Hailed as one of the world’s greatest storytellers, Roald Dahl’s tales have been translated into 59 languages and he has sold more than 200 million books worldwide.
He is everywhere these days: from school set texts to the award-winning stage version of Matilda The Musical enthralling audiences on Broadway and in London’s West End. There’s Twit or Miss, an app based on the Roald Dahl characters, and Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood take on The BFG (2016).
Roald Dahl, December 1971
But our focus is on Wales, primarily Cardiff, where Dahl was born to Norwegian parents. The natural landscape of Wales inspired the backdrops to his stories and provided him with a wealth of treasured childhood memories. Here are five places around Cardiff and beyond to uncover the man behind the madcap characters and timeless stories.
Dahl spent his early childhood in the Llandaff district to the north of Cardiff and attended Llandaff Cathedral School from 1923.
It was here, aged just seven years old, that he and a bunch of friends came up with “The Great Mouse Plot”, a harebrained scheme to leave a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at his local sweet shop to scare the miserly manager, Mrs Pratchett.
“We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine,” Dahl later wrote in his first autobiography, Boy. He thought he had got away with it, too, until Pratchett reported the boys to the school and the headmaster canned them as punishment. Today a blue plaque marks the site of the former High Street sweetshop forever associated with The Great Mouse Plot.
The Norwegian Church, Cardiff
Dahl’s Oslo-born father, Herald, had come to Cardiff to seek his fortune in the late nineteenth century and established a successful ship broking business, Andresen and Dahl.
Cardiff’s Norwegian Church, established in 1868 by the Norwegian Seamen’s Missions, was a beacon for expat families and the young Roald was christened here in 1916. Today the building is known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and hosts regular events. There is a small plague inside to remember Dahl and the Dahl Gallery – exhibiting photographs and paintings from local artists – is located upstairs.
The nearby public plaza at the heart of Cardiff Bay, home to the Senedd (Welsh Assembly Building) and the Wales Millennium Centre performance centre, has been reverentially named Roald Dahl Plass.
Dahl would have set out from the docks of Cardiff Bay for boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, in 1925. He would travel to and from school in an old steamer ship and suffered from terrible homesickness for his house and family in Wales.
He faked an acute appendicitis during his first term at school and was sent home across the Bristol Channel. He later wrote in Boy, “I felt so wonderful at being away from that dreaded school building that I very nearly forgot I was meant to be ill.”
The kindly Dr Dunbar in Cardiff’s Cathedral Road soon realised he was faking but gave him a note for a couple of days off school.
The family moved to Bexley in Kent in 1927, while Dahl was still at boarding school, but this wasn’t the end of his close connection to Wales. The Dahl family spent every Easter holiday in the stately Pembrokeshire resort of Tenby, West Wales, and always stayed at the same cottage, The Cabin.
In the book My Year he describes fondly how he and his family “had donkey rides on the beach and long walks with the dogs along the top of the cliffs opposite Caldey Island … we adored Tenby.”
The Grade I-listed property remains in the ownership of the Dahl family to this day and is still available to rent as a holiday home. It boasts fantastic views across Carmarthen Bay to the Gower, while a blue plaque commemorates the treasured Dahl connection.
Dahl 100 events
The final festival programme is still under wraps but amongst the highlights revealed so far are a Dahl-themed concert at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, an exhibition of illustrations by principal Dahl artist Quentin Blake and a programme of outreach events across the country by Literature Wales to share Dahl’s stories.
There will also be a section devoted to Dahl at the Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye in May next year and workshops as part of the annual Cardiff Children’s Literature Festival next spring.
The main event, however, is City of the Unexpected, a Cardiff-wide installation of productions produced by National Theatre Wales and Wales Millennium Centre in September next year.
It’s like Dahl himself said: “Many wonderful surprises await you!”
More information on events can be found on RoaldDahl.com or at VisitWales.com. Explore more of Wales with the Rough Guide to Wales. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, find tours and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.