The Teddy Bears’ Picnic is Rippon Lea Estate’s most beloved yearly tradition. Held annually for thirty-three years, this time-honoured event has seen generations of families flock through the wrought-iron gates to share a picnic with those they cherish most, from grandparents to great grandchildren, with teddy bears of all ages and sizes in tow. We love hearing all of your stories of picnics past, especially those who attended as children themselves, and now bring their own families along to continue the tradition, while creating new memories to treasure and one day pass on.
During the quiet months spent at home during the pandemic, a very special story was first imagined by Rippon Lea Estate’s Operations Manager, Matt Chester, and his longtime friend, illustrator Joleen Jenkin.
Matt had the idea to tell the story of two teddy bears, Elm & Willow, as they weave their way through the gardens of Rippon Lea Estate to find the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, encountering some of the estate’s resident animals along the way. The story first came together as a creative passion project to keep busy during Melbourne’s lockdown, and was only intended to be a short story accompanied by a few illustrations, but soon grew into a fully fledged storybook destined to be published by the National Trust that can be purchased as a treasured keepsake to enjoy with your children, grandchildren and friends.
We sat down with author Matt Chester and illustrator Joleen Jenkins to discuss their wonderful storybook, Elm & Willow’s Adventures at Rippon Lea: The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. and how it all came together.
How did you come up with the idea for the story?
Matt – We were all working from home due to the pandemic, Rippon Lea Estate was closed due to government orders & it was looking highly likely that we would not be able to hold the annual Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Naturally, we did not want to break the tradition of this annual event so we began brainstorming many ideas, from creating a cartoon or a online teddy bears picnic experience, but these ideas were either too expensive or had a long production timeline. One day I thought that I could write a story of the picnic, which could be shared to our members & followers . As it so happened, we had a break in the lockdowns & we were able to hold a much smaller teddy bears picnic thankfully, but that is how the book was first imagined and began to take shape.
Can you tell us about the writing process? Did the story take long to write and polish?
Matt – Rippon Lea Estate has so many interesting animals on the property, many who we have named over the years, such as Barry the Magpie and George & Georgina the ducks, for example. Once I had settled on all the characters, it was then just a matter of placing them within the journey that the book follows & it flowed from there. Polishing the storyline took some time, as all creative projects do.
Where did the teddy bears’ names Elm & Willow come from?
Matt – There are some very fine examples of Elm & Willow trees on the property, with some nearly as old as the mansion. We also have two streets that border the estate called Elm & Willow Street.
What has been your favourite moment since the book was published?
Matt – Listening to the stories of parents who have been reading the book over and over again to their small children, who make a strong demand it sounds each night. I had forgotten what it was like having a favourite book that was read again and again until the pages were nearly falling out.
How did you (Joleen) get into illustrating and how long have you been drawing?
Can you tell us a little about how you created the illustrations for the book?
What are your own favourite children’s books?
Matt – The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter has always been a favourite, and the emotive story of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
Do you think Elm & Willow will possibly have more adventures and stories to tell?
Matt – Rippon Lea Estate has so many hidden stories just waiting to come onto the page. Who knows, but I’m sure those bears won’t stop exploring!
Joleen – Absolutely, there’s so much to do and so many new friends to make at Rippon Lea.