Roald Dahl’s Wales
A hundred years after Roald Dahl’s birth in Cardiff, we look at the places that inspired this much-loved literary giant as part of a year of centenary celebrations across Wales.
Dahl spent his early childhood in the Llandaff area of Cardiff. From autumn 1923 he went to Llandaff Cathedral School, situated in the shadow of the towering Gothic cathedral. And it was here, aged just seven years old, that he developed his sense of mischief while admiring the sherbet suckers and tonsil ticklers at the sweet shop on the High Street (where a blue plaque now marks the spot).
Dahl recounts the legendary Great Mouse Plot, a scheme to leave a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers to frighten the miseryguts proprietor, in his first autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood. “Mrs Pratchett,” he writes, “was a small, skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry.”
The plot worked perfectly … until, that is, Mrs Pratchett reported the boys to the school and Dahl was punished with a caning.
Cardiff was the focal point for Dahl’s early life. His Oslo-born father, Harald, came to the Welsh capital to seek his fortune in the late 19th-century iron making and coal-mining boom.
The family regularly attended the nearby Norwegian Church, established in Cardiff in 1868 by the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission, and the young Roald was christened here in 1916. Today the building is known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and the nearby Oval Basin in Cardiff Bay has been reverentially renamed Roald Dahl Plass.
Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay
At the age of nine, Dahl set out for boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. He would travel on an old steamer ship from Cardiff Docks and suffered from terrible homesickness for his house and family in Wales. During his first term he faked a remarkably accurate appendicitis and was sent home across the Bristol Channel. But even the master storyteller couldn’t get away with it every time; a kindly doctor let him have a couple of days at home before the boy had to return to school.
The Dahl family holidayed each Easter in the stately Pembrokeshire resort of Tenby. They stayed in the same property, The Cabin, every year and he describes in My Year, the diary written in the last year of his life, tales of winkle-picking and donkey rides on the beach at Tenby. Holidays here were a tradition Dahl continued with his own children. In a 1933 letter, he wrote, “An Easter holidays is hardly an Easter holidays without Tenby.” The Grade I-listed property remains in the ownership of the Dahl family and it is still available to rent as a holiday home.
Dahl also holidayed in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, where he visited Dylan Thomas’s writing shed on the estuary. The tiny shed may even have inspired him to build his own writing hut at his home in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden. Dahl was a great admirer of Dylan Thomas’s work. In a 1970 interview, Dahl revealed that hearing Thomas read his own poetry was “the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard.” Dahl even included the poem “In Country Sleep” in his much-loved story, Matilda. As the little girl accompanies her teacher, Miss Honey, home for tea, they pause at the garden gate, and Miss Honey tells her that “a poet called Dylan Thomas once wrote some lines that I think of every time I walk up this path,” before reciting the opening stanza, “Never and never, my girl riding far and near / In the land of the hearthstone tales, and spelled asleep.” Matilda whispers, “It’s like music.” Miss Honey responds, “It is music.”