To celebrate St David's Day this Sunday 1 March, we’re taking a look at Roald Dahl’s memories and lasting ties with his birthplace, Wales.
Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff near Cardiff in 1916. He grew up in the Welsh countryside and quickly developed a strong interest in nature. Although Roald Dahl never permanently returned to live in Wales after his family left in 1927, his love for the countryside endured. In My Year, a diary he worked on in the final year of his life, Roald Dahl remarked, “I have never lived in a town or city in my life and I would hate to do so…” because, “I’m afraid that if you live in a town you don’t see any of these splendid sights.”
For a few years the growing family lived quite comfortably, moving to a country house in Radyr in 1918 which, with its many acres of farm and woodland, was a perfect idyll for the children. However, following the deaths of Roald Dahl’s father and older sister in 1920, the family relocated to Cumberland Lodge in Llandaff, where Roald Dahl’s mother engaged a gardener called Jones. To the children, he quickly became known as “Joss Spivvis”. Roald Dahl in particular grew attached to this “short, broad-shouldered, middle-aged Welshman with a pale brown moustache,” as he later explained in More About Boy. As he says, “everyone loved him, but I loved him most of all. I adored him, I worshipped him, and whenever I was not at school, I used to follow him around and watch him at his work and listen to him talk.” Joss would entertain the young Roald Dahl with tales of his childhood in the Rhondda Valley and, most excitingly, on Saturdays he would take him along to the Ninian Park Football Ground to see Cardiff City play. The two friends spent less time together after Roald Dahl went off to boarding school, but Joss was never far from his thoughts. Letter after letter sent home from school ends with: “Give my love to Jones.”
Our knowledge of Roald Dahl’s early school days in Wales comes primarily from the memories he shares in Boy. These stories include the infamous Great Mouse Plot. It remains unclear how much of this plot is fact and how much is fiction, but the story of Roald Dahl slipping a dead mouse into a jar of sweets in Mrs Pratchett’s sweetshop is as daring as any of the adventures of his fictitious heroes and heroines. Although Mrs Pratchett’s retribution was swift and unforgiving, it’s clear that Roald Dahl was very proud of this plot and knew the next generation of children would enjoy it just as much as he did.
At the age of nine Roald Dahl started boarding at St Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare but, as he explains in Boy, he suffered from dreadful homesickness. Before going to sleep he would “draw an imaginary line from my bed to our house over in Wales. Never once did I go to sleep looking away from my family. It was a great comfort to do this.”
In 1927, while Roald Dahl was still at St Peter’s, the family left Cumberland Lodge and moved to Bexley in Kent – but this wasn’t the end of Roald Dahl’s time in Wales. Almost every Easter holiday was spent with his family at a house known as The Cabin in Tenby and it is evident that Roald Dahl considered this one of the highlights of the year. In a 1933 letter home, he wrote “an Easter holidays is hardly an Easter holidays without Tenby.” In My Year he also describes how he and his family “had donkey rides on the beach and long walks with the dogs along the top of the cliffs opposite Caldy Island...we hunted for winkles...and put them on bread and butter for tea…we adored Tenby,” he summarises.
Letters and postcards he wrote to friends and family as an adult show holidays in Tenby were a tradition Roald Dahl continued with his own children. While on holiday he is also known to have visited Dylan Thomas’s writing shed in Laugharne - which may have inspired him to build his own Writing Hut, the place where he penned many of his most famous works, including The BFG and Matilda. Roald Dahl was also a great admirer of Dylan Thomas’s literary work. In an interview with Edna Edwards in 1970, Roald Dahl revealed he thought Dylan Thomas was “marvellous,” and hearing him read his own poetry was “the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard.” Roald Dahl even included a poem by Dylan Thomas in Matilda. Miss Honey recites “In Country Sleep” as she and Matilda walk down the path to her cottage, after which Matilda whispers, “It’s like music,” and Miss Honey responds, “It is music.”
Wales probably had lots of different meanings for Roald Dahl: a rich and beautiful landscape, happy (and occasionally not so happy) childhood memories, idyllic holidays, friendships and writing inspiration.. So what does Roald Dahl mean to Wales today? After a campaign supported by readers of the South Wales Echo in 2002, the Oval Basin in Cardiff Bay was renamed Roald Dahl Plass, and in 2009 a blue plaque was unveiled on the site of Mrs Pratchett’s sweetshop in Llandaff. In addition, Roald Dahl is remembered at the re-constructed Norwegian Church in Cardiff, where he was baptised in 1916. And, of course, Roald Dahl is also remembered in Wales by all those who continue to read his books - which have also been translated into Welsh.