“It’s a typewriter. It’s like a computer.”
As two young boys looked at the old desk, I was quite impressed that children nowadays even know what a typewriter is called. This one, mind you, was better known to its owner as her “tryper”. Elisabeth Beresford (known locally as Liza Robertson) used it to write more than 150 books, and it takes pride of place in the new Wombles exhibition on Alderney in the Channel Islands.
The exhibition was launched on Saturday 30 June with a ‘grand opening’ event. Kicking things off at the bottom of the main shopping street, the Wine and Song choir sang The Wombling Song and Remember You’re A Womble, before the young KFA Sunbeams performed their ‘Alderney Womble Dance’ to the sound of Banana Rock.
Then everybody walked in procession along the street, led by Elisabeth Beresford’s daughter, Kate Robertson, and Great Uncle Bulgaria. Outside the exhibition, the Sunbeams danced again and there were speeches by Kate and the chief executive of the Alderney government, Roy Burke, before Kate cut the ribbon to declare the exhibition officially open. (You can watch their speeches in the video below.)
Afterwards, there was a ‘Womble hunt’ quiz for the children, with questions including which Wombles were hiding in various shop windows and how much a Womble Burger cost at the takeaway. There was also ‘Wombel’ bell ringing at the Methodist Church, though it was already closed by the time I got there.
The special summer exhibition is, appropriately, housed in the former bookshop at 39 Victoria Street. Kate told me: “It’s jollied up the shopping street, to have it there. And it’s really something exciting for the children to look at – and, actually, I’ve noticed quite a lot of old people like it.
“It’s going to run through until middle to late September. And I hope that it might become something that they do on a more permanent basis, because it would be lovely to think that the Wombles had got a permanent home here, as well as elsewhere. And it looks absolutely wonderful. The children of Ormer House School have made this burrow. So everybody’s done something.
“Donald [Hughes, the exhibition coordinator] has been the driving force, and Fran [Frances Jeens], who’s the curator of the Alderney Museum, has been the one who’s made it look so professional and had the ideas. The pair of them have been fantastic. And Donald got a little bit of money off the States of Alderney in order for them to be able to put it on. The idea was to attract people to the island – to come and see the Wombles as well as this lovely island. And here you are!”
Inside the exhibition, Elisabeth Beresford’s desk has been transplanted straight from her house a few streets away, complete with her typewriter, reference books, Wombles figures and some personal greetings cards. On the top of the typewriter, there’s a Dymo label saying ‘KNICKERS’… nobody seems to know why, not even her daughter. The consensus is that it was to make Liza laugh if she got frustrated.
On the opposite side of the room, there’s a selection of Elisabeth Beresford’s own books – a shelf of Wombles books in other languages, and a sample of the many other books she wrote in her long career. Underneath big display boards about each of the main Wombles characters (kids here are particularly fond of Alderney Womble), the room is filled with Wombles cuddly toys from Liza’s own collection. Some of them are quite faded, because they used to sit on the windowsill of Liza’s house, to the delight of visitors and passers-by.
Up the road at 22 Little Street, just three small Wombles remain in one of the windows. The house is now on the market, but Kate Robertson was staying there for the weekend. As I’d seen the estate agent’s pictures a few months ago, I quickly recognised the large, pale blue house, in a quiet cobbled street on the edge of town.
While exploring the island, I also walked past the Mignot Memorial Hospital, where Elisabeth Beresford spent the last few years of her life, and visited St Anne’s Church in the centre of town, where I found her memorial plaque in the graveyard, paying tribute to the “author and creator of The Wombles and beloved mother and grandmother”.
Back at the exhibition, Donald said they’d had a steady flow of visitors. It was lovely to see so many people appreciating the Wombles – even the passing delivery driver who started whistling the theme tune when he spotted the big ‘The Wombles’ logo in the window.
Kate told me: “Mum would have been very thrilled, because she loved the island. For children, she always thought it was a safe place for them to be. You don’t lock your doors, and you can send them off down to the beach and not worry. And to have an exhibition that everybody can enjoy and attract visitors to the island and help the economy would have been just her idea of… you know, bang on. If she was Madame Cholet she’d have said ‘Oh la la!'”