Gareth Huw Davies


Holly and Ivy – perennial seasonal hit returns to its hometown

Illustration from 1958 edition of The Story of Holly and Ivy – Adrienne Adams

A new display about Aylesbury and a famous Christmas story – at Discover Bucks Museum in the Buckinghamshire town.

The Story of Holly and Ivy, by Rumer Godden, is set in an English market town full of seasonal atmosphere.

This warmhearted Christmas fantasy has been a perennial seasonal favourite, on both sides of the Atlantic, since it was published in 1958.

It tells the converging stories of a little doll (Holly) in a toy shop in the town, and the girl (Ivy) who invents a grandmother there in a bid to avoid being sent to an infants’ home when her orphanage closes for the festive season.

But where was the town?

Originally it was the very real Aylesbury, the “pleasant and clean country town” in Buckinghamshire, “with cobbled streets going up and down”.

But in later editions of the book, the town became the fictitious Appleton. Now a new display at Discover Bucks Museum in Aylesbury (from December 2nd, 2023) traces the story of one of Godden’s best loved children’s books, and asks why the name was changed.

Rumer Godden was a prolific and itinerant writer. Born in Eastbourne, she lived as a child in India, returning to England for her school education. 

Many will remember the three-part adaptation of her Black Narcissus, starring Gemma Arterton and Diana Rigg. It was a highlight of the 2020 TV Christmas schedules.

Aylesbury. In such a street Rumer Gooden imagined the girl seeing the doll in a shop window.

Among the places where Godden lived was Buckinghamshire, where, for a short time, she had three different addresses around Speen, 10 miles from Aylesbury. She would almost certainly have known and visited the market town, which was the location for The Story of Holly and Ivy as she wrote it originally. Unlike some of her novels, this has never been satisfactorily filmed. Perhaps we should be grateful, for it conjures its magic best on the page. 

Godden set her story in the “pleasant and clean country town”, “with cobbled streets going up and down”. It’s the place where she decides her fictitious grandmother lives. “Perhaps she had heard it somewhere.” However, in later editions the location was switched to the made-up Appleton.

The Boston Parents Paper named the book one of their “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time”. The Horn Book Magazine, the oldest of the magazines in the United States dedicated to reviewing children’s literature, felt it was “texturally rich and evocatively wintry” and recommended it as a read for the “whole family”. In the UK, The Guardian marked it as one of its “perennial favourites”.

Aylesbury, not Appleton, in earlier editions

Aylesbury, and Buckinghamshire, may have lost a starring role in the children’s literary pantheon. But the Discover Bucks Museum in Church Street, where the Holly and Ivy exhibition is being held, is a well-established draw for another reason. The Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery was added on to it in the 1990s. And the gallery, too, will be a big Christmas attraction with the release of the film Wonka, based on the extraordinary character at the centre of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved children’s books.