By Hannah Silverman
In the story of Alice in Wonderland, a curious girl in a headband chases a talking rabbit across a field, falls down a hole and ends up in a maddened wonderland. As you do when drugs and alcohol are not involved. You would think it’s the stuff of fiction, and it is, but also, it’s not. At least not entirely. You see, I recently went there – and you can too.
Author Lewis Carroll, or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as he was christened, spent his formative years in Daresbury, a darling English countryside town in Cheshire. His childhood home sat amongst corn fields and lush farmyards while the family home was constantly bustling with the children his father would tutor along with his 10 brothers and sisters. Speculatively, it provided the perfect setting for the creative mind to wonder and wander.
Fortunately for Alice fans this site has been commemorated and although the house itself burnt down around 1884, an outline of the rooms of the ground floor remains. Learning this site existed, I followed numerous signs to Carroll’s birth place and eventually found a plaque paying tribute to the literary genius. I pushed open a wooden gate which swung open with ease and as I read the tourist information I noticed a white rabbit out of the corner of my eye. As Carroll wrote: ‘there was nothing so very remarkable about that’. Of course, he was referring the now famous white rabbit, mine was just perspex, yet unexpected nonetheless.
But it wasn’t the fact that a plastic statue stood in the distance, it was the intrigue around it. The rabbit stood at the end of a pathway where two lines of berry bushes wilted into each other creating what must have been a deliberate rabbit warren-esque tunnel. The invitation to follow the white rabbit was all too tempting, I kind of got where Alice was coming from. Fortunately I didn’t have a watch that was late, so curiously I wandered along the grassy knoll to find out where this enchanting route would take me.
At the end of the path that I shall continue to refer to as a tunnel, stood a commerative stone reiterating that this was the birthplace of Lewis Carroll. Surrounding the stone several ageing trees that weep above the overgrown grass. And then I saw it. The well. Or the warren. Or the well that became the warren in words.
In the story Alice peruses the White Rabbit across the field, fascinated by his ability to talk and his possession of a somewhat late timepiece. She watches as the rabbit leaps down a large rabbit hole under hedge. Then she follows.
“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.”
They say fiction writers draw much of their ideas from their realities. Tell me, what role do you think this played upon an impressionable boy?
There’s always a sense of intrigue when you visit historic sites knowing that people of great influence and creative minds have left footprints where you now step. In this case, we know Alice in Wonderland is a fable, but when you see tangible hints of evidence that could reasonably suggest the root of one of the world’s greatest stories, the experience is nothing short of an adventure.
Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland during his time in Oxford, but it is indeed highly likely that much of his inspiration was drawn from his childhood home. We know for a fact that his birth county was Cheshire and there is obvious reference to this with his iconic smiling cat, aptly named, the Cheshire Cat. My money is also on the well.
Lewis Carroll’s birthplace is not a hot tourist attraction so you won’t be fighting crowds, although during the school term I imagine this would be popular for excursions. Visitors are encouraged to bring a picnic and the serene farmyard surrounds are idyllic. You could even say, it’s like a history lover’s wonderland in itself.
For those wanting more, head back into town to the All Saints Church, where Carroll’s father was vicar from 1827 to 1843 and where the Lewis Carroll Centre has recently opened. As well as walls of information detailing Carroll’s life in Daresbury, the Centre has supported the instillation of an Alice in Wonderland led light. Here you see an impression of Carroll alongside Alice as well as other references to the book including his famous characters the Cheshire Cat, the Dodo Bird and the smoking caterpillar.
In Cheshire, I discovered, they’re all mad. At least for their home-grown hero who helped put them on the map.