A monster of an idea – The Gruffalo Trail
Lorraine Gibson tells the story of how the Gruffalo ended up, not in a theme park, but at a Dorset country park
Published in April ’13
Julia Donaldson, best-selling author and Children’s Laureate for 2011-2013, has a bit of a soft spot for Dorset, having spent her childhood summers in Bournemouth. It was, amongst other reasons, why she was happy to give the thumbs up to a child-friendly nature trail through Moors Valley Country Park and Forest which takes its inspiration from her most famous story, The Gruffalo.
‘I was delighted to hear about the Gruffalo Trail at Moors Valley Country Park,’ says Julia. ‘Dorset is such a beautiful place. I spent my school holidays there every year as a child and I am still very fond of it. In fact, our family holiday last year was spent walking the Dorset Coastal Path, it was really lovely.’
Julia and her younger sister, Mary, whiled away their summer breaks at their grandparents’ home, Burnham Lodge, an imposing 1900s house in Alumhurst Road. She has many happy memories of the times she spent there and of walking with Mary down to the beach via the leafy shade of Alum Chine: ‘We stayed with Granddad and Granny Grace, who left us to our own devices, so we would go off for hours exploring. We’d stroll through the chine down to the sea and on the way we often played crazy golf on the cliffs. I also have memories going for walks with my granddad, who I particularly remember was always armed with a pocket knife and would take swipes at hedges as we went. He was rather serious, very mathematically-minded and he would chat on about equations, which we didn’t really understand.’
It was, however, words not sums in which the girls were really interested. They grew up surrounded by books, which instilled a lifelong passion for the written word in them and Julia recalls how she and her sister loved to make up stories as they headed down to the seafront.
‘I have always loved stories; as I child I read anything, all sorts of stuff. Shakespeare I really liked. I even had a collection of little Shakespeare books bound in leather.’
When staying in Bournemouth as a girl, she slaked her thirst for literature wherever she could: ‘I remember enjoying rummaging around in a little second-hand bookshop that was located in the arcade in Westbourne.’
Today she still treasures many of the books from her youth, including an old copy of The Arabian Nights, which was a gift from her Granny years ago. More recently, she has been fervently involved in the campaign to save libraries, leading a protest meeting at the Scottish parliament, signing petitions, and turning up at readings in libraries throughout Scotland and England. A quest she has taken even more seriously in her role as laureate.
As a young woman, Julia worked for BBC Television, writing songs ‘to order’ for their children’s programmes and it was there that she honed her considerable talent for composing those funny, rhyming yarns that drowsy infants and exhausted parents love so much today.
The Gruffalo has become a modern classic, thanks to its humorous prose, charming illustrations by Axel Scheffler and enduring message of how, with a little imagination, even the smallest of creatures can overcome adversity. As with so many of the best-loved children’s books, much of its success is down to the fact that adults enjoy reading it as much as the little ones enjoy hearing it.
In a nutshell, it is a tale of brain triumphing over brawn as its hero, a clever little mouse, who is walking through the woods in search of a nut, has to use all of his wiles in order to outwit three of his natural predators, a fox, an owl and a snake. To distract them, and thus save himself, the quick-thinking rodent invents the Gruffalo, a fearsome creature with terrible tusks and terrible claws and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws. Mouse describes the beast in great detail to his would-be assailants. To Mouse’s surprise, however, his creation turns out to be all too real and, in the end,… well, you will just have to read the book.
Now fans can follow in Mouse’s footsteps on a meandering, gentle mile-or-so walk through a section of Moors Valley’s lovingly-maintained forest. Explorers of all ages can stroll through paths lined with lofty pines with silver-white and chocolate-coloured mottled barks and scattered drifts of fallen sticks and logs – in other words, pure Gruffalo territory, as fans of the distinctive illustrations will testify.
In the book, as well as encountering Mouse’s enemies, youngsters also learn about the types of domains the wild creatures inhabit and so, as they journey through this very real deep, but not so dark wood, they are invited, through an activity booklet, to solve a series of clues, embedded in chunks of trunk, which test both knowledge and recall by asking questions or setting tasks relating to the story and its characters. Children who complete the trail and the quiz receive a sticker at the end and can enter a prize draw to receive a mixture of Moors Valley and Gruffalo goodies.
The trail, part of the Nuts about Nature campaign – which aims to encourage Dorset residents and visitors to engage with the diverse and abundant wildlife to be found in the park and forest, is just one of many outdoor pursuits in a programme of family-friendly Easter and spring activities that includes pond-dipping, adventure cycling, and weaving Easter baskets from natural materials.
It has the backing of both Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler and Moors Valley’s team of Rangers, who are constantly on a mission to get locals active and came up with the idea for the trail in the first place, were thrilled when it was given the go ahead.
‘It was an idea that cropped up during a meeting,’ explains Communication Ranger, Katie Davies. ‘Because of The Gruffalo’s wildlife theme, and the fact that the woods in the book look so like ours, we have always been fans of the story; it has always been part of our Story Week activities’.
‘Tracy Standish and Emma Reeks, our Education Rangers, decided it would be great to take it further and do something bigger with it. We didn’t know where to start, so we just went online, found Julia Donaldson’s publishers, Macmillan, and, with a very brief outline of the idea, just asked them for permission to create an activity based on the book.
‘They liked the idea,’ she says, ‘so they contacted Julia and Axel and got back to us very quickly to say they would be happy to get behind it. In fact they were brilliant, very encouraging and so generous with information; they even let us use Axel’s original artwork. So then it was down to the team here at the park to create something that not only incorporated his images and Julia’s words, but that would be a fun adventure. It has turned out to be one of the most, if not the most, popular thing we’ve done for families, probably because grown-ups love the story too and they can all join in, solving the clues, doing the activities, making the little mouse houses, some of which have been amazing, and generally just enjoying plenty of fresh air and a good walk.’
‘We are just thrilled,’ Tracy Standish adds, ‘to be given permission to bring the classic children’s tale to our own “deep, dark wood”, where we actually have wild versions of each of the animal characters.’
Moors Valley Country Park
Moors Valley, the third-largest country park in the UK, is open every day of the year except Christmas. There is no entry fee, you pay only to park your car by the hour, so a group sharing a vehicle can spend the whole day for between £2.50 and £8, depending on the season, for an entire day. More than half the native British species of dragonfly can be found in the park, hence its distinctive logo.
For more information on the park and trail, visit www.moors-valley.co.uk, for other activities based on the book, visit www.gruffalo.com.