Peter Pan's Neverland could become forever-land.
Photo: Rob McDougall
Joanna Lumley is raising £4m to turn Moat Brae in Dumfries - birthplace of JM Barrie's tale - into a children's literature centre.
For the teenager James Matthew Barrie, the sloping, terraced garden overlooking a gentle river was an enchanted land where he and his friends became pirates, clambered over walls, built hideouts and scaled trees in the sunshine.
But the back garden of Moat Brae, a late Georgian villa in the rural town of Dumfries, became more than a playground for the aspiring novelist and playwright. Thirty years later, it inspired Neverland, the magical kingdom where Peter Pan and Tinkerbell flew into battle against Captain Hook, an adventure that captured the imaginations of millions of real-life children.
Now, nearly 140 years after JM Barrie played there as a boy, the mansion and gardens are to be transformed into a national centre for children's literature, after the derelict and decaying building and its garden were saved from demolition by a local trust.
Supported by the actor Joanna Lumley, who has a holiday home nearby, the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust has launched a global appeal for £4m to save the house from ruin and return it and the garden to their original splendour.
Cathy Agnew, the trust's project director, said restoring the garden – now smaller than Barrie would have known it and the target of years of vandalism and fly-dumping – was an essential part of their plans to celebrate its reputation as the birthplace of Peter Pan.
Lumley said she was "thrilled and proud" to be involved. "There is such wonderful potential to create a fantastic national centre for children's literature," she said. "I want to help raise the profile of this admirable project so that Peter Pan fans from all over the world can support this wonderful restoration."
The garden will be replanted with shrubs and new trees, to add to the two surviving cedars, a flowering cherry and a tulip tree which is said to flower "spectacularly" every seven years. It will also feature a Peter Pan-themed play area.
"Working with others, we suddenly realised that we should become Scotland's first centre for children's literature," said Agnew.
"It's authentic. It's there for a reason; it's not just imposing it. Neverland is crucial to it. The house and the garden are inextricably linked, and Neverland will be a learning garden, a teaching garden and playing garden where every plant will tell a story. We will keep as much of the original garden that JM Barrie would have known as we can."
Although he was born and raised in Kirriemuir, a small town in Angus near Dundee, Barrie lived in Dumfries for five years with his older brother, Alexander, a schools inspector 20 years his senior, and their sister, Mary, who was their housekeeper. Barrie, who was a troubled man, said that this was one of the happiest periods of his life.
He was a pupil at Dumfries academy beside Moat Brae, and became close friends with the two boys of the house, Stuart and Hal Gordon. Their father, Henry Gordon, a solicitor, had bought the house – which was designed by the Scottish architect Walter Newall in 1823 – from another lawyer.
During the 20th century, the building became a hospital and nursing home, before being closed down in 1997. Unused since then, it was to be demolished and the land used for social housing by a housing association. After the trust's campaign, the association transferred ownership for £1.
In his speech to mark being given the freedom of the burgh of Dumfries in 1924, Barrie remembered how significant his time playing at Moat Brae had been, inspired often by his favourite book at the time, Coral Island, written by RM Ballantyne.
"When the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries Garden, which is enchanted land to me, was certainly the genesis of that nefarious work [Peter Pan]."
Agnew said the immediate task was to raise £750,000 by the end of this year to repair the roof. "We have to physically save the house by putting on a new roof because it won't get through another winter. It's not in good nick and is deteriorating day by day. So our plan is to do all the emergency and high priority repairs."
By 2015, the trust aims to have restored a suite of rooms to its original late Georgian style for live arts and cultural events, as well as create a performance space in the garden and a self-contained flat on an upper floor for children's writers in residence.
The scheme is being supported by leading literary organisations, including the Scottish Books Trust, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity, which has a lucrative bequest from Barrie.
Donors will be offered the chance to join several friends programmes, becoming Darling Friends, after the Darling family children spirited away from their home by Peter Pan, Wendy Friends, Peter Friends or indeed Crocodile Friends, after the beast with the clock in its belly.
Alongside the shop and cafe catering for tourists and visitors, the house will operate as an educational and cultural centre for local schools and JM Barrie enthusiasts and scholars. It would make "that whole connection with children's literature and the promotion and celebration of it, for authors, writers and illustrators," said Agnew.
Playwright who never grew up:
James Matthew Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, a small town in the foothills of the Angus glens near Dundee, to a handloom weaver. One of 10 children, he became his mother Margaret's favourite after the death in a skating accident of an adored older brother, David, at 14.
Many believe that event was pivotal to Barrie and Peter Pan. His mother believed David would always stay a boy, while Barrie stopped growing at 14, stuck at 5ft. Some biographers speculate that these issues contributed to Barrie's "stunted" emotional development.
After moving to Dumfries aged 13 with elder brother Alexander, Barrie joined his school's new dramatics club, writing his first play at 15, Bandelero the Bandit, of which every copy has disappeared. After a degree at Edinburgh University, Barrie moved to London to become a journalist and writer, publishing novels and plays from the late 1880s onwards including his first bestseller, The Little Minister, and his social commentary and fantasy The Admirable Crichton.
In 1894, he married Mary Ansell, an actress. They had no children but Barrie became close friends with the Llewelyn Davies family, who inspired the children in his play Peter Pan, Or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. First produced in 1904, it was turned into several novels, and then immortalised in the 1953 Disney animation (above).
After the first world war, Barrie largely gave up writing but donated money to many people and causes, including granting Great Ormond Street hospital significant, but not complete, rights over Peter Pan in 1927, a gift which is still protected under UK law and still earns it significant royalties.
Barrie died in 1937, and is buried in Kirriemuir, in the family plot.
- Severin Carrell, The Guardian
Read the full article on The Guardian website here.
Visit the Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust for more information.
Click here to view further details and buy Robert Ingpen's illustrated edition of Peter Pan and Wendy.