Daresbury, Cheshire — Lewis Carroll’s birthplace

Any biography of Lewis Carroll will inform you that he was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the eldest boy and third child of Frances Jane Lutwidge and Charles Dodgson, in the small parsonage of Daresbury (Cheshire) near the towns of Warrington and Runcorn on the 27th of January, 1832. And of course, if you are a Carrollian, you might want to visit his birthplace someday.

Unfortunately, the parsonage is long gone, having burnt down in 1883. Fortunately, it doesn’t mean there is nothing to see in Daresbury.

Prof. Will Brooker’s rather formidable Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (which you should all read if you’re interested in Alice at all) published in 2004 presents a very interesting last chapter titled Pilgrimage, in which Brooker describes his journeys to eight places associated to Lewis Carroll, starting in Disneyland Paris and ending in Guildford.

I did the opposite journey, starting in Guildford last year and ending my own pilgrimage in Daresbury, where everything started. There was no particular reason for that except that I always go to Lewis Carroll places on my way from or to other destinations and I only stop at the Carrollian landmarks that are along the way. This time was different. Coming back from Scotland to Kent, Daresbury was quite the detour. However, it was entirely worth it.

All Saints Church and Lewis Carroll Centre

As much as I love Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (again, read it) and its last chapter, my only criticism of it would be related to the passing of time, which is hardly the author’s fault. He undertook his pilgrimage in 2002, and though he specifically states in the opening of the chapter that it was never intended to be a guidebook, I couldn’t help feeling that if I used it as such, I would probably be in for quite a ride. After all, things were bound to have changed in 16 years. And, as it proved to be, the comparison between 2002 and 2018 is striking — to say the least.

Even the road signs and the general designation of the places have changed. All Saints is still All Saints, but it is now boasting a brand new aisle that hosts the Lewis Carroll Centre. It is the Centre that is announced on the brown tourist signs on the road from Warrington, while it didn’t exist in 2002. At the time, All Saints was nothing more than the church where you could see a particular stained-glass window representing Carroll and some of his characters. Now, there is a semi-circular sandstone extension that houses the Lewis Carroll Centre, built with the help of national, regional and local funding bodies.

The Centre has a car park that can accommodate about fifty cars. When I arrive, it is half full, though I later discover that except for a group of four pensioners who cast a distracted glance at the stained-glass windows before heading out and the two volunteers who manage the shop, the church is empty. The car owners must all be in the pub across the street. You can’t blame them, really; it offers cheddar & Yorkshire ale fondue (with onion chutney and asparagus) for £9,99.

Visitors still get to the building through the cemetery, just as they did in 2002, and probably in 1832 too. A wonky sign informs me that the church and Lewis Carroll Centre are open. The side door between the church building and the brutally contemporary semi-circular extension opens to a table on which tea, coffee and biscuits are laid out. From inside, the Centre looks every inch a classical chapel, except that instead of paintings and tapestries, colourful graphic panels about Lewis Carroll hang on the walls. I guess the display usually reserved to saints makes it obvious enough: Carroll is enthusiastically presented as lovely man, and there will be no mention of any controversy of any sort, thank you very much — which offers a nice respite from all the baseless conspiracy theories that proliferate on the Internet these days.

The posters are pretty. The texts are informative. Here and there, silvery chess piece-shaped decorations based on the Tenniel illustrations punctuate the posters. A facsimile of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground sits on a table in the middle of the room, together with a few leaflets reporting parochial activities. In one corner, a gigantic rebus à la Carroll signed by Reverend David Felix, the canon of All Saints, wishes visitors a nice time.

I cross the hallway and enter the church. A volunteer asks me if I know where the stained-glass window is. I guess I must look like a Carrollian, or that they do not get many visits that are not related to the author. I tell her that I’d rather not be shown; “It’s OK. I’d like to discover it for myself,” I say. She looks disappointed. The window isn’t hard to find.

The chapel, located in the southeast corner of the All Saints, is a pretty place, though fairly unremarkable. It looks like practically every chapel in practically every church I have visited in the U.K., except for the massive 1935 stained-glass window. The three central windows show a nativity scene flanked by a monk with a dog on the right, and Charles Dodgson in a white clerical robe and Alice, represented as a young blonde girl in a green dress, on the left.  Dodgson is kneeling in prayer. The mixture of real life and fiction is surprising, though not completely out of place — we’re in a church, after all.

The five smaller glass panels underneath the scenes show (1) the White Rabbit, Bill the lizard, the Dodo; (2) the Caterpillar smoking its hookah, the Fish messenger; (3) the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare; (4) the Duchess, the Griffon and the Mock Turtle, and (5) The Knave and Queen of Hearts, as well as the Cheshire Cat’s head. The King is absent, for some reason.  The characters of Wonderland frame texts. The first window reads “In loving memory of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), author of Alice in Wonderland.” After all, the glass-window did come into being thanks to funds collected during Carroll’s centenary in 1932. Windows two to four present an excerpt of Carroll’s poem “Christmas Greetings” (1867):

Lady dear, if Fairies may
For a moment lay aside
Cunning tricks and elvish play
‘Tis at happy Christmas-tide.
We have heard the children say —
Gentle children, whom we love —
Long ago, on Christmas-Day,
Came a message from above.
Still, as Christmas-tide comes round,
They remember it again —
Echo still the joyful sound,
” Peace on earth, good-will to men.”

The last window gives beholders some succinct information: “He was born at Daresbury Parsonage, Jan. 27, 1832, and died at Guildford, Jan. 14, 1898.” Nothing too surprising there. The top panels show angels, as they usually do. The ensemble could go unnoticed to a visitor who wouldn’t be there on the purpose of seeing it.

In his 2002 pilgrimage, Brooker noted:

“A room at the back, kitted out for Sunday School, has Wonderland and Looking-Glass posters on the door, and inside a series of shrines for Alice, meshed with Christian imagery. Below a table laid with a white cloth, a cross, and a candle is a little tableau made of tartan blanket spread with tea things, jam tarts, biscuits, and a copy of Little Women; perhaps intended to represent the picnic that Alice’s sister might have brought out to the riverbank. In the corner of the room, a large Alice doll walks out in front of a mirror into a patch of flake flowers, she is dressed according to Tenniel’s illustrations, but her expression is blankly pretty, the face of a mass-produced plastic figure. A stuffed caterpillar sits on a cushion by the radiator. This is a low-budget, knocked-together equivalent of the Disney tableaux, or the Guildford statues […]; homely, improvised from available items rather than specially made or designed.” (Brooker 2004: 317)

Was Will Brooker’s criticism taken into account when the new Centre was designed and the church refurbished? One might think so. Or perhaps the committee just thought it was time for a simpler, more dignified approach. The plastic figures are gone, and so is the stuffed caterpillar. No more picnic tableau either. The chapel is a minimalist room, with a small altar and a couple of chairs. The only remnant of the Alice doll era might be the blue banner of the parish’s Sunday school which is embroidered with the White Rabbit.

In 2002 the northwest corner simply presented some miscellaneous merchandise with only “a donation box to handle transactions” (Idem: 316-7). Fast forward sixteen years and it looks a little more like a souvenir shop. There is a counter and a till, where the two ladies who volunteered to hold the fort on a Sunday afternoon are having a conversation about new items, two glass displays with your usual collection of magnets and mugs, and a nice range of postcards. I try to purchase two badges, but they happen to be free. I end up buying a tapestry shopping bag and making a donation. “It’s for the children, dear,” says the woman at the till. “Have you helped yourself a cup of tea?” asks the other. I haven’t, but I’ll take a biscuit on my way out. It’s time to see Lewis Carroll’s birthplace — or rather, what’s left of it.

The parsonage

Contrarily to the 2002 situation (Will Brooker could only find the place thanks to a photocopied map provided by the good Reverend Felix), it is fairly easy to find the old parsonage in 2018. Sure, it is still in the middle of fields and farms, but every crossroad now has its own signpost indicating the direction to take. It is impossible to get lost.

There is even a car park (three parking spaces, one litter bin, one tourist sign). A small wooden fence gives way to a muddy path to the parsonage. Again, no mistake possible: there is a National Trust plaque, a silhouette of the White Rabbit, and yet another informative display making extensive use of the Tenniel illustrations. In 2002, the comments were in both English and Japanese (Idem: 319). Nowadays, everything is English only, probably because it is assumed that readers of Carroll know at least enough English to understand what is written on the plaques. Or because there are multilingual guidebooks I haven’t noticed at the church shop. I don’t know.

The entrance of the grass rectangle is marked by a carved stone pillar:

“On this spot stood the parsonage in which Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was born on the 27th January 1832.”

The smaller text underneath the three lines from “Faces in the Fire”  that, as Brooker points out, are “cited whenever [Carroll’s] birthplace is discussed” (Idem: 320):

An island farm, ‘mid seas of corn,
Swayed by the wandering breath of morn,
The happy spot where I was born.

It is raining, but it is late April and the thick green grass of the parsonage garden is circled by yellow and white daffodils and bright dandelions. The ground is damp and it squishes under my shoes. The countryside is completely silent and empty. The place where the house should have been is empty too. As mentioned earlier, it disappeared in a fire at the end of the nineteenth century, but a layout of bricks traces the outline of the building. I walk along it, past the well which is covered by a grid with a dormouse decoration. I too feel that the house must have been pretty small for a place that, a second display informs me, hosted up  to nineteen people, between the family and its ten children (at the time), the father’s paying pupils, and the servants, some of whom lived there. Today, there isn’t anyone in sight.

Elegant wrought iron fences with leaf patterns stand where the entrance, garden and well used to be. The whole place is calm, empty, and well incorporated in its green environment. The impression that the Dodgson children could run out of the house to play in the yard is probably the romantic in me speaking, but there is a definite sense of life here. The emptiness leaves me in a meditative state, but I have one more stop to make before leaving Daresbury.

Goodbye, Daresbury

Ever since I entered the village, I have been curious about the pub. I wonder if it makes any case of Daresbury’s famous son. It doesn’t. Except for a chalk board announcing the Cheshire Cat beer, and a tap from which you can get a Mad Hatter ale, the person who decorated the Ring O’ Bells seems to have been completely oblivious to Lewis Carroll or Alice. This could be any nondescript pub in any village of England, with its faux-Victorian wallpaper and its Sunday roast special. The locals are sharing stouts and trying to get their dogs to lie on the wooden floors. Nothing much to see there; it screams of a missed opportunity.

Contrarily to what Will Brooker wrote in 2002 (Idem: 319), and except for the pub, the village finally seems to have embraced its literary heritage. From house numbers decorated with motifs loosely borrowed from the Tenniel illustrations to the welcome sign of the village that proudly brandishes the Cheshire Cat’s head, Lewis Carroll certainly has become a tourist attraction in Daresbury. Even the posters and the banners that the inhabitants have hung to protest the potential removal of the village’s special greenbelt status show Tenniel’s White Rabbit.

All in all, it has been a charming day. It probably wasn’t a transcendental experience, but it was meaningful.

I am left with a feeling of contentment as Daresbury gets further away in the rear view mirror; there is nothing tacky about the displays at the Lewis Carroll Centre, the church looks like a church, and the old parsonage is a peaceful place removed from the herds of tourists. It is all quiet and nice; it is peaceful history, far from the agitation and the crowds of theme park-like touristic landmarks, though it has certainly lost the charm of adventure which visitors might have experienced fifteen years ago. Life goes on, and so does Carroll’s legacy.

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