Finding Alice at Harlow Carr

The Mad Hatter

As part of my PhD, I’m exploring and thinking a lot about the commercial implications of literary tourism and children’s literature. What texts do people use? How do they use them? What do they hope to get out of it? How is the text transformed as part of that process?

Or, to phrase that a little less ‘head in the thesis’, I go to places that are doing children’s literature related things and check out what they’re doing. And then I have cake.

RHS Harlow Carr, one of the Royal Horticultural Society gardens located in Harrogate, currently has a series of Alice-in-Wonderland themed events going on until the 31st August. There are costumed characters going on, special craft events, storytelling and a band on Sundays playing music. (The band played Frozen. THEY PLAYED FROZEN)

This way!

Harlow Carr is a large site and it’s one that I’m familiar with from many trips there with family over the years. The Alice-in-Wonderland trail runs around the whole site – it’s quite a walk, so any small children may need to take advantage of the benches on route (or the quite fabulous playgrounds that are available). I say small children, but also means PhD students who went and said “Crikey, this is farther than I expected.”

So. The practicalities of the trail are really well done. Children get a small booklet which is covered with activities (there’s a pen fixed at every key stop for them to mark off things in the booklet – some canny thinking there on the part of the authorities) and at each of these moments, there’s a character from the series for children to put their head through and get photographed. Again, I say small children, but this could also mean PhD students and pretty much everyone (I mean, who doesn’t want to masquerade as the Cheshire Cat occasionally?)

The Three of Clubs

One particular note about the signs that marked each key stop; they had more activities on, a contextually relevant activity (can you identify the trees that these leaves came from?), a little fact about the relevant character (Cheshire Cats love to sit in trees. They have a habit of disappearing and leaving their smiles behind). I loved this. It’s clever stuff, to pull something like the Cheshire Cat out of a book and situate it very firmly in a real world context. The ‘made up’ elements of the text sit next to the practical elements (you can see them in the pink section of each sign in the photographs) and there’s nothing splitting the two, nothing that says ‘imagine’ or ‘make up’. Now, whilst imaginary play has its intense validity, there’s something quite delicious about this practical insistence of the fictional being the real. It’s work that speaks both to the adults and the children and to the space around the sign. As far as that sign goes (and therefore, by implication, anybody who’s reading it), Harlow Carr is Wonderland. And that’s a brilliant, brilliant thing.

I love this … intervention? This exhibition? This performed reading? I’m not sure what to call it, but I know that I am nothing but thumbs up for organisations who both sponsor this sort of thing and organisations that allow their space to be redefined and moulded by readers who are recreating texts with every step they take. These sorts of activities build readers. They make readers.

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