Like Mary Poppins soaring over rooftops, the charming characters created by English authors cross geographical boundaries. Translated into many languages, the stories belong not just to the country that spawned them, but to the children of the world.
There is no more enjoyable introduction to British culture, history, and literature than entering the world of favorite storybook characters and following in their footsteps. It's fun to visit places you dreamed of as a child and introduce your own children or grandchildren to them.
London is the perfect city to take youngsters on a literary journey through parks, gardens, castles, and cathedrals that were haunts of J.M.Barrie's Peter Pan, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, P.L. Travers's Mary Poppins, and Michael Bond's Paddington Bear.
Kensington Gardens, the original setting for Peter Pan's Neverland, adjoins Hyde Park, creating a wide green space of more than 630 acres.
A brick wall and wrought-iron entrance gate separate the flowers blooming along winding paths from the multistoried buildings across the street. Quiet ponds and lagoons attract ducks, geese, and swans. This serenity and tranquility give Kensington a magical, other-world quality.
J.M. Barrie lived near Kensington Gardens. A visitor can stroll down the paths where Barrie walked the St. Bernard he and his wife received as a wedding present. The dog became the model for Nana.
On one of these walks Barrie met the Davis family. The idea of Peter Pan came from the many games he played with the Davis boys, and from the adventurous tales he made up to entertain them. He became their favorite "uncle," and when their parents died at an early age, the boys were left in Barrie's care.
When I was there, young boys clad in blue pants and white shirts jumped, skipped, and bounced as they searched for Peter Pan's statue. They raced along the banks of the Long Water, the smaller, narrower upper section of the Serpentine, a 40-acre artificial lake.
The Long Water narrows until it reaches Tivoli Gardens, a group of four fountains placed symmetrically in front of an Italianate summerhouse designed by Christopher Wren. A hundred yards beyond, the boys came upon Peter Pan. They dissolved into shrieks and delighted laughter.
This was exactly the reaction Barrie anticipated when he commissioned George Frampton to create a bronze statue of the fairy-tale character. Barrie sneaked the statue into Kensington Gardens in the dark of night, hoping that when it was seen in the morning, people would think it got there by magic.
Scholars have surmised that the idea of a boy who wouldn't grow up was based on Barrie himself, who remained forever youthful, with a willingness to play games, a vivid imagination, and a boyish appearance.
Leave Kensington Gardens-Hyde Park, hop on a red double-decker bus, sit on the top tier, notice the rooftops, and count the brick chimneys so prominent in the tales about Mary Poppins.
In 1934, Pamela L. Travers published the story of the magical English nanny brought by the east wind to take care of the four Banks children who lived at 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Mary Poppins could slide up banisters and serve tea on the ceiling. She and her best friend, Bert, a Cockney chimney sweep, danced on the rooftops of London.
Step off the bus at Paddington Station and enter the world of Paddington Bear, who came from "Darkest Peru." Henry Brown spotted the bear behind mailbags in the lost property office at the railway station and took him home to 32 Windsor Gardens. Since 1952, 150 books have been published about the lovable bear, beginning with "A Bear Called Paddington."
A life-size statue of Paddington Bear wearing Wellington boots, duffel coat, and sou'wester hat is on permanent display at the railroad station. A cuddly, brown Paddington is a staple at every gift shop.
Near Paddington Station at 23 Craven Hill is the London Toy and Model Museum, where many of the exhibits are interactive. The first floor of the five-story building is a model of a working coal mine. Twenty themed galleries feature collections of bears, dolls, toys, and trains.
Moving on to the London Zoo, join troupes of children who come dressed in their best cloaks, pointed hats, and black-rimmed glasses to take in the Harry Potter sights. The zoo was the place where Harry spent his only happy day with his Muggles, the Dursleys. Follow the zookeeper to the reptile house where Harry first realized he had magical powers because he could talk to the boa constrictor.
Stop at Kings Cross Station where Harry and his friend, Ron, boarded the Hogwarts Express bound for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the imaginary Platform 9-3/4, located off Platform 8 in the area where platforms 9, 10, and 11 are found.
Since ordinary Muggles can't see 9-3/4, a sign marks the spot. Although the area doesn't have quite the zing depicted in the movie, the sounds of trains coming and going, people hurrying to get on and off, and a conductor cheerfully calling, "Mind the gap, please," are enough to send a fan back to the wizard books.
The best way to wrap up a youthful London tour is on the London Eye, the Millennium Wheel, which towers 450 feet up in the air. Though the Eye is technically not a Ferris wheel because it is structured differently, it looks, acts, and feels like one. Sitting in one of its 32 capsules, 15,000 riders a day can see 25 miles in each direction, a great overall view of the city.
Mary Poppins and Peter Pan would've loved it.