Lewis Carroll’s Trails of the Unexpected

Sue Coates at St Peter's Church.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Sue Coates at St Peter's Church. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
  • In the 150th anniversary year of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Stephen McClarence discovers how a small Yorkshire village will forever be tied to author Lewis Carroll.
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Soon after moving to Croft-on-Tees, a quiet village up at the very top of Yorkshire, one of Sue Coates’s neighbours was alarmed when she looked out of her front window and saw a procession of people wearing over-sized top hats and big floppy ears.

“She wondered what sort of village she’d come to,” says Sue, a retired music teacher. “And then she discovered it was the American Lewis Carroll Society.”

St Peter's Church, Croft-on-Tees

St Peter's Church, Croft-on-Tees

The visitors were dressed as – among other characters – the Mad Hatter and the March Hare from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose 150th anniversary is being celebrated across Britain this year. Oxford, where Lewis Carroll spent much of his life, is the main focus, but Yorkshire has a better claim on the author than many places that make a bigger fuss of him.

Ripon, Whitby, Richmond and Beverley all have Carroll links... but Croft, one of his boyhood homes, can outdo them all, staking a claim for him as a Northern writer. Cheshire-born Carroll – aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – lived in Croft’s sizeable rectory with his parents and 10 brothers and sisters from 1843, when he was 11 years old, to 1851, when he left for Oxford.

Across the rectory garden is the church, a long, low building featuring a carving which – possibly, conceivably, credibly – may have inspired the Cheshire Cat. Whether this is true or not, Carroll reputedly wrote the first verse of his Jabberwocky while living here.

Llandudno in North Wales – which Carroll is never known to have visited – has launched a digital Alice trail on the strength of Alice Liddell (the book’s inspiration) holidaying there. So Croft could easily justify a fully-fledged Wonderland World theme park (well, sort of).

The altar has what looks like a grinning Cheshire Cat.

The altar has what looks like a grinning Cheshire Cat.

It could convert the petanque court next to its village hall into a croquet ground, complete with wooden flamingos for mallets and plastic hedgehogs for balls. It could be the starting point of a Whimsical Wander in Wonderland trail round Yorkshire. But Yorkshire doesn’t really do whimsy, doesn’t really venture too far down the rabbit hole.

“People from outside the village have wondered why we don’t make more of Lewis Carroll,” says Coates, who has organised a summer of Alice-themed events in Croft to celebrate the anniversary. “But some here are a little wary; they say: ‘We don’t want to be invaded.’”

So the only obvious evidence of his connection to the village is kept low-key – a street called Lewis Close and another called Carroll Place. The coaches of Carroll pilgrims roll in from time to time, over a bridge straddling the Tees, the historic boundary between Yorkshire and County Durham (or Darlington Unitary Authority, as the looking-glass world of local government has numbingly renamed this part of the county).

Most tourists aren’t British; they come from Japan, Germany, Australia, Russia, the US. “They’re absolutely full of it in the way we’re not,” says Sue. “Even in South Korea there’s an Alice in Wonderland teashop.”

St Peter's Church, Croft on Tees

St Peter's Church, Croft on Tees

Some Carroll fans knock boldly on the front door of the rectory, where in his Oxford days he spent happy vacations until his father, the rector, died in 1868 and the family moved out. Carroll wrote a poem – not a very good one – about it:

Fair stands the ancient Rectory

The Rectory of Croft,

The sun shines bright upon it,

The breezes whisper soft.

He staged magic lantern and conjuring shows there, wrote family magazines and photographed his brothers and sisters, along with visitors, including Tennyson’s niece. Copies of some of the photographs hang in the hall of the imposing 18th century rectory: girls with ringlets, ladies in bonnets and crinolines, men with frock coats and fob watches. Some are elegantly posed around a sundial; it’s still here, as is an acacia tree that figures in other pictures.

Peter and Jane Atkinson have lived in the rectory for 35 years (they’re about to move, ironically to Oxford). When they bought it, it had been converted into three flats, but they converted it back into a family home.

“We didn’t buy the house because of its Lewis Carroll association, but it’s been a wonderful added extra,” says Peter. “People are thrilled to see it, and to ‘feel’ the house.”

Carroll’s father, who is buried in the churchyard, thought the rectory had “the elements of abundant comfort”. It was big enough to have a wine cellar, two separate libraries, a needlework room and substantial servants’ quarters behind a green baize door.

Peter Atkinson leads a tour round its maze of corridors, up back staircases, past a window with the initials “CLD” scratched on it. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson? “If it is,” he says, with a smile.

We see Carroll’s bedroom with its corner fireplace, and the nursery, where Peter lifts a floorboard to reveal the hiding place where, in 1950, a cache of Victorian relics was found: the lid of a doll’s teapot, a letter from a child’s alphabet, a piece of clay pipe, a thimble, a small white glove, a child’s shoe, a fragment of wood with Carroll’s handwriting apparently on it.

And there’s a skylight on which workmen scratched their names in the 1830s. From inside, you read them back-to-front. Did this inspire Carroll’s interest in mirror-writing? Who knows?

Who also knows how much the sandy-stoned medieval church, with its roses round the porch, influenced him? It’s a fine, eccentric place, dominated by a huge 17th century curtained pew supported by columns and likened over the years to a house on stilts or the royal box in a theatre.

There’s a plaque to Carroll, complete with White Rabbit, and an enormous tomb with growling lions guarding its corners; a list of rectors dating back to the splendidly named 13th century Cynicus; and memories of Byron, who spent his honeymoon near Croft after marrying a local girl.

The most intriguing feature, though, is the medieval sedilia, the group of clergy seats on the chancel wall. It’s decorated with a surreal jumble of figures and faces, swirling round in the stone, with angels and dragons and trees and pigs snuffling for acorns. And, fantasy piling on fantasy, there’s a grinning animal that’s a dead ringer for the Cheshire Cat.

You could build a global tourism industry on that alone. And isn’t there a precedent for a Yorkshire village church with attached rectory/parsonage and a few literary associations?

Croft’s Alice-in-Wonderland summer includes a Mad Hatter’s Pimm’s & Scones Party (June 20), a new adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (June 27), a Carroll-themed Scarecrow Weekend (July 11 & 12), a magic lantern show (September 15) and a Queen of Hearts Ball (October 17). All events free; contact Sue Coates (01325 721014) for details. The informative Lewis Carroll, Child of the North by Anne Clark Amor, is on sale at the church, priced at £5.