of wizards. Her success has brought her both fame and fortune; a recent media report saying that Ms. Rowling is now the third richest woman in the United Kingdom. Adding to the "Potter-mania" have been two successful movies, with more planned. Want to visit some of the locations used in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, then Melanie Wentz’s book will point you in the right direction.

Just a block from the British Library on Euston Road you’ll find King’s Cross railway station this is the place where Harry asked the porter where he could find platform 9¾ so that he could catch the Hogwart’s Express. Take the Underground to the King’s Cross/St. Pancras stop to find platform 9¾ . Other locations include Australia House, where the Australian High Commission is located, but served as the setting for Gringott’s Bank, bankers to those who inhabit the world of wizardry. Australia House is on the Strand and it’s near Bush House, home of the BBC’s World Service. Many of the interior shots for both movies were of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which you can reach from London via National Rail. Another railway station figures prominently in another modern classic, the story of that most English of bears (even if he originally does hail from deepest, darkest Peru), none other than Paddington, who is named for Paddington Station, which Wentz describes as "one of those grand, old train stations with a huge arched roof." It’s where you’ll find the Paddington Stand which sells souvenirs such as Paddington books and tapes and of course, duffel coats. And as Wentz points out, this is the place to find an authentic Paddington stuffed bear. A Paddington bear from Paddington Station, now could any of your friends top that?

St Paul's Cathedral

Under the heading of much-loved class stories you’ll find out the stories behind stories such as Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and Winnie-the-Pooh books (remember Christopher Robin went with Alice to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace) as well as Beatrix Potter’s beloved stories including the misadventures of Peter Rabbit and the Mary Poppins books.

When most people think of Mary Poppins, they think of the hugely successful movie by Walt Disney, but Wentz reminds us that much of Mary Poppins’ London is real and can still be visited, places that include Regents Park, the London Zoo, the Bank of England (the old-lady of Threadneedle Street) and of course Sir Christopher Wren’s marvel, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Another part of London which appears in at least a couple of series of children’s stories is Portobello Road home of what might well by the world’s largest flea market. Not only does Paddington pay visits to an antique shop to pass time with his friend Mr. Gruber, but Mary Norton’s Bed-Knob and Broomstick stories (another series that has received the Disney treatment when made into a feature film) also take place, in part, in the Portobello Market.

The last couple of years have witnessed almost a "British invasion" of the movie theatres with not only with the Harry Potter movies but the works of J.R.R. Tolkien making it to the screen. While The Lord of the Ring is more adult fare, The Hobbit, a sort of pre-quel to the ring trilogy is unashamedly a tale for children of all ages, just like The Chronicles of Narnia authored by one of Tolkien’s closest friends, also an academician at Oxford, C.S. Lewis.

Almost all of the locations connected with Tolkien and Lewis are to be found in the ancient university city of Oxford. Among those locations: The Eagle & Child Pub where both authors as part of a group called the Inklings liked to spend the hours reading works in progress aloud to each other and engaging in conversation and knocking back a pint or two. Other places on the ‘must visit’ list of Tolkien and Lewis fans include Magdalen College (note that the correct pronunciation is maudlin) as well as Merton College near the Christ Church Meadow.

Peter Pan

Another of the classics covered we’ve already mentioned, namely Peter Pan by the Scotsman J.M. Barrie. In the Disney animated renditions of Barrie’s story scenes of the children flying past Big Ben and high above London set the stage for the adventures to follow. Visit London’s Kensington Gardens and you’ll find a statue of Peter Pan. It was commissioned by Barrie in 1912 and the figure is based on photos of Michael Llewellyn Davies, the boy on whom Peter was based. At the corner of Leinster Terrace and Bayswater Road you’ll find the house where Barrie lived when he wrote the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. Near the end of his life Barrie signed over all royalties from the Pan stories to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in the Bloomsbury section of London and years later Parliament passed legislation extending the copyright forever or as Wentz puts it, "the copyright that never grows up." In front of the hospital is another statue of Peter Pan and inside visitors can grab a bite at the Peter Pan Café.

Wentz also includes stories that may be less familiar to American readers but have enjoyed great popularity in England; for example the Postman Pat series by John Cunliffe. At the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office and Postal Railway on Farrington Road in London you can go behind the scenes of the Royal Mail. Tours are offered and the Post Office Heritage, the archives of the Royal Mail are also located here.


An enjoyable read, Wentz’s book is divided into sections dealing with classics, modern stories and British favorites. Each chapter deals with a specific author and includes a brief biography and sections on places and locales associated either with the stories or the author’s life. For example, did you know that Mapledurham House on the Thames near Reading is the model for Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows? Or that you can find an original edition of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Doolittle on display at the British Library? Are you a fan of the Reverend Awdry’s stories about that really useful engine Thomas? Then a visit to the London Transport Museum might be just the stop for you. Other stories and authors covered include Roald Dahl, Robert Lewis Stevenson and a chapter about the legend of Robin Hood as well as Edith Nesbit’s railway children stories. Wentz covers them all.

More fun to read than most guide books, more informative too, and, if you’re the literary type, more enlightening. Planning a trip to the UK with kids, or maybe planning a trip for your "inner kid?" Then Melanie Wentz’s Once Upon a Time in Great Britain is the book you’ll have to have when you begin making your plans.

Melanie Wentz. 274 pps. Copyright 2002. Published by St. Martin’s Griffin Books (New York, N.Y.) ISBN 0-312-28338-5: Purchase 'Once Upon a Time in Great Britain' Online.

Review by David McIntosh

"Photos on left side courtesy of Melanie Wentz."

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Re: A Review - Once Upon a Time in Great Britain

By Richard Wyland 24/03/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 13018 votes) of my MAJOR fantacies is that I was able to grow up in London and know the city better than any other person...SAD I know...

I've thought about doing a children's book about an American boy whose parents are transfered to London and his Hardy Boy-esque adventures solving mysteries with an Eton Collegeer neighbor who is home for the hols...

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Re: A Review - Once Upon a Time in Great Britain

By Richard 01/04/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12838 votes)

Do you know, coming from the UK it's never crossed my mind to buy a 'real' Paddington Bear from Paddington Station. How lucky you overseas vistors are to be able to appreciate the romance of such a purchase!

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Re: A Review - Once Upon a Time in Great Britain

By Richard Wyland 17/04/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12627 votes)

My Paddington is from Hamley's...Wish I'd thought of going to Paddington Station for mine...sigh

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