From school set texts to West End theatres, his stories have been translated into 58 languages and he has sold more than 200m books worldwide.
Many of his creations have already been adapted for stage and screen, notably Willy Wonka and Matilda, while Steven Spielberg’s new film of The Big Friendly Giant (BFG), staring Wolf Hall’s Mark Rylance in the title role, premieres on July 22.
But most people don’t realise that Dahl was Welsh — born just outside Cardiff to a Norwegian family on September 13, 1916. The day is now commemorated globally as Roald Dahl Day and Wales celebrates Dahl’s literary legacy this year with a programme of cultural events to mark the 100th birthday of the world’s favourite children’s author.
“I read Dahl for the first time with my two young children and Danny Champion of the World had me in floods of tears,” says Lleucu Siencyn, Chief Executive of Literature Wales, one of the festival organisers.
“Dahl’s appeal for me is to draw on his own personal experience to convey a real sense of humanity.”
I’ve come to Cardiff to follow in the footsteps of the great storyteller, exploring the formative places that fired the literary imagination of the young Dahl.
Dahl’s Oslo-born father, Harald, had come to the Welsh capital to seek his fortune in the late 19th-century iron-making and coal-mining boom. The latter established a successful ship broking business, Andresen and Dahl, from a rented office on Bute Street in modern-day Cardiff Bay [see map, above].
My first stop is the Norwegian Church, established by the Norwegian Seamen’s Missions, where young Roald was christened in 1916. Today the building is known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and plays home to concerts and exhibitions. Check out the upstairs Roald Dahl gallery for changing exhibitions.
Round the corner is Roald Dahl Place, home to the Wales Millennium Centre, a key venue for events this summer. It is close to here that, at the age of nine, Dahl set out for boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. He would travel to and from school in on an old steamer ship from Cardiff Docks and suffered from terrible homesickness for his family in Wales.
Writing in Boy: Tales of Childhood, he says:
“On a clear day you can stand on the esplanade at Weston and look across the fifteen or so miles of water and see the coast of Wales lying pale and milky on the horizon.”
Dahl was born and spent his early childhood in the Llandaff district, a leafy community a couple of miles outside of Cardiff. He attended Llandaff Cathedral School, situated in the shadow of the towering Gothic cathedral, from the autumn of 1923 onwards.
It was here, aged just seen years old, that he developed his particular sense of mischief while admiring the Sherbet Suckers and Tonsil Ticklers at the sweet shop on the High Street.
Dahl recounts the legendary story of the Great Mouse Plot, a scheme to leave a dead mouse in a jar of Gobstoppers to frighten the misery-guts female proprietor. He writes:
“Mrs. Pratchett was a small, skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry.”
Today Llandaff remains a leafy enclave on Cardiff’s doorstep. After a stroll around the genteel village green, I join Dahl fans to admire a blue plaque, commissioned by the Llandaff Society, to mark the site of the former High Street sweetshop.
Somewhat underwhelming, the erstwhile sweet shop is now a Chinese take-away.
Dahl would often spend childhood holidays in the stately Pembroke shire resort of Tenby. The family stayed in the same property, The Cabin, every year.
The Grade II-listed property remains in the ownership of the Dahl family with inspiring harbour views and it is available to rent as a holiday home to this day through Coastal Cottages. The Blue Plaque outside now commemorates the Dahl connection.
Dahl also holidayed in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, and is known to have 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, Bucks, where the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre today welcome visitors from across the would
Coast magazine is to run my story about volunteering on islands around Britain this month. The first-person narrative is based on my stay on Flat Holm Island, off Cardiff Bay, in June this year.
Slow worm surveys, fence making and animal husbandry were amongst the activities I got stuck into as a conservation volunteer over the weekend. The image above shows fellow volunteer Jamie McEwan with wonky the friendly ram.
Here’s an extract:
Flat Holm Island (Ynys Echni in Welsh) is a great place to get started. The 56-acre island in the British Channel is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and has been managed by the Flat Holm Project since 1982. The island recently introduced short volunteer breaks, including new winter breaks over Christmas and New Year, and even opened a small pub last summer for a post-work sundowner.
Have you been to Flat Holm? Or volunteered on a nature project?