Aylesbury and the Christmas Story

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Next time you visit the Museum discover a new display about Aylesbury and the Christmas story.

You can also read about it here:

1958 edition cover

The Story of Holly and Ivy, written by the English author Rumer Godden, is a warm-hearted Christmas fantasy, first published in 1958. The story was set in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and the book featured drawings of the station and Old Town by American illustrator Adrienne Adams.

Since its publication the book has been a seasonal favourite on both sides of the Atlantic and tells the converging stories of a little doll called Holly in a toy shop in the Buckinghamshire town, and a girl called Ivy. In a bid to avoid being sent to an infants’ home when her city orphanage closes for Christmas, Ivy invents a grandmother in Aylesbury.

Illustration Adrienne Adams


“And where does your grandmother live?” asked a gentleman in the train compartment.

“In Aylesbury”, answers Ivy, the little orphan girl on her hopeful but uncertain way to her big adventure.

“That will be two or three stations”, says the nice lady sitting opposite.

“Then there is an Aylesbury”, says Ivy.

Illustration Adrienne Adams

Rumer Godden (1907 – 1998) wrote both for children and adults. She lived in Buckinghamshire in the 1950s at three different addresses around Speen, 10 miles from Aylesbury, and must have known Aylesbury well.

Illustration Adrienne Adams

60 years on, Aylesbury’s Old Town (the area around Church St, Castle St, Temple St and Parson’s Fee) retains its core atmospheric details.

“Houses with gables overhanging the pavements, and roofs jumbled together…cosy with their lighted windows”, wrote Godden.

“The market square, where the Christmas market was going on”; “cobbled streets going up and down”.

Then, when the book was reprinted in the 1980s, a single word change was made. Aylesbury became the fictional Appleton. Fresh drawings by Barbara Cooney (Sheila Bewley illustrated the Puffin edition) depicted a traditional and cosy old town at Christmas, but definitely not Aylesbury.

There is an Appleton in Oxfordshire but only a small village with no railway station, so it doesn’t fit the description. The rest of the book stayed exactly the same.

We don’t know why the change was made, or whether Godden was involved, but the change was retained in other, later editions (curiously Wikipedia still refers to Aylesbury as the location).

Illustration Adrienne Adams

The book has lost none of its appeal, despite the move to Appleton. Boston Parents Paper named it one of their “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time”. The Horn Book Magazine, the oldest magazine in the United States dedicated to reviewing children’s literature, felt it was “texturally rich and evocatively wintry”, commending it as a read for the “whole family”. In the UK The Guardian marked it as one of its “perennial favourites”.

The Story of Holly and Ivy is published by Macmillan Children’s Books with illustrations by Christian Birmingham. The book is currently out of print but your local bookshop may still have copies, otherwise a Kindle edition is available on Amazon.

Researched and written by Gareth Huw Davies
The Story of Holly and Ivy © Rumer Godden 1958, this edition illustrated
by Adrienne Adams. Reproduced with kind permission of Macmillan Children’s Books.

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