Celebrating 150 years of Alice in Wonderland in Guildford
- Credit: Archant
One of the best-loved children’s books of all time, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is 150 years old this summer. As the country gets ready to celebrate this special anniversary, Viv Micklefield takes us on a tour of Guildford, where Lewis Carroll spent much of his later life, to reveal the town’s curious connections to the author...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2015
Stepping through the simple wrought-iron gates, identified only by the playing card suits forged into their design, the contrast with the world left behind could hardly be more striking. As picnicking families jostle for space on Guildford Castle’s grassy terraces, and locals and tourists vie for the bowling green’s vacant benches, hidden away between the two, the peaceful Alice Garden lies in wait.
To stumble unexpectedly upon these tranquil – yet ever-so-slightly ethereal – surroundings comes as a bit of a surprise. But for fans of Lewis Carroll (or the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson as he was really known), it’s a must-see part of their pilgrimage around the Surrey town, which remains steeped in his spirit.
While the writer was never actually a permanent resident of Guildford, the family home he established here for his six unmarried sisters meant that he became a frequent visitor to the town, and the local area the inspiration for some of his uniquely memorable work.
“Alice in Wonderland was published three years before Carroll first came to Guildford in 1868, so he was already a fairly famous man,” says town guide Roger Nicholas, who’s been walking in the writer’s footsteps for more than a decade.
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“The railway line had been here over 20 years by then and he made use of it because he could get from his rooms in Christ Church College, Oxford, via Reading, to Guildford quite easily in those days. And it’s said that another of the attractions of settling his sisters here was that he would be near to London to enjoy his favourite pastime, which was going to the theatre.”
Happy home life
Whatever the reason, the death of their clergyman father in Yorkshire saw the 36-year-old Carroll duty-bound, as the head of 11 surviving siblings, to re-house his sisters, brother Skeffington and maiden aunt Lucy Lutwidge. And having found The Chestnuts in Guildford, an imposing eight-bedroom residence that had, in his own words, “a splendid view” overlooking the ruined Keep (interestingly, a vote in the Guildford constituency came with the £73 annual rental), this became home to the extended Dodgson family until 1930.
Mystifyingly missing a blue plaque, there’s nothing to identify this striking red brick house today. Instead, a short walk down Castle Hill to Guildford Museum reveals some of the treasured childhood playthings and everyday domestic objects that once belonged to The Chestnuts’ former occupants. As collections officer Catriona Smellie explains, it’s a glimpse into their earlier upbringing and of the Alice ‘effect’ that later swept the country.
“The homemade cut-out dolls are typical of what a lot of middle class Victorian children would have created for their own entertainment, while the shop-bought toys” – the mini wooden croquet set stands out – “show that the family was willing to spend money on their children and that it was probably quite a happy household,” says Catriona.
“These toys were kept for a long time. They were passed down from family member to family member. It’s possible this was for sentimental reasons and, perhaps, because they were aware that Carroll was becoming a celebrity.”
It’s certainly possible to picture the hullaballoo that followed the creation of one of the original female heroines in children’s literature. Amongst the items displayed are Alice-inspired jigsaw puzzles and a biscuit tin, dozens of which Carroll apparently gave away to the children he befriended. There’s also a postage stamp set, intended to encourage younger letter writers, although competing with this prolific correspondent who penned an astonishing 100,000 missives would have been a tall order.
What is more, to celebrate this year’s 150th anniversary of the book, a selection of Sir John Tenniel’s famous illustrations will be going on display at the museum from the autumn in a special exhibition entitled Looking in Wonderland.
“We’re so excited about the exhibition,” says Catriona. “It will be lovely to have these famous illustrations brought to Guildford in this special anniversary year. The drawings even influenced women’s fashion at the time, and of course the Alice band comes from these too. The stories have captured people’s imaginations like no other.”
A unique archive
While Guildford Museum remains an important focal point for fans of the books, it’s not the only place in Surrey to hold a collection of the author’s possessions. A few miles away, at Surrey History Centre in Woking, they have some uniquely personal items, including letters, papers and the last will and testament. According to Isabel Sullivan, an archivist at the centre who specialises in the Dodgson family archives, it’s a collection of some significance.
“In terms of Lewis Carroll, as a writer, mathematician, thinker and photographer, it’s a fairly random collection but nevertheless does include some very interesting material,” she says. “We know that he loved walking in the Guildford countryside and that he wrote the final line of The Hunting of the Snark whilst crossing the Hogs Back. We also have his diaries so know a huge amount about who he met and what he did. He was quite involved in Guildford life.”
To take just one example, a copy of the Guildford Gazette Extraordinary, a spoof newspaper that Carroll wrote in 1869, reportedly contains a theatrical review of an evening spent in Woodbridge Road – where his friend, the author William Webb Follett Synge had a house – in the company of fellow novelists Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray.
And from lecturing in logic at Abbot’s Hospital to preaching at St Mary’s Church, this notoriously reserved man embraced the town and its citizens during his many visits; seemingly dividing his time between work and hobbies, in much the same way as he did as an Oxford don.
Perhaps most importantly of all, though, while Guildford doesn’t lay claim to inspiring Alice’s first ‘adventures’, it’s here that the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, was completed in 1871. This explains why, in the now public garden next-door to The Chestnuts, Jean Argent’s lifelike sculpture takes pride of place. Sadly, neither this, or the bronze Alice and the White Rabbit tribute by Edwin Russell on Millmead, would have been there when Carroll’s original muse, Alice Hargreaves (née Liddell), accepted an invitation to attend the town’s 1932 centenary celebrations honouring his birth. However, it’s tempting to imagine that, at some point, her gaze turned across the river towards The Mount Cemetery. Here, Carroll lies beneath a simple stone cross, having caught flu whilst in Guildford for a family Christmas in 1898.
“There’s the famous story of the grave being restored in the 1980s because it was very close to a pine tree,” says Roger Nicholas. “Apparently, the work was paid for by the Lewis Carroll Society of Japan. I’ve no idea what his words sound like in Japanese, but it just goes to show how widespread the interest still is.”
Today, as we celebrate the anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and later Through the Looking Glass, people’s love for the books shows no sign of abating – and, here in Surrey, we can be proud that our county played a part in the story.
• Looking in Wonderland will run from Saturday November 28 to Saturday January 23 at Guildford Museum, Castle Hill, Guildford GU1 3SX. Admission is free. Tel: 01483 444751. Web: guildford.gov.uk/museum
It’s party time for all ages this summer as Guildford celebrates the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
• Monday June 15 to Sunday June 21: This year’s Guildford in Bloom Floral Window Display Competition is themed on Alice in Wonderland. Vote for your favourite as local businesses compete to be the best in town. See experienceguildford.com
• Friday June 19 and Saturday June 20, 8pm: In this one-man show, devised, written and directed by David Horlock, Crocodiles in Cream paints a compelling portrait of Lewis Carroll at the Mill Studio. Tickets £13. See yvonne-arnaud.co.uk
• Saturday June 20 and Sunday June 21, 5pm: In Alice Comes to Woodhouse, the Holmbury St Mary venue celebrates with a special show. An extra performance and picnic for little ones is at 11am on Saturday. Tickets £21.50. See woodhousesounds.com/music-dance-ballet-events
• Tuesday June 23, 2.30pm: Join a Lewis Carroll Guided Walk to see the buildings he visited, and hear how he spent his days writing, visiting and taking photos, on this free tour (repeated Tuesday September 8). See guildfordwalks.org.uk
• Wednesday June 24, 8pm: Presented by the Circle Eight film group, The Life & Times of Lewis Carroll will be screened at The Electric Theatre with Guildford in the Great War. Tickets £10. See electrictheatre.co.uk
• Saturday July 11, 12noon-6pm: A Mad Hatter Tea Party will take place on the riverbank at The Weyside Inn, Millbrook. See theweyside.co.uk
• Saturday August 1, 2-8pm: A Mad Hatter Afternoon Tea will be held at The Keep pub, a stone’s throw from the Dodgson sisters’ home, in Castle Street. Tel: 01483 450600
• Monday August 10 to Friday August 14: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Jr takes to the stage as part of Guildford Summer Youth Project. See guildfordtheatreschool.co.uk
• Daily, 2-5pm: Enjoy a Queen of Hearts Afternoon Tea, including jam tarts and Mad Hatter milkshakes, at the Radisson Blu Edwardian, Alexandra Terrace. Tel: 01483 792300
• The Cheshire Cat character is reputedly based on a stone gargoyle found inside Cranleigh’s St Nicholas Church
• Carroll’s diaries talk of walking “through fairyland” to Silent Pool near Albury
• The first film version of Alice in Wonderland was produced by Hepworth Studios at Walton-on-Thames in 1903