A new DVD sheds light on Peter Pan's British origins. We went to London to see for ourselves. By Bryan ReesmanThe mythical boy wonder who never wanted to grow up, the daring denizen of Neverland, Peter Pan (along with fairy friend Tinkerbell, the pretty mermaids, and the Lost Boys) has always represented the unbridled passion of youth and the struggle against adults' cynicism. Author J.M. Barrie's ageless boy whisked away the children of the Darling family to his magical home of Neverland, populated by the Lost Boys as well as by Indians and pirates, the latter led by Pan's nemesis, the dastardly Captain Hook. Many Americans know about Peter Pan through the Disney film version of the story, which has just been released in a two-disc platinum edition, but they may not have delved deeply into the story's British roots.
Thus I paid a visit to England to revisit Peter Pan's journey to Neverland. Peter and the three Darling children took flight from the posh district of Bloomsbury, traveling to Neverland by way of various London landmarks. In the Disney film, they glide through Kensington Gardens, land briefly on Big Ben before sweeping past St. Paul's Cathedral, dip down through the Tower Bridge, and then rocket to Neverland via the "second star on the right." You can easily hoof it to these various landmarks, but for a bird's-eye view, it's best to board the London Eye, an enormous enclosed-cab observation wheel right off the Thames that takes you on a 30-minute journey high into the air for breathtaking views of the city.
FIRST STOP: BLOOMSBURY Located in Central London, Bloomsbury was home to the Darling family. Today it is bustling with activity and is home to fashionable shops, the British Museum, the Cartoon Museum, the main library of the University of London, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and much more. Most importantly to Peter Pan lore, it is home to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which provides care for sick children and owns the copyright to the story. (The author transferred it to the hospital in 1929.) The hospital gallery includes book editions of Peter Pan from across the globe.
SECOND STOP: KENSINGTON GARDENS This is the place where Peter Pan first appeared in The Little White Bird, the 1902 story that preceded Peter's solo adventures. Adjacent to Hyde Park but considered part of it, the beautiful Kensington Gardens began life as a deer park for Henry VIII in 1536 and opened to the public a century later. Princess Diana once lived in nearby Kensington Palace.
Sir George Frampton designed the Peter Pan statue that rests in Kensington Gardens, where it was installed in April of 1912. "Instead of being built here and gradually coming to life, it was built in the studio and brought here, because J.M. Barrie had this idea that he wanted children to think that it magically appeared overnight," reports London Walks tour guide and travel author Ed Glinert. "But he didn't actually like it himself because he said it didn't show the devil in Peter."
QUICK DETOUR: 100 BAYSWATER ROAD For many years, starting in 1902, Barrie resided here, on the north side of Kensington Gardens. It is now a private residence obscured by a white stone wall. "When he was here, it was obviously much quieter," notes Glinert. "The roads would have looked very similar to this, without the traffic. You get an inkling of an old-fashioned village community with small shops and houses and pubs." This is where Barrie befriended the three eldest sons of his neighbors Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn Davis; Sylvia was the daughter of novelist George du Maurier.
Barrie formed a lifelong friendship with Sylvia, much to the disapproval of her husband. But the Llewellyn Davis parents died at a young age in the early 1920s, and Barrie became the unofficial guardian of their five sons. It was through his early experiences with that family that Barrie was inspired to create Peter Pan, as was dramatically depicted (with some creative liberties) in the film Finding Neverland.
THIRD AND FOURTH STOPS: BIG BEN AND ST. PAUL'S CATHEDRAL Erected in 1859, Big Ben is the hour bell of the Great Clock Tower of Westminster, which is adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. But most people refer to the whole tower as Big Ben. In the Disney movie, Peter and the Darlings land on the clock's minute hand, lowering it from 8:04 p.m. to 8:15, which makes Big Ben chime.
Moving eastward along the north side of the Thames, one finds another major London landmark, St. Paul's Cathedral. Along with the Tower Bridge, it escaped World War II unscathed. "The German airplanes coming into London would follow the river because it was the only thing they could see [during] the blackouts," explains London Eye tour guide Stephen Choi. "They would see the reflections of the moon in the river, and they would see the huge dome of St. Paul's, and then they would start bombing."
Those reflections no doubt aided Peter and the children on their own night flight.
FIFTH STOP: THE TOWER BRIDGE Designed by Sir Horace Jones, who was inspired by bascule bridges of Holland, the Tower Bridge opened in 1894. The bridge was erected out of stone granite to match the nearby Tower of London; it is located near London Bridge.
According to Tower Bridge tour guide Geoff Wooltorton, the bridge is lifted 900 to 1,000 times per year and has been stuck only once. He adds that an Act of Parliament decreed that river traffic has the right of way regardless of who needs to cross. In 1996, before there were planned lift alerts, President Clinton's car was separated from his motorcade when the bridge opened unexpectedly.
By flying, Peter and his friends just breezed through.
LAST STOP BEFORE NEVERLAND: THE SECOND STAR ON THE RIGHT You're on your own here. If you find it, let me know.